J.R. Simplot: Farmboy who never went to high school turns potatoes into biggest fortune in Idaho

twoodward@idahostatesman.comMay 25, 2008 

The richest man in Idaho used to celebrate Halloween by handing silver dollars to the trick or treaters who trudged to his hilltop home. Each dollar came with an admonition to "make it grow," words that embodied J.R. Simplot's long and prosperous life.

John Richard Simplot was one of the last of the old-time entrepreneurs, a onetime farmboy who never went to high school but built a personal fortune Forbes Magazine estimated at $2.6 billion in 2006. The company he began with the flip of a coin to acquire a $252 potato sorter grew into one of the largest agribusiness conglomerates in the world.

He was agricultural Idaho's only billionaire and a high-tech tycoon of the New West. Simplot's wealth allowed him to bankroll the start-up of Micron Technology Inc. He and other principals helped chart the future of what is now the state's largest employer at board meetings held in a Boise pancake house.

"His legacy is his vision," said Gov. Butch Otter, Simplot's former son-in-law. "Compared with him, the rest of the world was wearing bifocals."

His credo: work hard, hire good people and trust them to work hard.

Simplot claimed to own more deeded land than any other man in America. He owned the nation's largest cattle ranch in Oregon and had holdings from China to Chile. But nowhere was his influence more dominant than in Idaho, where he funded scores of business, educational and charitable enterprises. He donated millions to the state's colleges and universities and funded causes from Boise's Basque Museum to the Pocatello Public Library. His business interests were ubiquitous, covering the spectrum from Micron and the Idaho Steelheads to obscure but potentially profitable inventors and tinkerers.

MR. SPUD

Almost 30,000 people work for companies Simplot founded or financed. As of 2006, the J.R. Simplot Co. has 3,500 Idaho employees (10,200 worldwide). And nearly 19,000 Micron workers in the U.S. and abroad owe their high-tech jobs in part to the man more responsible than anyone for the state's instantaneous identification with the humble spud.

Earthy, plain-spoken, habitually profane, Simplot was to the potato what Henry Ford was to the automobile. He and his company improved the quality of potatoes, all but invented frozen french fries and dehydrated potatoes, and put "Famous Potatoes" on the map and on the state's license plates. He supplied billions of fries for billions of fast-food customers, and in his 90s remained a fixture on the streets of Boise, larger than life in his Lincoln town car with the "Mr. Spud" plates. He seldom locked the doors, kept the keys behind the visor and put off getting the brakes fixed because he didn't want to spend the money.

He was in some ways the commonest of men. Anyone could call him. His home number was in the book; he answered the phone himself.

He owned a business jet, but routinely flew commercial - coach class.

His favorite restaurant was McDonald's, where he invariably ordered french fries. He was a member of the exclusive Arid Club, but seldom ordered a meal there because he thought the prices were too high. Of far more interest to him was the club's card room. His game: gin rummy, no holds barred.

"Life was a game for him," his son Scott said. "One deal was followed by the next. You reshuffled the cards and went on to the next hand."

He liked cards, skiing, golf, duck hunting, McDonald's french fries, derby hats, Lincolns, horses and red licorice. He easily out-calculated opponents at the card table, effortlessly added large sums in his head - and could count on his fingers the number of books he had read. The bibles on his nightstand were Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, Time, U.S. News and World Report, National Geographic and Reader's Digest.

He had more money than some banks, but drove old cars, hunted for golf balls, saved used nails, wore the same pair of glasses for more than 30 years and never failed to collect on a bet.

"He bet me 50 cents on the Yankees-Dodgers World Series when I was little," his daughter, Gay, said. "He took the Yankees. Fifty cents was a lot for me then. And he collected!"

Rightly known as a tough businessman, he was a shrewd entrepreneur with a genius for seeing an opportunity, taking a risk and turning a profit. He once foreclosed on a business loan to one of his own sons. Richard Simplot shrugged it off as part of doing business with his father, but for some the elder Simplot's freewheeling entrepreneurial streak rankled.

His support in the 1970s for building coal-fired power plants along the Snake River and generating hydropower by putting the North Fork of the Payette River in an underground tube was anathema to environmentalists.

"That river is a destination objective for people from all over the world to test their whitewater skills," said Boisean Rob Lesser, a founder of the Idaho Whitewater Association. "When I heard about the plan to put it in a tunnel, I was literally sick."

Environmentalist Pat Ford, a former director of the Idaho Conservation League, squared off with the J.R. Simplot Co. on numerous occasions, seldom successfully.

