In the conference room of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce hang photos of former chamber board chairmen. Among them are Leo J. Falk and his grandson, Skip Oppenheimer. Their terms of office were 83 years apart Falk in 1910-1911, Oppenheimer in 1993-1994.
Their presence speaks to the historic and business legacy that the Falks and Oppenheimers have left on the city.
Skip Oppenheimer and his brother, Doug, have been partners for 38 years in Oppenheimer Companies Inc., which runs businesses in food and commercial real estate. The enterprise dates to the mid-1950s and is part of a lineage of his father Arthur Oppenheimer and the Falks in Boise business that goes back 150 years.
Oppenheimer food products find their way into hospitals and schools, as well as Whole Foods and Safeway. Oppenheimer developments, such as the Wells Fargo Center at Ninth and Main streets, have helped shape Boises skyline.
Skip Oppenheimer, 66, is chairman and CEO. Doug, 60, is president. They have two siblings: Jane Blatteis, of San Francisco, and John Oppenheimer, of Seattle. The family grew up for a while on the East Coast but mostly in Boise. Skip Oppenheimer studied history at the University of Idaho. He may be known best not for the business he helps run but for his advocacy of better health care and education in Idaho causes he says are vital to Idahos economic development. He has served as the first chairman of the St. Lukes Health System board of directors and helped St. Lukes grow from a single hospital to a wide-ranging health system and Idahos biggest private employer. He chairs Idaho Business for Education, formerly the Idaho Business Coalition for Educational Excellence, a group of current and former CEOs.
In a state that is overwhelmingly conservative and Republican, Oppenheimer, a Democrat, works shoulder to shoulder with those of other political persuasions sometimes successfully, sometimes not. He and Republican Gov. Butch Otter supported creation of the College of Western Idaho, with Oppenheimer co-chairing the campaign to win voter support to create a tax-funded community college district in 2007. But Oppenheimer and the business coalition are still trying to persuade conservative lawmakers of the need to offer early childhood education. The issue has been a nonstarter in the Legislature, where many believe preschool education is the role of parents.
Oppenheimer spoke to Business Insider about the business and his community roles at his headquarters in the Wells Fargo Center.
HOW OPPENHEIMER COMPANIES BEGAN
Our dad married our mother [in New York, shortly after World War II] and came out here and became part owners of [Falks Department Store]. He decided to move [back] to New York. He got into the drapery business ... in the mid- to later 50s. Dad and Mother decided that wasnt the answer to what they wanted to do. So we moved back to here.
He spent a year trying to figure out what to do. He ran into some people who were building one of the early potato plants in Burley. They said, Arthur, we know you dont know a darn thing about potatoes, but you seem like a great salesman. Why dont you become our vice president of sales? Dad decided hed do that. But he decided he would do it as an independent company to sell their product. That was really the entry into the food business.
OPPENHEIMERS INTEREST IN BUSINESS
I had always been really interested in business. Even when I was in college I had a little distribution business [with a friend]. It was actually a food distribution business up in Moscow. We distributed frozen potato product, primarily. I went to Europe for one year in school in Paris. When I came back, I was in a little business selling food for a food distributor out of Spokane in Moscow and Pullman [Wash.]. It was something I always felt for a long time was interesting and fun, and I enjoyed and hopefully had some skill at.
WHY HE JOINED THE FAMILY COMPANY
It wasnt a very big company when Doug and I first came back [in the 1970s]. It was a national platform, but it was relatively small [10-12 employees]. We thought there was an opportunity to build it. No. 2, living in Boise had a lot of appeal. I had been going to school on the East Coast Harvard Business School and I have always loved this part of the country. And the opportunity to work with our dad was a huge opportunity. And there was never any expectation or pressure, believe it or not, for either one of us to come back to Boise.
WHAT HIS DAD TAUGHT HIM ABOUT THE BUSINESS
A little like Doug, he always made things fun. The other part is being very true to your word. If you say you are going to do something, do it. I think his sense of high ethics has rubbed off on Doug and I. There was never any gray area. There was never anything that wasnt 100 percent right. He was always somebody who I think people trusted, and he earned that trust. He didnt just talk it, he lived it.
