Jack Simplot, RIP

We grew up around the Simplots – stayed in McCall over the 4th of July many times when we were young to see the Simplots shoot off fireworks from their dock on the lake. They were spectacular, full of the ooohing and aaaahing. Jack was one of the local legends.


J.R. Simplot, a billionaire who grew up in a sod-roofed log cabin and dropped out of school at 14, then marshaled luck, spunk and inventiveness to fashion an entrepreneurial career that included developing the first commercial frozen french fry, died on Sunday at his home in Boise, Idaho. He was 99.

The death was announced by Larry Hlobik, president and chief executive of the Simplot Co.

Mr. Simplot became the 89th-richest American in Forbes magazine’s 2007 list ($3.6 billion) by seizing opportunities, then perceiving how one success could lead logically to the next.

An early profit on some pigs allowed him to become a potato farmer, which led to sorting and then processing potatoes. That led to building the largest potato-dehydrating plant in the world, which enabled him to supply much of the dried potatoes and vegetables consumed by U.S. troops in World War II.

He began mining phosphate to supply his own fertilizer. He shipped potatoes in boxes made from wood from his own forests. He fed leftover potato scraps to cattle that he kept on his vast ranches and huge feedlots.

There had been earlier efforts to develop an acceptable frozen french fry, but a new market opened up after World War II, when freezer compartments became standard in refrigerators. One of Mr. Simplot‘s researchers, Ray Dunlap, urged Mr. Simplot to give him a freeze box so he could practice freezing vegetables.

“Hell,” Mr. Simplot answered, according to an article in Range magazine in 1998, “you freeze spuds and they will go to mush.”

But Mr. Simplot bought Dunlap a large freezer anyway, and a few months later, Mr. Simplot tasted hot French fries that had been frozen. “My God, good product,” he said.

In the mid-1960s, Mr. Simplot signed a contract with Ray Kroc, who built McDonald’s into an empire, to supply fries to Kroc’s chain. Mr. Simplot promised to build an entire factory just for McDonald’s. The deal was sealed with a handshake.

Late in life, Mr. Simplot still regularly drove his Lincoln Town Car (he owned a dealership) to a McDonald’s outlet for an Egg McMuffin and hash browns or fries. The license plate on his car read Mr. Spud.

John Richard Simplot, usually called Jack, was born Jan. 4, 1909, in Dubuque, Iowa. After loading his pigs, chickens and horses in two boxcars, his father moved the family to Idaho to homestead when Jack was a year old.

At 14, Jack, by his own account, left home after his father refused to let him attend a basketball game. His mother gave him $20 in gold coins, and he moved into a $1-a-night hotel in a nearby town. There were teachers living in the hotel who were being paid in interest-bearing scrip. Jack bought them at 50 cents on the dollar and sold them to a bank for 90 cents on the dollar.

He used this profit to buy a rifle, an old truck and either 600 or 700 hogs (accounts vary) at $1 a head. He used the rifle to shoot wild horses, which – after stripping the hides for future sale at $2 each – he mixed with potatoes and cooked on sagebrush-fueled flames. The hogs ate the result. When he sold the fattened pigs, Mr. Simplot made more than $7,000.

That gave him capital to buy farm machinery and six horses and become a potato farmer. Next, he acquired half of an electric potato sorter with a partner. After they argued, they flipped a coin for full ownership. Mr. Simplot won, and expanded to all phases of the potato industry.

Within a decade, he was the largest shipper of potatoes in the West, with 33 warehouses in Oregon and Idaho.

Ultimately, his businesses included fertilizer, oil, animal feed, seed, beef cattle and ski resorts from Chile to China. The Idaho Statesman newspaper said he owned the nation’s largest cattle ranch, in Oregon.

A $1 million investment in two engineers working in the basement of a dentist’s office in Boise made Mr. Simplot the largest shareholder in Micron Technology Inc., a major manufacturer of computer memory chips. The first board meetings were held in a pancake house in Boise.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Simplot was charged with trying to manipulate Maine potato futures. He was barred from commodities trading for six years and paid $50,000 in fines and an undisclosed amount to settle a lawsuit.

In 1977, he and his company each paid $40,000 in penalties for failing to report income to the Internal Revenue Service, and for claiming false deductions.

Mr. Simplot‘s first marriage to Ruby Rosevear ended in divorce. His son, Richard, died in 1993. He is survived by his wife, the former Esther Becker; two other sons, Don and Scott; his daughter, Gay; and several grandchildren.

The Statesman, in its obituary, detailed Mr. Simplot‘s almost ostentatiously modest style: He wore the same pair of glasses for 30 years and did not fix his car’s brakes because he did not want to spend the money.

But he liked to hobnob with celebrities and statesmen, including Ernest Hemingway and W. Averell Harriman, at the Sun Valley ski resort. He skied until he was 89, and did it with a style that Lowell Thomas, the writer and adventurer, once described thus:

“As he goes banging down the Sawtooth Mountains on skis, you hear him singing and laughing a half-mile away.”

Thursday, May 29, 2008