"He and his company have not been environmental stewards for Idaho's lands and waters," Ford said. "They were consistent opponents of efforts to strengthen Idaho's air quality and land-use laws. And more often than not, they won."

A MAN OF PARADOXES

Attempts to pigeonhole Simplot as a ruthless opportunist, however, failed to reflect the paradoxes of a man who could seem simple and one-dimensional but was neither. The wheeler dealer who wanted to harness a whitewater river seldom failed to comment on the beauty of a forest, a flower garden or a desert sunset. He was a workaholic who spent relatively little time with his children - his two oldest boys were educated at a series of distant boarding schools - but compensated for it by doting on his grandchildren. When Richard Simplot, who died in 1993, was hospitalized for diabetic complications, the father who foreclosed on him was the first at his bedside. And late in life, the tough businessman was given to tearful reminiscences of the day he married his first wife and the time when, as a tow-headed boy from Declo, he saw Buffalo Bill.

His longtime friend H. Dean Summers saw Simplot's softer side during a helicopter trip with his old friend.

"When you're out with Jack, you always eat where he has an establishment, and we landed at one of his ranches where they were rounding up horses," he said. "We had our hunting clothes on, and the cowboys didn't know who we were. They brought in a horse with a huge cut on its front shoulder. It was 6 inches long and filled with pus.

"When the foreman said to take the horse out and shoot it, Jack jumped down from a plank of the corral and asked for a veterinary kit. He cleaned out the wound with his bare hands and stitched it up with an old needle. When I asked him why, when he had 500 other horses, he said that horse had as much right to live as anybody."

BEGAN WITH A COIN TOSS

He cited as his greatest accomplishment his refusal to sell the company he founded. It had its beginnings in 1928, when the flip of a silver dollar gave 19-year-old Jack Simplot his partner's half of an electric potato sorter. The machine speeded up work enough that Simplot's Declo neighbors eagerly sought its services. One sorter led to four, one potato shed to 33, and an empire was born.

If the coin had come down tails, the story probably wouldn't have ended much differently. A born gambler on the beginning of an incredible roll, Simplot already had provided ample evidence of the combination of horse sense and entrepreneurial vision that would make him Idaho's potato king.

"From the very beginning, he was a risk-taker," former Gov. John Evans said. "If he found something he believed in, no one could sway him from it. He saw opportunities, bet on himself and usually won."

Born on Jan. 4,1909 to Charles and Dorothy Simplot on an Iowa homestead, he was one of six children. He was still in diapers when the family moved to Declo, in Cassia County. His father built a log cabin and cleared land with a team of horses.

Except for 1919-21, when his father experimented with farming in California and Oregon, Idaho was Simplot's home for life. His early years revolved around classes at the two-room Red Rock School and work on the family farm.

"You had to get up at 5 o'clock every morning and start milking those goddamned cows, and then you walked to school a mile or two, and then you run home to get more chores," he recalled. "That old man of mine was a hard driver."

It was a hard, crude life. When young J.R. lost a fingertip in an accident and a doctor in Burley admonished his parents for not bringing it to be reattached, they told him the chickens had eaten it.

The legacy of hard work, however, remained for life. Even his donations could come with expectations attached. He contributed part of what was needed; others could come up with the rest.

"He worked hard and expected everyone else to work hard," his son Don said. "He about worked my brother and me to death clearing trails at McCall. I couldn't wait to get my own place and get out from under that."

At 14, the future billionaire got out from under his father's authoritarian rule. When Charles Simplot refused to let him attend a basketball game, he left home and moved to the Enyeart Hotel in Declo. With money he made raising orphaned lambs, he purchased interest-bearing scrip at 50 cents on the dollar from teachers living at the hotel and used it as collateral to buy 600 hogs. He got them through the winter by shooting wild horses and boiling their meat with potato scraps to make feed. The summer brought a nationwide pork shortage, and he sold the hogs for a $7,800 profit - his stake in the potato business.

An innovator from the start, he leased land and bought certified seed instead of using the then-common practice of planting potato culls. The result was better potatoes and the beginning of Idaho's dominance in the industry.

RUBY'S 'SIMPLE LIFE'

In 1931, he married Ruby Rosevear of Glenns Ferry. They met on a blind date; he proposed to her in his Model A Ford.

"She was beautiful," Adelia Simplot, Richard's widow, said. "She was quiet and introverted and wanted a simple life. She hated anything that was showy. He was very much in love with her."

