Jon M. Huntsman, Sr.

Jon M. Huntsman, Sr
Jon M. Huntsman, Sr.
  • From:

    Huntsman Corporation │ Salt Lake City, Utah

  • Year:

    2015

  • Subject:

    Leadership

  • Award:

    Bower Award for Business Leadership

  • Citation:

    For his innovative leadership in founding the Huntsman Corporation and building it into one of the world's preeminent chemical companies; and for his global leadership in philanthropy, with a special focus on cancer research and treatment in support of some of the highest-impact developments towards curing cancer.

Jon Huntsman's may not be a household name, but most anyone living in contemporary America has benefited from his work in at least one of its aspects. As founder of Huntsman Corporation, originally the largest American manufacturer of the ubiquitous type of plastic known as polystyrene, Huntsman has provided packaging for millions of different consumer products for the past four decades. Today, they manufacture over 25,000 specialty chemical products in more than 75 countries. And having donated over $1.5 billion to various charities, he is also one of the world's leading philanthropists, especially in cancer research.

Huntsman hardly sprang from a silver-spoon background. He grew up poor in rural Idaho, the son of a country schoolteacher, and through hard work and tenacity managed to win a scholarship to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1959, he spent two years in the Navy, earned an MBA at the University of Southern California, then began his career at an egg-producing company. That is where he had the idea that changed his life. Put in charge of packaging, he noticed that some companies were suffering substantial losses because of cardboard containers, which didn't stand up well to the rigors of transport and storage. Huntsman wondered whether packaging made of something lighter and stronger, such as polystyrene, might fare better.

He was right, and his success led Huntsman to found his own container company in 1970. In 1982, Huntsman formed the Huntsman Chemical Corporation (now the Huntsman Corporation) in Salt Lake City, which aside from polystyrene and polymers for all sorts of packaging, manufactures a dizzying array of consumer products including textiles, dyes, and materials for use in everything from automobiles and airplanes to construction and health care. Huntsman guided the company to stunning success through 2000, when his son Peter took over as CEO.

But Huntsman's business triumphs may pale in comparison to his philanthropy. As one of only 19 billionaires estimated by Forbes magazine to have donated more than $1 billion, Huntsman is quite serious when he claims his intention is to "die broke." One of the first to sign the Giving Pledge, a challenge from Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to other billionaires to give half of their fortunes to charity, Huntsman thought even that wasn't enough, suggesting that his peers should instead give away 80%. "If I die poor, it's humanity that will have benefited," Huntsman has said. The beneficiaries of Huntsman's generosity have been many and diverse, ranging from the University of Pennsylvania and other institutions to various charities in his home state of Utah. He has also donated prodigious amounts to relief efforts in Armenia, devastated by a 1988 earthquake. But his most passionate cause is cancer research and treatment.

For Huntsman, that cause is about as personal as it gets. Not only did he lose both his natural parents, his stepmother, and his brother to the disease, he has survived four bouts with it himself. Those experiences with the loss and devastation that cancer can cause led him to establish the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah in 1993, which he has unhesitatingly proceeded to personally fund. Given the LDS Church’s vast genealogical base and prior work by Howard Hughes’ genetic medicine teams, HCI quickly established itself as a leading research institution. It emphasizes the study of cancer's genetic roots in its groundbreaking research initiatives, which have led to the identification of many cancer-causing genes and cellular mechanisms. More than a scientific institution, however, HCI is noted as a premier patient care center. Drawing from his own experiences as a cancer patient, Huntsman has personally ensured that every aspect of HCI's treatment facilities are designed and built both for patient physical comfort and for their psychological and spiritual peace of mind. No cookie-cutter, institutionally generic rooms or clinics here: instead, Huntsman insisted that HCI's aesthetics were more those of a luxury hotel than a hospital. The goal is to help patients and their families focus on hope and recovery, rather than fear and illness.

"Life is not a game of solitaire," Jon Huntsman has observed. He seems driven to find ever new ways to share his financial success with the rest of humankind. For him, the point of the game of life is not just to win, but to win "honorably and splendidly" by helping others.