Business Insider

This Idaho company is North America’s top frozen-potato maker. No, it’s not Simplot

Thomas Werner in front of a display of Lamb Weston’s frozen-potato products at its new Boise office. “When you boil it down, people love fries, and we sell fries,” he says.
Thomas Werner in front of a display of Lamb Weston’s frozen-potato products at its new Boise office. “When you boil it down, people love fries, and we sell fries,” he says.

Like the J.R. Simplot Co., Lamb Weston has toiled for decades in the Treasure Valley while building itself into a global frozen-potato-products powerhouse.

Unlike Simplot, whose name is splashed across parks and a new Downtown business campus, Lamb Weston never became well-known here outside of the food industry. It was controlled by ConAgra, one of the largest food manufacturers in the nation.

But Lamb Weston spun off from ConAgra late last year, becoming an independent, publicly traded company. With about $3 billion in annual sales, Lamb Weston instantly became Idaho’s third-largest public company measured by revenue. It distributes 5 billion pounds of frozen-potato products annually.

The company made its Eagle office, near the intersection of Eagle Road and State Street, its international headquarters. Since the split, the company has opened a Boise office off Chinden Boulevard on Explorer Drive to house its growing staff.

Lamb Weston now has about 100 employees supporting headquarters operations in the valley. It has about 1,300 employees in Idaho and more than 6,400 in all. CEO Tom Werner moved here from ConAgra headquarters in Chicago.

Lamb Weston also has two potato plants in Idaho, in Twin Falls and American Falls. It buys from 150 to 200 potato growers each year to feed the plants.

Q: Now that Lamb Weston is an independent company, do you want to increase its visibility in the Treasure Valley?

A: We’ve been under the radar. Now that we’re public, people will want to understand us. We’re the biggest frozen-potato product maker in North America. Globally, we’re No. 2 in market share. By being a public company, we’ll be more visible.

Q: Where do your products go?

A: I’m not going to get into specifics about our customers, but we participate in quick-service restaurants and also in the retail business with our Alexia brand and some license brands. Globally, we’re shipping to over 100 countries.

Q: Why did Lamb Weston spin off from ConAgra?

A: It was really to make sure that Lamb Weston focuses on the potato category as a pure play. That’s the majority of what we do. The efficiencies we’ll gain by driving our own agenda and strategies. We control our own destiny. That’s a key part of the spin.

Q: Lamb Weston was already a frozen-potato product business. Did the focus change after the split?

A: No. The way to think about it is when you are part of a big company, there are a lot of initiatives that the organization will push down that may not make sense for all of the businesses. There was a lot of distraction, resources and time we’d spend working on those initiatives. Now, we are a pure play as a potato company going forward.

Q: Often, companies merge to become more efficient on the “back-office” operations, such as accounting, business and human resources. The ConAgra-Lamb Weston split does the opposite.

A: We certainly had to build out some infrastructure, some back-office functionality that was housed in ConAgra. We’re doing a lot of that here in Boise, adding jobs and looking for talented people. That’s going really well. In terms of adding that capability versus the long-term growth prospects of Lamb Weston, it made all the sense in the world.

Q: You’ve added a Boise office to the Eagle headquarters. What are your plans for the Boise site?

A: As we’ve spun, we’ve had to add some staffing. We landed on this site because of availability. We didn’t have enough space [in Eagle], so we augmented our offices with this space. I’m happy with how this ended up. We had to make a decision in short order, but it’s worked out really well.

Q: How has Lamb Weston grown since the split?

A: We’ve added about 40 staff folks. We’re evaluating needs with open positions we’re recruiting for. We’re getting to the point where we’re evaluating the final organizational structure in Boise.

Q: How hard is it to untangle the two companies?

A: We have a methodical program we’re following to ensure that as we separate, we make sure there’s nothing that gets dropped. That is a process, and it does take time. Over the course of the next 12 months, we should be fully separated. But there were a lot of areas that were connected. IT [information technology] is an area that’s more connected than others. It just takes time and thought.

Q: Why did the company choose the Eagle office as its world headquarters?

A: We have a long history in Eagle. We have a lot of our key executives in Eagle. It made all the sense in the world to stay here. We are in the heart of potato country. I’m extremely happy with Eagle.

Q: President Trump has pledged to renegotiate NAFTA. How integral is that agreement in Lamb Weston’s business?

A: Like everybody else, we’re monitoring all the activities around NAFTA and around the globe. We obviously trade in Mexico and Latin America. We are monitoring the situation and thinking about how it would impact us if things change.

Q: The company has had a low profile. Is there any talk of increasing its visibility politically, charitably or in any other way?

A: Being a new public company, we’re focused internally right now. Down the road, as we get through the fundamental things we’re working on right now, we’ll start addressing those things you mentioned. Part of that is we need to define our Lamb Weston philosophies when it comes to charitable giving, community and those kinds of things.

Q: Is the company changing how it does business now that it’s independent?

A: We’re focusing on the same strategies as the last couple of years. We are in a great category. I feel really good about our prospects in terms of growth opportunities. Like any good business, we’re thinking about the future.

Q: An outsider might think there are only so many ways to cut and fry a potato. Are there new products on the way?

A: Last year, we opened a state-of-the-art innovation center where we can bring our ideas to life. We do innovate in the fry category. Whether it’s shapes, sizes, seasonings, toppings, flavors, there are a lot of opportunities. Tastes are expanding. There’s a lot of activity around flavors and seasonings. That gives us opportunities to grow.

This story appears in the March 15-April 18, 2017, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine. Click here for the Statesman’s e-edition, which includes Business Insider (subscription required).

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