John Richard Simplot understood how to make a dollar. He struck out on his own at age 14, leaving family and school behind. Not far behind, though. Simplot moved into a boarding house in his hometown of Declo to avoid arguments with his father. Leaving school at that age was quite common at the time. Young men had to get on with their working lives.
Simplot learned the basics of being a billionaire in that boarding house because of the eight school teachers who also boarded there for a dollar a day. Those teachers may have made some effort to pass on some knowledge to Simplot, but what he really learned was that they were willing to pass on half their salaries to him.
It was the middle of the Great Depression and money was tight. Teachers were paid not in dollars, but in scrip. Scrip was essentially an IOU, promising to pay the teachers at a later date, with a little interest. The teachers couldn’t wait until a later date, because they had bills to pay right then, such as what it cost to stay at the boarding house.
J.R. had left his home with $80 in gold certificates, money he had made from the sale of fat lambs. Carrying around that much money during hard times wasn’t wise, so he started a bank account. When he found out the boarding house residents were willing to sell their scrip to him for half its face value, he put that account to good use. He could afford to wait until the scrip matured.
In his biography, J.R Simplot—A billion the hard way*, by Louie Attebery, Simplot is quoted as saying, “It wasn’t a lotta money, but it was enough to make some money. I’d buy that scrip every month when [they got paid]. They had to pay their board bill…Damn board bill was about half their [salary]. Tough. You talk about tough times; they were tough! Tough, boy! But I accumulated a few hundred dollars, and I made some money.”
He had a lot of stories like that, because spotting a bargain or a deal was his life. Simplot was known as the potato king because his company invented a way to process French fries that caught on just a little bit with companies such as McDonalds. He was big in fertilizer, raising cattle, and funding the development of microchips. The latter proving that he never lost the business acumen that he gained back at that boarding house in Declo.
J.R. Simplot was Idaho’s first billionaire. In 2007 he was the 89th richest person in the United States, with a personal fortune estimated to be about $3.6 billion dollars. When he passed away in 2008 at age 99, Jack Simplot was the oldest billionaire on the Forbes 400 list.