J.R. Simplot, 99; Potato Magnate Invested Billions in Computer Chips

J.R. Simplot started his own potato business and, through innovation, was a millionaire by age 30.
J.R. Simplot started his own potato business and, through innovation, was a millionaire by age 30. (Troy Maben - Associated Press)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

J.R. "Jack" Simplot, 99, who launched an agribusiness empire that supplied french fries to the McDonald's fast-food chain and then used his billion-dollar fortune to invest in computer chips, died May 25 at his home in Boise, Idaho. No cause of death was reported.

Mr. Simplot, an eighth-grade dropout, left his family's Idaho farm at 14 after an argument with his father and went into the potato-growing business for himself. He adapted quickly to new growing and processing techniques and was a millionaire by age 30.

During World War II, he reportedly supplied one-third of the dried potatoes and onions consumed by American troops.

In the postwar boom for frozen and packaged foods, the J.R. Simplot Co. became dominant in its industry.

He converted his equipment to handle the demand for frozen french fries, instant potatoes, dried hash browns and frozen shoestring potatoes.

Seeking assured supplies, he invested in timber to make potato-shipping boxes and invested in phosphate mines to lower the cost of phosphate-rich fertilizer used in his fields.

In the mid-1960s, he became one of the major suppliers of french fries to McDonald's and other restaurant chains. He joined the board of the McDonald's Corp. and urged the company to expand into Asia, with the belief that potatoes could overtake rice as the continent's dietary staple.

Venturing into beef cattle ranching, he accumulated one of the country's largest properties -- a 137-by-64-mile spread near Paisley, Ore. At one point, the land he owned or leased for growing or grazing was about the size of Connecticut.

"I guess I'm kind of a land hog," he told the Portland Oregonian newspaper in 1996.

As of 2007, his family's net worth was $3.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which ranked him No. 89 on the list of richest Americans. The magazine said he was the oldest living billionaire on its list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

John Richard Simplot was born Jan. 4, 1909, in Dubuque, Iowa, and raised on a farm with four siblings near the south-central Idaho town of Burley. He left home at 14 after his father would not let him attend a basketball game, the final straw of many disagreements between them.

His mother gave him four $20 gold coins, and he moved to a hotel in Declo, Idaho, where he found work in the potato-sorting workhouses.

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