HEBER CITY — Tony Burns is best known for turning Ryder Trucks into the largest privately owned non-government truck fleet in the world.

Now, for an encore, he's turning a Heber Valley ranch into a golf course.

"I've been around trucks all my life," says the Dixie College/BYU-educated son of a Mesquite, Nev., truck-stop owner. "This is my first time working with dirt."

As a backdrop to this statement, the 64-year-old Burns, who retired as Ryder's celebrated CEO five years ago after nearly a quarter century at the helm, has chosen an outcropping of red-rock ledges on the east bench of Heber City — the centerpiece and signature formation in a 1,900-acre development known as Red Ledges.

For five generations, the land in and around Red Ledges was convenient, close-to-town ranch property, barely a short gallop from Main Street.

Within two years, it will be the gated home to 1,200 residential building lots, an equestrian center, a Cliff Drysdale tennis academy, a Jim McLean golf school, a clubhouse, spa, hiking and biking trails and 27 holes of Jack Nicklaus-designed golf.

Knock on dirt.

For a development as large and upscale — and urban — as Red Ledges, Burns has hardly rolled into rural Heber Valley like some out-of-town millionaire in a BMW.

He might be a millionaire, and he might drive a BMW, and he might be from out of town. But he has local connections.

His sister-in-law, Phyllis Jordan Christensen, runs the Heber bowling alley, and his wife, Joyce, used to be Joyce Jordan, who was born and reared on a horse in Heber and would, to this day, rather be here than anywhere else.

It was because of Joyce's love for the valley that Tony bought 400 acres near the red-rock ledges 30 years ago. (He couldn't buy Joyce's old family ranch because it now sits at the bottom of the aptly named Jordanelle Reservoir.)

And it was because of Joyce's sister Phyliss that he recently added the 1,100 acres that include the actual red-rock ledges.

Phyliss' in-laws, the Christensens, had held the ranchland for five generations. When they finally decided to sell, they told Tony and Joyce they'd sell to them providing they matched the high bidder.

They did, and they did.

Another adjoining 400 acres was then added to complete the package, its purchase greased by the fact that the longtime owner had been a good friend of Joyce's, and suddenly Burns looked around and realized he had something to sink his fortune into.

Not wanting to gamble alone, he called Nolan Archibald, currently CEO of Black & Decker and a friend since their days together in the early 1960s at Dixie College in St. George (which is where Tony met Joyce). He offered Archibald half-ownership, or debtship as it stands at the moment.

When all is said and done, the Red Ledges project should top out at about $200 million, give or take a sand trap — and Archibald bit on one condition: Since Burns is retired and he isn't, Burns does all the on-site work.

Burns agreed, but he admits the labor for him here is more energizing than it is taxing. He still spends three weeks out of four in his longtime home in Miami, where he is an Area Seventy for the LDS Church and serves on several corporate boards. When he stays his week a month in Heber as a land baron, it's like a vacation.

And while it's hardly been completely clear sailing with the locals — turning ranches into par-5s is never easy — the relative lack of rancor has raised the enjoyment level immensely.

"We were in a City Council meeting, and one of the council members raised his hand and I thought it might be some complaint or concern," he says. "Know what he said? He said, 'How's Joyce? I knew her when she was Wasatch County rodeo queen."'

Burns gives that it's-not-what-you-know-it's-who-you-know smile that once fueled a 200,000-strong fleet of Ryder trucks and is now fueling a land development in Heber with the cheap lots starting at $300,000.

He was able to bring in names the likes of Nicklaus, Drysdale and McLean to the project because he knows them from his Ryder days — all three were in town this weekend for Red Ledge's official pre-grand opening — and now he's discovering he knows a lot of people here in Heber, too.

"It's all about relationships," he says, looking around his Red Ledges property before adding, "and about the dirt — and this is very good dirt."

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.