Ruby Simplot's simple life wasn't to be. Nine years after marrying her, Simplot owned 30,000 acres of farm and ranch land and was shipping 10,000 boxcars of potatoes a year. Other Idahoans took their families to the mountains on vacation; Simplot took his to a feedlot. Grand View, where the company farms and feeds up to 150,000 head of cattle, was his Shangri-la. Family outings almost invariably had a business connection.

He celebrated his success by making extravagant purchases and hobnobbing with Averell Harriman, Lowell Thomas and other celebrities at Sun Valley.

"He was a dapper dresser, and he had the best cars, the best airplanes, the best of everything," Don Simplot said. "Later, he reverted. He found he got more strokes by being rich and having old stuff: 'Goddamnit, who needs a new car? They cost too damned much money.'"

As a father, his primary roles were to provide discipline and financial support. The children went to the best schools. When Richard was diagnosed with juvenile-onset diabetes, his father saw to it that he had the best care in the Intermountain region. But the head of the house was seldom at home. Empire building came first.

Potatoes led to onions and a quantum leap in the Simplot fortune. With a contract scrawled on the back of an envelope, Simplot had an order for 500,000 pounds of dried onions and an immediate need for a plant to process them. He wanted to build it at Parma, but a man with a deed to the land sicced his dogs on him and he settled on Caldwell instead. The Caldwell plant, eventually equipped with the world's largest food dehydrator, was key to his operation's becoming the largest supplier of potatoes to the military during World War II. It supplied one of every three potato portions served to U.S. troops.

But it was the french fry that became the Simplot mainstay. In the early '50s, company chemist Ray Dunlap developed the world's first palatable frozen fries. Sales began slowly in 1953, then skyrocketed.

The boss's enthusiasm for potatoes - in any form - was limitless.

"I met him when Dick took me to his parents' house after a date one night," said Adelia Simplot, who married the late Richard Simplot. "Ruby could see that Dick and I wanted to be together, but all J.R. wanted to do was make potatoes. The company had just come up with mashed potatoes in a packet, and he was all excited about them. He put butter on them, and we had to eat them."

By 1955, the year the company incorporated all of its operations under the name "J.R. Simplot Co.," annual french fry production exceeded 10 million pounds. A handshake with McDonald's founder Ray Kroc on Kroc's California ranch in 1967 made Simplot the supplier of nearly half the McDonald's fries sold worldwide. By then, he was Idaho's first billionaire.

FLYING THE FLAG

The Simplot touch wasn't uniformly golden. Food-processing operations in Europe and mining investments in South America, the Caribbean and North Idaho either failed to show a profit or lost money. The spectacular successes in World War II were tempered by a $2.5 million tax bill and an order to dismantle partnerships that the Internal Revenue Service judged to be tax dodges.

A generation later, Simplot was charged with trying to manipulate Maine potato futures, barred from commodities trading for six years and fined $50,000. In 1977, he and his company paid $40,000 each for failing to report more than $1 million in corporate income and claiming false tax deductions.

Seemingly unfazed, he continued to extol the virtues of America and free enterprise. An American flag flies over every Simplot operation, and a flag said to be the largest in Idaho ripples high above the 7,000-square-foot home he built in the hills overlooking Boise. When neighbors complained that its flapping kept them awake nights, he bought a taller flagpole.

In his sunset years, however, the man with the big flag was unable to vote. He confided that it was the most painful consequence of the felony tax conviction. And the pressures of empire-building took a toll on his personal life.

To rest after marathon work sessions during the company's formative years, he turned to sleeping medications and became dependent on them. Before kicking the habit, he was buying over-the-counter sleeping pills in pint bottles.

Work demands and time away from home created problems no amount of money or enthusiasm could fix. Ruby Simplot left him in 1960 after 29 years of marriage.

"I was too busy when I lost my first wife and she fell in love with somebody else," he said in 1982. "That was one of the darkest times of my life."

"He suffered greatly," Adelia Simplot said. "His heart was broken. We all went through it with him."

The treatment was one for which he was uniquely qualified.

"He got through it by working," she continued. "He'd get on a horse and clear trails and work himself half to death. Work was his medicine."

MARRIES OPERA SINGER

His cure was Esther Becker. He met her during a business trip to New York in the mid '60s. She was a receptionist with the Henry Phipps Foundation. They saw a show together; the following year, he invited her to a play. He slept through it, but she continued to see him anyway. In 1968, after visiting him in Idaho, she moved to Denver. They were married Jan. 22, 1972, in McCall.

