You have to understand that out here, farmers had sons so that the sons could run the farm,” Scott Simplot told the Wall Street Journal in 2004. “Our farm was a little bigger than average, but the idea still applies.” Since 2001, Simplot has been chairman of J. R. Simplot Company, the Boise, ID, agribusiness founded by his father and one of the largest privately held firms in the country. In this role, he has brought in outside management and begun running the agribusiness with fiscal discipline. That has meant standardizing accounting, shutting inefficient plants, limiting the size of cattle herds, and cutting jobs when necessary. Other actions include expansion in Asia and Australia, including the 2003 purchase of control of John West Food, an Australian canned-fish brand.
The company’s founder, Jack Simplot, is an out-sized Boise legend—an innovator who bought a potato sorter in 1928 and turned it into the biggest potato sorting operation in Idaho. The company expanded into dried onions, fish farms, and hamburger patties, hitting the big time in 1946 when a company chemist developed a new technique for processing frozen French fries. Scott Simplot has often clashed with his 98-year-old father over the years. The son returned from Wharton in 1973 to become director of planning and information technology. At the time, analysts estimated that 40 percent of Simplot’s profits came from supplying McDonald’s with fries.
The company was diversifying based on Jack’s insights, and not all were successful. J.R. Simplot had hits — investing in Micron Technologies—and misses—including goldmines in the Dominican Republic and coconut plantations in Colombia. Scott instead argued the numbers for computer upgrades, tighter budgets, and diversification based on strategy and earnings, not hunches. The numbers won out. After years of uneven results, the Simplot Company is back on track.
In 2006, the company reduced debt, posted solid revenues of $3.3 billion, and improved operating income for the fourth consecutive year.