Fit to be fried

Idaho's potato king accuses a dead Dallas oilman and his sons of a multimillion-dollar scam

Instead, gas prices fell dramatically, and most suppliers reluctantly agreed to renegotiate contracts at lower prices. Not Box. He insisted that his company's contract remain in force, and had to battle in court to enforce it.

Box won, and into the next century Box Energy stands to reap tens of millions of dollars from the locked-in contract price. The company gets about $9 for 1,000 cubic feet of its natural gas--while the going market price is less than $2.

But Box's business career had its lows as well. In the early 1970s, his Oklahoma Cement Company was the target of several lawsuits and an investigation by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC, according to news accounts from the time, accused Box of self-dealing as chairman and chief executive of the company, allegedly manipulating securities deals through friendly brokers to make money for himself.

After more than two years of costly lawsuits, the company and SEC finally settled their differences in 1980. Box and the company did not admit wrongdoing, but paid $4.8 million in fines and promised to abide by federal securities laws in the future.

"In effect, we said 'We didn't do it, and we won't do it again,'" a company spokesman said at the time.

While the securities charges were pending, Box also pleaded guilty to 23 misdemeanor counts for violating pricing guidelines set by the Department of Energy in an unrelated case.

In the 1980s, Box also wound up in a legal tangle with developer Trammell Crow. The two men were partners in a state-of-the-art concrete plant near Midlothian that wound up in bankruptcy.

Crow sued Box over the deal, and Box sued one of the banks that helped finance the concrete plant project. All the suits were eventually settled after the cement plant was sold to foreign investors.

Box seemed ever on the brink of another big deal--and more legal trouble--as he made himself a wealthy man. He bought a ranch near Frisco, donated $1 million to a fund for aging football players, and threw legendary parties that often included a who's who of former sports and entertainment stars. When Box died, football buddy and broadcaster Frank Gifford delivered a eulogy at his funeral.

Box and his first wife had four sons, but they divorced in 1986 after 38 years of marriage, and Box remarried a friend of former Miss America Phyllis George.

By the late 1980s, Box found himself facing the most formidable challenge of his rocky business career. It came in the form of J.R. Simplot, Boise's potato king.

Like Cloyce Box, J.R. Simplot is a self-made millionaire. But Simplot's fortune came from potatoes--frozen french fries, mostly--and his business success makes Box's pale in comparison.

Now 86 years old, Simplot is chairman emeritus of the J.R. Simplot Company, which he has turned over to his children to run. The company, privately held by the family, sells about $2 billion a year in frozen potatoes and vegetables, according to company spokesman Fred Zerza. One of its major customers is McDonald's, which buys most of its french fries from Simplot.

(Box Energy Corp., by comparison, sells about $60 million a year in oil and natural gas.)

Simplot, according to Zerza, dropped out of school at 14, raised livestock, and then went into the potato business. He opened the company's first processing plant in 1941, and by the time Cloyce Box was playing professional football, J.R. Simplot was established as a major player in the growing markets for dehydrated food.

According to Zerza, just before World War II the Simplot company developed a process for dehydrating vegetables and landed a major contract providing them to the military.

After the war, the Simplot company developed methods of freezing and thawing french fries, a product ideally suited to the emerging fast-food industry. In the 1960s, Zerza says, Simplot struck a deal with Ray Kroc to provide frozen fries for the McDonald's chain. "He essentially pioneered the frozen french fry business," Zerza says. (McDonald's insisted on using two types of potatoes for its fries that grow well in the Northwest, serendipity that aided Simplot's thriving company.)

Simplot got in early on the public's growing demand for convenient, quickly prepared foods and managed to build an empire off his early success.

These days, the company has 10,000 employees and several processing plants. It manufactures and packages frozen vegetables for the Pillsbury Company's Green Giant brand, and is making inroads into grocery stores with microwaveable hamburgers and vegetables of its own.

The company even owns the world's only known custom-made french fry boat, a refrigerated barge that carries containers of frozen french fries down the Columbia River from an inland Oregon processing plant to Portland. The barge, named the Esther L. after Simplot's wife, is unloaded in Portland, and the fries are shipped by freighter to Japan to supply the McDonald's franchises there.

Simplot, simply put, is no small fry. When he felt he had been crossed by a Texas oilman, the Potato King proved a formidable match.

In the mid 1980s, J.R. Simplot began buying shares in Cloyce Box's company, which was then a publicly traded limited partnership called OKC Limited Partnership. (Box would later reconfigure the company as a corporation and rename it Box Energy Corp.)

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