|J. R. Simplot (1909—2008)|
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I never heard of Jack Simplot until I read George Gilder's book, Recapturing The Spirit of Enterprise. Chapter 2 tells Simplot's amazing story of American success. He grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Idaho. He never graduated from high school. In 1923, at 14 years of age, J.R. Made a small fortune. It was just the beginning. Here's an excerpt from Chapter 2...
"It was one of those episodes, frequent in the history of American agriculture, when the price of a product—in this case pork—dropped below the cost of producing it. In desperation, farmers killed their young pigs and pushed them into mass graves. The young Simplot recoiled at this waste and sprang at the opportunity.
He told the farmers that he would raise the pigs. He collected hundreds, some for free, some for a few dollars... By December that year he had some 700 hogs. His father thought he was crazy and at first refused to help with the project.
These were ... hundreds of hungry beasts, who needed protein and starch and carbohydrates to make it through the winter. If it wasn't worthwhile for established pig farmers—with long experience, ample feedlots, and economies of scale—to raise the animals, how could it be possible for a teenager? Even if he got them through the winter, fat enough to sell, he would go broke; everyone knew pork was a glut on the market. The outcome most widely predicted by farmers in the area was a quiet massacre of famished and skeletal pigs one cold February afternoon..."
Nonetheless, the boy set eagerly to work, building pigpens and troughs on his father's back forty. He had a plan to feed the pigs for nothing, with a giant savory stew of local refuse. It was not altogether a good plan, but it was enough to launch him into the pig business.
Using sheets of heavy metal flattened from old iron barrels, he contrived a cooker, sixteen feet long by four feet wide, with a firebox underneath and a ten-foot chimney. For fuel, he assembled huge piles of sagebrush, and old tires. Then he went out in his pickup to find food for the ravening pigs. He began with cull potatoes, rejects from the neighboring farms, mixed with water from the river and cooked into a murky soup with hay and other available vegetable matter. Piling up sagebrush, bringing water from the river, collecting potatoes and edible garbage, he scarcely had time to sleep.
But this concoction, running him into the ground, would do no more than keep the hogs alive; and there was a limited number of reject potatoes. He began adding barley to the soup. But he could not afford enough, and the pigs continued to languish. If there was no market for fat hogs, skinny pigs would be worthless. He had to figure out some better source of protein. Instinctively, as during all previous food crises on the farm, he reached for his gun, a 42-30 Remington rifle. This time, however, he would not shoot ducks and rabbits.
In the hills and along the river, there ran large packs of wild horses, totaling thousands. They were fast and elusive, but they could be reached and run down in a pickup truck. Simplot decided to feed his pigs on horsemeat. It would entail a lot of driving and expensive gasoline, but it would provide the necessary protein to fatten the hogs.
During the course of the winter he killed some fifty horses, stripped their hides and sold them for $2 apiece to pay for the gas, and cooked the quartered meat with the potato brew for the animals. It all cost him nothing, beyond a harrowing investment of labor. It would be richly repaid.
The teenage Simplot had sensed a key principle of contrarian entrepreneurship; the crowd is always wrong. In the farm panic of the mid-1920s, they were killing pigs; Simplot fed them. He had learned well the poor man's investment strategy; he capitalized his labor. By the spring, when the glut of pork had become a severe shortage, he was ready to reap his return.
Jack Simplot's 700 pigs sold for seven cents a pound, bringing him a check for $7,800 from a local trader named Grow Husky. He had become at age fourteen, for that time and place, a rich man.
The crowd is always wrong? That's a very insightful thing to keep in mind, and not just when it comes to contrarian investing. As for some perspective on that $7,800, it is the equivalent of $117,000 in today's dollars! J.R. went on to become a billionaire, but not with pigs. Click the link under his picture to read more about J.R. Simplot.