Tuesday, May 27, 2008

J.R. Simplot 1909-2008

(Steve Ritter Photo)

Boise--J.R. "Jack" Simplot, 99, who found fame and fortune many times over, the man that supplied french fries to McDonalds and then used the billion-dollar fortune to invest in computer chips, died of natural causes May 25 at his home atop the Grove Hotel in Boise, Idaho.

Simpot’s rise in Idaho Agriculture is a story of dreams, hard work and luck. The journey began on the edge of the Magic Valley in the small town of Declo. He rose from the parched earth with water from the Snake River reclamation project that started in 1910. Irrigation brought the farmers that built the towns, cleared the dusty plains, and turned rock and sagebrush into lush, green fields.

Simplot could ride a horse before he could walk. He worked sunup to sundown beside his dad, carving out a life in a world of outhouses, kerosene lamps, and buckboards.
“My dad was a master for making us kids work,” said Simplot. “That was the name of the game. We got up, he’d call me at five in the morning, I’d have to pump the water for the cows, and when I got a little older I’d have to milk them. By God, I had to work.”

After finishing the 8th grade Simplot set out to make a living on his own. He moved into a hotel at a dollar a-day. He quickly figured out a way to make a living. The hotel was full of public school teachers. Back in those days some school districts paid their teachers with interest-bearing script. Simplot bought up as much script as he could find at 50 cents on the dollar. He then got a bank loan using the script as collateral.

With money in hand he turned to farming. The hog market had just collapsed and Simplot saw an opportunity. “Hogs got dirt cheap. And I decided by God, I’d try to run a hog ranch. I need a cheap way to feed them. I got my Dad to help me build this cooker, it would hold about 30 sacks of potatoes and two horses,” said Simplot. Wild horses were plentiful and a menace to cattle ranchers, Simplot saw a cheap way to feed his livestock.

At a dollar a head Simplot bought nearly a thousand hogs. It was back breaking work, and every day was endless and dirty, working in clouds of smoke and ankle-deep pig manure but he smelled money. Simplot says toward the end of winter he saw light at the end of the tunnel.

“And it comes spring and there wasn’t a pig anywhere,” recalled Simplot. “I had ‘em all, everyone had quit their hog business and the market wanted 10-cents a pound, nobody ever heard of 10-cents a pound.” Boy Simplot was the hog czar of the Magic Valley. “I sold all my hogs and made seven thousand dollars that’s about a hundred-thousand dollars today.”

In the days of $50-dollar a month mortgages, and hundred dollar cars. Fourteen year-old Simplot was sitting on a fortune. He sunk all of his capital into horses, farm machinery and leased two Minidoka County farms.

He grew only certified potatoes, and the operation took off. Simplot and a partner Lindsay Maggart bought an electric sorter and soon were sorting not only their potatoes, but their neighbors. This rubbed his partner the wrong way. Maggart didn’t want Simplot to sort the competition’s spuds. Simplot saw money in it but thought they should flip a coin to determine the ownership of the sorter. Simplot won the toss and never looked back. “That’s what got me started and I took that money and started building more potato houses and I got big into shipping of Idaho potatoes.”

While things were going great for Simplot the Great Depression hit Idaho like a kick to the gut. Farms went out of business, jobs and money disappeared, some starved but nothing could stop Simplot. He knew people had to eat and he kept producing potatoes. “I struggled and didn’t take it for granted and I accumulated some pretty good customers,” said Simplot, “I took care of them and they took care of me.”

Simplot got into the big-time potato market. He spent years making contacts with brokers in the Midwest and the Eastern seaboard. By 1940 he built 33 spud warehouses with operations stretching from Oregon to Idaho Falls. Every year Simplot did what others couldn’t he got bigger and better. Back in the twenties Simplot filled 560 railcars with spuds, by the 1943-44 season he shipped 5,000 railcars eclipsing all his competitors. He was 32 years old.

World War II presented Simplot with another opportunity. The Pentagon was looking for new ways to feed a six-million G.I.s. Fresh food spoiled quickly and supply lines to Europe and the Pacific were too long. The War Department looked into a new technology: dehydrated foods.

“I took it as an opportunity because I was the only guy that had a dryer,” said Simplot. “They sent a guy named Colonel Logan out here and we got dried potatoes for the Army. We wrapped them up awful good and sent potatoes overseas and they ate them and they were good.

But before potatoes Simplot dried onions and in the 1941-42 season the company processed175-thousand sacks of dehydrated onions. Simplot built the largest food dehydrator in the world; he revolutionized food production in the United States.