Esther Becker Simplot was a graduate of MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill. Her major was voice and music education, and she had sung in operas in New York City. Simplot credited her with broadening his appreciation of the arts, but his penchant for sleeping through a ballet or opera was lifelong.

When he retired in 1994 as company chairman, he gave the family leadership to a four-person executive committee consisting of Don, Gay and Scott Simplot, the current chairman; and J.E. "Ted" Simplot, a grandson. The eldest Simplot stayed on as chairman emeritus. He remained a familiar figure in the executive offices, habitually napping in a room specially reserved for the purpose, but ever alert to new ways of making a buck. At 87, having ceded much of the company's control, he unsuccessfully pitched the purchase of a 3 million-acre ranch in Australia.

"It reminded him of Grand View," his grandson John Otter, Butch's son, said. "He said from there we could grow anything and feed that whole part of the world. 'Hell,' he said, 'we could grow guacamole here!' "

Too busy to dote on his own children when they were young, he bought his grandchildren Welsh ponies, taught them to play cards and ride horses, took them skiing and golfing, and gave them their own development company.

"He was making up for the time he missed with us," Don Simplot said. "There's no doubt about that."

In his 90s, he seldom missed a Micron board meeting and was often seen about town, at events from Boise State University football games (he routinely bet $10 on the Broncos) to Art in the Park. In 70 years, he never missed a Caldwell Night Rodeo.

A garrulous extrovert who addressed women as "Honey" and middle-aged men as "Boy" or "Sonny," he seldom appeared to have a care in the world or anything negative to say about anyone or anything.

"I never saw him bad-mouth anyone, never saw him tell a dirty joke, and I never saw him get anything by saying he was Mr. Simplot and throwing his weight around," Summers said.

GIVING UP SKIING - AT 89

Employees generations younger than Simplot joked that he would outlive them all. He was rarely if ever sick. He had an artificial knee and hip and meant it when he vowed that as long as he had money and the doctors had spare parts, he'd be their best customer. He gave up skiing at 89 and was miffed when his doctors wouldn't let him attend a wedding in McCall a few days after coronary bypass surgery at 90.

He bought his first Wave Runner at 94.

"He rode it around Payette Lake and then had it moved to Grand View to ride on the Snake River after the lake had frozen," John Otter said. "He wanted to take his shotgun along so he could drive with one hand and shoot geese with the other."

That was the winter he turned 95.

He spent his 98th birthday in a Phoenix hospital after suffering a serious head injury in a fall, but surprised nearly everyone by recovering from the resulting surgery, successfuly completing his rehabilitation and returning home. He attributed his extraordinary health and longevity in part to abstinence from tobacco and alcohol. Taught a "lesson in booze" early in life by a hard-drinking business associate, he was reluctant to hire anyone who drank or smoked, gave $200 to any employee who quit smoking and paid a former minister to travel the state in a bus, displaying black lungs while lecturing to high school students on the evils of tobacco.

He couldn't type or operate a computer, but he carried a Micron computer chip in his pocket.

A hard-nosed pragmatist, he had little use for religion and called education "the only charity that I really support. I guess I'm a facts man."

He contributed millions to education and supported his children's and grandchildren's educational preferences, but didn't insist that they go to college. Mostly, he just wanted them to work hard.

"I learned the value of hard work from my father and grandfather," John Otter said. "One summer, I got a job as a construction worker at Micron without his help. Toward the end of the summer, one of the construction workers, when he found out who I was, said, 'You gotta thank your parents and your granddad. You were born with a silver spoon, and you used it to dig a ditch.'"

If he'd gotten a degree instead of dropping out of grade school, it would have been in business. A businessman, he often said, can do anything.

Asked how he wanted to be remembered, his response was vintage Simplot:

"Oh, hell, I don't care what they say. But I think I've made enough marks around here that somebody will say, 'Well, that guy was pretty smart. He hung on.'"

He did, for nearly a century - establishing himself as the state's leading industrialist and arguably its most colorful character.

" He did more for Idaho than anybody, and he did it the old-fashioned way," Summers said. "There probably aren't 50 people in America who have built companies and wealth the way he did, and no one's done it in the last 25 years. He owned it all. There were no shareholders, because he didn't need them.

"I saw him run 150 yards down a muddy hill on a duck-hunting trip when he was 91 and had just had bypass surgery. He was the toughest s.o.b. God ever let live."

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