Arthur F. “Skip” Oppenheimer, chairman and CEO of Boise’s Oppenheimer Cos. Inc., spoke April 4 in the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce’s CEO Speaker Series about his family’s businesses, the state of Downtown Boise and Idaho’s current education-reform efforts. Oppenheimer Cos. has belonged to the chamber for more than a century.
These remarks are edited for length and clarity from a transcript prepared by the chamber’s public relations director, Caroline Merritt.
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Let me start with an acknowledgment of my wife. On Monday, April 10, it’ll be 43 years. We met in the ninth grade at East Junior High in Boise. And met was the operative word, because I couldn’t quite get her to go out with me in the ninth grade. I tried. I was like one for 10 through high school. I asked her out 10 times and got one date. No exaggeration.
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Esther moved to San Francisco. I moved and spent some time on the East Coast. Finally she saw the light. It’s kind of a pathetic, sad story, but we’ve had a lot of fun together.
A brief update on Oppenheimer Cos. and Oppenheimer Development: We’re really in two businesses. One is real estate, which comprises development, primarily commercial, and property and asset management. The other is food.
The real estate business, as much as possible, is focused in Idaho, mostly the southern part of the state. The food business is national.
My brother, Doug, is here today. Doug and I have been partners in the business for over 40 years. Doug is also my closest friend. Doug likes to say we’re closest friends because we don’t have any other friends. It’s entirely true, but we’ve been lucky, really, to have a fabulous relationship working together. I think we make better decisions together. We’re a privately held company. We’ve got the luxury of being able to think a little longer-term.
Oppenheimer Development has grown significantly under the leadership of [Vice President] Jeremy Malone. [Property and Operations Manager] Coby Barlow is here, and Larry Lipschultz, the CFO. Jeremy’s been with us for over 25 years. He joined us when he was 19. And he succeeded Jack Coonce, who has retired, with us for over 30 years.
A lot of the growth at Oppenheimer Development has been around property management. We have been, for a lot of years, involved in commercial — primarily office and some retail — development around this valley and the southern part of the state. We are working on a project in Idaho Falls in the downtown. We believe in the idea of downtowns and began our development activity in Downtown Boise.
We did the Treasure Valley Community College project in Caldwell, working with Mayor Garret Nancolas, who was fabulous, and their city council and redevelopment agency.
We worked closely with downtown redevelopment in Boise for many years, including the One Capitol Center building if you want to go way back. That was in the days when, literally, standing on the podium for the groundbreaking on 9th and Main and looking around, there was nothing. It was like a bombed-out pit.
I remember thinking, “God, I hope we have some vague idea of what we are doing.” But we had a lot of support, from the city and the redevelopment agency, and we had Mountain Bell, which is now CenturyLink, so they’ve been in that building for 40 years.
Simplot came in as partner. We actually have the same partners that we started with on that building.
We also did Wells Fargo Center, which was also a little part of what has allowed the city to move forward to this incredible downtown that it is now.
It’s been about as successful a downtown in a midsize market as I think you will find anywhere.
Skip Oppenheimer on Downtown Boise
Take the office market that we all know that has come on board with Simplot bringing in 330,000 to 400,000 square feet and vacating 100,000 square feet. That adds all those people to Downtown. That’s the good news for Downtown — not so good for us that the 100,000 square feet came out of One Capitol Center.
We’re thrilled to have Moffatt Thomas moving into One Capitol Center. One Capitol Center is literally the center of everything, so there has been a lot of interest in that building. And it’ll be fine.
You look at JUMP, the Simplot building, the convention center expansion, Clearwater, the VRT [Valley Regional Transit’s new underground bus station], it’s never been better.
[We have] a national food service buying group called Golbon made up of about 200 independent food-service distributors. We don’t own them, but they created a national distribution system that sells to restaurants, hospitals, school districts, industrial accounts, and pretty much every major marketer around the country. It’s grown a lot, particularly in the last 10, 15 years.
The buying group arena becomes the key to the future of the success of these independent food-service distributors, who are competing with larger corporate distributors. We’ve become, in effect, their corporate office for the services they would like. We provide a lot of marketing support in a way that produces much higher quality marketing material and marketing planning than they could do on their own.
Another division is Interstate Food Processing. That’s a manufacturing side. The primary business name of that division is Peak Foods. It’s primarily store-brand retail. We also produce a product called Truwhip, which is the only all-natural frozen whipped topping. It’s distributed pretty much everywhere in the country. Here, it’s at Albertsons and Whole Foods.
Interstate Potato Packers is a frozen potato product company where products are co-packed for us under the Interstate brand, and that’s a food service brand that’s also distributed nationally and in Mexico, with some real growth happening south of the border.
Another division, which is supply-chain based, is Greenline Transportation. That supports our internal logistics and freight needs, and it’s available to third parties for people in companies who are looking for ways of getting a better freight and logistics and supply chain cost. That’s on a national basis as well.
I’m going to talk a little bit about the connection with education and our businesses’ success and our economic future.
Andy Scoggin’s here. He’s the vice chair of IBE [Idaho Business for Education]. Bob Lokken is the chair of IBE. Rod Gramer has done an incredible job as president and CEO.
When we started the IBE we got a few business leaders together. There were about 20 or 25 of us. We now have over 200 members, virtually every business in the state of size and a lot of midsize ones and smaller.
We have been meeting with the governor for five years, every month. It’s basically just usually Andy, Bob, Rod, me, Hollis [Brookover, IBE’s vice president], and then we brought in other key people, Don Melendez [of Wells Fargo] and some others.
The last three and a half years, I have never seen the governor so engaged in anything. He’s been a tremendous leader. Every speech he gives, virtually, has education at the front of the speech.
We’ve invested in teacher compensation and teacher professional development. We’ve reorganized a lot of the way the educational system works with more control down at the grass roots where the people really know what’s going on. There has been a lot of progress. But we still have a long way to go.
We’ve got a 60 percent goal that the state established, and we’re about somewhere between 40 and 42 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds who have either a one-year certificate of value, a two-year associate, or a four-year or beyond degree.
Take the Simplot plant that was built in Caldwell. That plant replaced three plants, one in Caldwell plus two others. There were 36 forklift operators working in those three plants. There are two computer operators in the Caldwell plant, each operating 18 forklifts via computer. That’s a little different skill set than you would have being one of the 36 forklift operators.
Bob Lokken, when he sold ProClarity [to Microsoft], he got Microsoft to agree to stay in Boise for two years. Well, two years and about 20 minutes, it seemed, they were moving back to Redmond. One of the reasons was they were worried about workforce availability.
We’ve got a highly competitive environment out there that we’re competing with, and we’ve got to be really smart about how we position ourselves from an education quality standpoint.
If you get to an education level similar to in other states or other countries, it not only helps our individuals get jobs and our kids and grandkids, but it also, ultimately, helps the state GDP. It’s not going to be low-paying jobs as much. It’s going to shift more proportionally to the higher-paying jobs.