J.R. Simplot learned a lot during the war years. With the demands on production he saw that the sandy soil along the Snake River Plain needed help. Farmers needed fertilizer to keep the yields up. Simplot built a plant outside of Pocatello and started what became known as Simplot Soilbuilders.”

“Nobody is beating us on prices, Because we are the cheapest producer of phosphate there is and in the world, we know what we are doing, we take the ore right out of the ground, pump it to Pocatello, we can do better than our competition,” said Simplot.

Before the Korean War Simplot added a lumber division that made boxes and crates for shipping. He wanted to expand into cattle and get an edge on the potato market with early potatoes. Simplot knew he could grow early spuds along the balmy Snake River. He bought two gigantic ranches one in Grandview, the other in Oregon and went to work on the two-prong plan.

“We got big into Cattle business,” he said. “I went to Grandview, 65 years ago and started a feeding operation, but we also started potatoes there. It’s a Garden of Eden in that valley. We could dig potatoes there and to market by the 4th of July and that’s how I got started in Grandview, I always made money on those early potatoes,” he said.

Everything Simplot touched turned to gold. He says in part because of the people he hired. “I’m just proud of them, they are proud of me and we get a long great, we have a pension fund for them and we have taken care of our people.”

The frozen food market of the 50’s and 60’s was expanding as the TV dinner generation settled in. J.R. Simplot thought he could capitalize, he hired this guy by the name of Ray Dunlap; he was a chemist and thought he could freeze potatoes, specifically frozen fries. “He [Ray Dunlap] said, ‘Jack, if you’ll get me a freezer, I think I can come up with some frozen products we can sell.’ I said, ‘if you freeze a potato, you’ll get a dish of mush.’ Anyway, I got him the box. He went to work and brought me in the pan of fries one day. He said ‘these have been frozen.’ And they were good. I said, ‘That’s a helluva thing.’ ”

The development of the French fry was one of J.R. Simplot’s crowning glories. It ushered in the fast food industry not only to the United States but the world. Between 1951 and 1961, the total production of frozen potatoes industry wide jumped from 25 million pounds to nearly 484 million pounds.

A handshake agreement with McDonald’s chairman Ray Kroc in the 50’s sealed Simplot’s place as one of the world’s great food producers. Simplot is modest about his role. “I would certainly say french fries were big one as far as achievements go. We took McDonalds a long way, of course they’ve been one of our big customer and we hope to continue with them.”

In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, Simplot got bigger across the board, everything from cattle feedlots to fertilizer, to food production. Simplot moved his corporate offices to downtown Boise. He concentrated on investments opportunities leaving day to day worries with the division heads. He invested in gold mines and even freezing berries. In the early 1980’s he started looking into computers.

Scott Simplot convinced the elder Simplot to look into a new company called Micron. But the company needed a million dollars for start up capital and set up a meeting with founders Joe and Ward Parkinson. J.R. could see that the Parkinson’s had something big; he gave them their start up capital and later $20 million. He held 40-percent of the stock. When the PC market took off in the United States and world, Simplot pushed his multi-million dollar fortune to an estimated $2.2 billion dollars.

“I happened to buy in on a guy that knew what he was doing and he proved it. We’ve got into something big, recalled Simplot. “We know how to build memory and there’s never going to be enough of it, these damned computers today, how they work, don’t ask me, but we got it,” said Simplot.

J.R. Simplot’s seven decades of business deals changed the face of Idaho, changed the world. He made Idaho the potato state; He introduced billions of McDonald’s customers to the French fry. He gave the world dehydrated foods, gave the worlds farmers fertilizer, and through Micron he gave the worlds computers memory. Simplot’s success may lie in the fact that not only did he have a burning need to succeed, but he allowed those who worked for him to succeed.

Everyone in Idaho has a Simplot story. Everyone knows him or had a family members work for him, that makes J.R. Simplot family. His rags to riches stories are nearly mythical in Idaho lore. J.R. Simplot is our Paul Bunion, our David of Goliath. When Simplot speaks people listen, and if he offers advice take it to the bank.

His biographer Louie Attebery summed up the man in his wonderful book “J.R. Simplot, A billion the hard way.” “...there is something about this man that lingers in the imagination long after he has concluded the interview…there is something intensely Whitmanian about Jack Simplot’s love affair with the United States. He hears America singing; what he assumes, you shall assume; hold on to him and by God you shall not go down in defeat!”

1 comment:

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