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Never Stop: The Story of Huntsman Corporation

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Next generation: Jon Huntsman Sr., flanked by Jon Jr., left, and Peter. Photo courtesy of Huntsman Corporation.

Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, was leading a group pushing an idea they believed would put Utah at the cutting edge in high-tech innovation. In the mid-2000s, they hoped the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative, with funding from the Legislature, would allow the state’s universities to commercialize technologies that would seed start-up businesses and create hundreds of high-paying jobs.

But the group had a problem: Community leaders didn’t grasp USTAR’s forward-leaning concept of melding academics and entrepreneurs into a job-creating machine. “We had a difficult time getting the Utah State Legislature and others involved to see why it was so important to our state,” Beattie recalls.

He turned to Jon M. Huntsman Sr.

“I needed to get some business leaders and legislators to Arizona to see what that state was doing,” Beattie says. “So, I called Jon and asked if we could borrow his private jet.”

Huntsman’s response was quick and typical for him: “Great, when are you going?”

“We took a group of 17 to Phoenix, all on Jon’s dime, for a one-day trip, and they were hooked,” Beattie says. “We wouldn’t have USTAR today without his contribution and support.”

Utahns knows of the Huntsman family philanthropy in cancer research and treatment. But it’s only a part of the family’s impact. “They simply don’t get the credit they deserve for all they’ve done,” says Beattie, whose Chamber named Jon Huntsman a “Giant In Our City” a few years ago. “Jon and Karen are the epitome of strength.”

A Life of Determination

In his worldwide corporation, philanthropic endeavors and his Mormon faith, Jon M. Huntsman Sr. has led a life of determination. Adversity has never stopped him, nor diverted him from the goals beyond business success. The patriarch of the Huntsman clan has always considered work an opportunity and a satisfaction. It’s no surprise he titled his best-selling business bookWinners Never Cheat.

On a chilly late spring afternoon, the fire still burns as the 76-year-old entrepreneur-extreme chats from the family-owned Huntsman Springs resort in Idaho, not far from where he was raised near Blackfoot. “I’ve been working on some ideas for four new companies I’m quite excited about,” he says. “You get those motivations in your youth, and you never stop.”

Though most of the day-to-day running of the multi-billion dollar Huntsman Corporation has passed on to the family’s younger generations, its founder and executive chairman has never slowed down—not even when faced with economic or health challenges, and he’s had his share of the latter: prostate, mouth and two skin cancers—squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. But in his estimation, it was far worse to watch his daughter, Kathleen, succumb to drug addiction at 44.

Much of the family’s legacy (carried forward with the help of his nine children and his wife of 54 years, Karen Haight Huntsman) is based on Huntsman’s early upbringing. “My father was a school teacher in Thomas, Idaho,” he recalls. “He made $99 a month and we lived in a two-room house. No indoor plumbing for the first five or six years of my life.”

When Blaine Huntsman decided to go back to college at age 40, the family moved to Palo Alto where he attended Stanford University. Student housing consisted of World War II-era Quonset huts, which meant an even more cramped existence for a family of five.

“From seventh grade on, it was my job to provide for all the medical and automobile expenses,” Huntsman remembers. “My brother Blaine and I worked jobs after school and on weekends, and all the money went into a family pot. It was never a regular home—it gave me the determination to never raise my family under those adverse conditions.”

Thinking Inside the Box

In 1961, after graduating from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, Huntsman joined Olson Brothers, Inc., an egg-producer in Los Angeles. It was at Olson that he first conceived the idea for a Styrofoam egg carton that revolutionized the egg industry. The seemingly mundane change in egg cartons led to the family’s fortune. By 1970, Huntsman had his own company, Huntsman Container Corporation, in Fullerton, Calif. And in 1974, HCC created the famous “clamshell” container used for decades by McDonald’s. The company also invented 30 other products, including the first disposable plastic dishes. Huntsman does not disclose his wealth, but on its 2010 “World’s Richest Persons” list, Forbes put him at 937. “I learned in those first 10 years in the business world that people can selectively determine what they want in life, or take charge,” Huntsman says. “Work was always very serious, but very enjoyable, and the hours didn’t matter. They still don’t.”

An In-House Board of Directors

Huntsman decided in 1970 that his company’s board of directors would be his children. “They learned how to make decisions on buying businesses and making them work,” he recalls. “Each would be asked to speak at family gatherings, and we all participated as a team. From acquisitions to expansions, each was asked to give his point of view.”

Son Peter Huntsman, the CEO and President of Huntsman Corporation, remembers well being on the board. “He was trying instill in us an idea of inclusiveness, self worth, of being a part of what he was doing.”

Outside the Business Box

Jon Huntsman Sr. also led his family in another direction that has defined the family’s legacy.  “I have always felt it’s important to address the needs of the community,” he says. “Karen and I made the decision we’d be consistent in what we’d give—starting small and then every year giving more and more of our income to charities.” At times, that has meant leveraging personal and professional assets to continue to meet and increase those charitable commitments. “You can never pull back from people who are already suffering and counting on you,” Huntsman says. “When you’ve made that commitment, it’s iron-clad.”

The Huntsman philanthropies include the Huntsman Awards for Education, which honor educators; the Huntsman World Senior Games, which provides athletic competitions for over-50 athletes; and the Huntsman Cancer Institutein Salt Lake City. The globally recognized institute is Jon Huntsman’s passion. As a cancer survivor himself, he has worked tirelessly the past 20 years since he started the ball rolling for the HCI with a $10 million donation to the University of Utah in 1993. That was just the beginning, as the Huntsmans have donated $400 million to the project over the years and helped raise an addition $1 billion through grants and other fund raising efforts. That has allowed the development of a state-of-the-art hospital that provides tens of thousands of chemotherapy sessions and radiation treatments annually. “Jon and Karen Huntsman have completely changed the landscape for cancer care in Utah and around the world,” says Mary Beckerle, CEO and Director of the Institute since 2006. “What we’re accomplishing here is unparalleled around the world. It couldn’t have happened without the benevolence of the Huntsmans.”

Next generation 

The third generation of Huntsmans has begun taking roles in the family business. Peter Huntsman Jr. is moving to Singapore to work on business development for the corporation. A son-in-law of Peter’s, John Calder, is working in business development out of the corporate headquarters in Texas. Along with business opportunities, the Huntsman family has passed on its tradition of philanthropy as well. “We grew up knowing that giving back was a given,” Peter Huntsman says. “We’d be involved in all sorts of things, and we still are. Whatever we made, we’d give back to society.”

“You have to surround yourself with people who believe in what you believe in, ” Jon Huntsman says. “We feel very fortunate that each of our children works hard, and each has been successful in their own way. That’s an indicator that our priorities are in the right place.”

Next>>>Huntsman Corporation Through the Years, America’s CEO

Back>>>Read other stories in our October 2013 issue.

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Photo of Powell’s expedition courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division⁠
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📸Bears Ears National Monument: Courtesy of Utah Office of Tourism
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