HOW THE BUSINESS MANAGES DIVERSE PRODUCT LINES
We have a very strong senior management team. If you take the top 10 or 12 people in this company, weve been together on average well over 20 years. So we have a lot of history together and built the business together. We kind of know each others strengths and weaknesses. Thats a competitive edge.
GETTING INTO THE WHIPPED TOPPING BUSINESS
We had owned a frozen potato plant in Maine [that we bought] in the 1980s from A&P. We ultimately built that frozen- and refrigerated-food business and sold it in the late 80s or early 90s. We had some stong relationships with buyers in the store-brand category in most of the major supermarkets. So we asked them what would be the next thing we could add some value to. They indicated the frozen whipped topping business has been consolidated and it would be nice to get another entity in that arena. We started looking at locations. We needed to be sort of centrally located to service the whole country. A company we know well Lakeside Foods [in Manitowoc, Wis.] had also been approached by some of our buyer friends to go into the business. We decided it would make more sense to do that as a partnership than try to do it separately.
HOW OPPENHEIMER COS. IS DOING
Weve been fortunate. Weve continued to grow even through the recession. Different parts of the business have done better at certain times than others. The consumer actually started buying more store-brand products during this deep recession because they were looking for value. On the food-service side, the individual [Golbon buying group] members business slowed down. But the growth there was by adding new members during the downturn, so we continue to have good, solid growth.
On the real estate side, the amount of new development came to almost a standstill. We expanded there by doing more consulting and more property management.
SHAPING THE COMMUNITY IN HEALTH AND EDUCATION
There has been a longstanding tradition in our family of involvement going back to our great grandfather, who got very involved not only in the business side of the community but also he was one of the original founders of the synagogue [Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Boise]. Our parents have always been involved in community and public policy issues. [My father] was involved in everything from the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts [to] the centennial state anniversary and Fundsy, where he was the chair. In a time of the kind of change we are seeing in a lot of arenas, the three areas that Ive focused on primarily [private industry, education and health care] are all going through transformational change, which makes it a very interesting time to be engaged.
SUSTAINING A HEALTH CARE SYSTEM IN THIS COUNTRY
I dont believe it can be sustained as it is organized today. The increases in health care costs are unsustainable. That is why we need a more integrated system [instead of patients going from one doctor to anther] and more focus on outcomes and quality. We need to create incentives that are different than they were in the past so that everybody in the system has the incentive to provide the best quality result and most efficient and effective cost.
ON WHAT HEALTH REFORM WOULD BRING
I can argue either side of Obamacare. [But] I think it has created movement down a path for a more integrated delivery system, more focus on how you break down the silos and get a more efficient system. If we can continue to enhance the quality, thats going to be of benefit to our associates and the company. Without that in the future, its hard to imagine how you attract and retain the same quality of employees.
ON STRENGTHENING EDUCATION
What is the ultimate goal here? There is becoming more alignment around the idea of one component being 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds will have a four-year, two-year or one-year certificate by 2020. If we can agree on where we are trying to go, the key is go get as many stakeholders as possible aligned around the goal, so we are all moving in the same direction.
ON STATE SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT TOM LUNAS EDUCATION REFORMS
I felt ... there was merit in some of his ideas. You can argue the way it was introduced, the change management aspect ... frankly could have been significantly better. I think the people [teachers and administrators] that are being asked to execute and implement change [should] be clearly engaged as part of the change process and that the tone be one of respect and of being a valued partner of the process. I dont have a position on the plan. I know that we need to continue to look at new ways of doing things. We have to look at ways of working together ultimately to significantly improve the results we are getting in this state and this country if we are going to compete in the 21st century.
ON WHO WILL TAKE OVER OPPENHEIMER COS.
Doug and I had this totally figured out when [their seven children] were very young. I remember Doug and I were driving to McCall and had this conversation where we said, When the kids want to come into the business, we need to think about what we are going to do. We agreed, No. 1, they have to finish college. No. 2, they have to work somewhere else for five years just so they can know they can make it. And No. 3, there has to be a job. We are not going to create a job.
We shook on it. The only technical problem with the whole approach: None of the kids have shown the slightest interest in coming into the business. As we look at one or two of the kids now, there is some interest, and they would be very qualified. They meet and hugely exceed the criteria.
Edited for space and clarity. Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts