Summarized by Michael Nielsen
Huntsman Called Industrial Alchemist
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- This profile of Jon Huntsman begins in Salt
Lake City boardroom where he billionaire gathered with his family to
bless a grandchild. After the blessing, blond-headed children played
in the headquarters of the largest privately owned chemical
Huntsman Corp. employs 14000 employees at 70 manufacturing sites
throughout the world. The company made petroochemical used in items
from soap to automobile dashboards. In the process, sales totaled
about $8 billion.
Despite the big numbers, Huntsman Corp. has remained a family-owned
business. The 17 year old company now is becoming known for
Huntsman's philanthropy, and its management is shifting to the next
generation. Jon's son, Peter, now is responsible for the day-to-day
operations of the conglomerate. Jon continues with the company as
Jon Huntsman's charitable contributions places him 6th on Time
magazine's list of living philanthropists. He says that the
charitable commitments help ensure that his company does not become
complacent. Having a drive to succeed is important for Huntsman. "I
always knew that if we committed to give something, we would just
have to work harder," Huntsman says. "Pressure is always a healthy
product for a successful business. And the day you don't have
pressure to get up and produce -- I mean substantial pressure -- is
the day you quit growing and developing."
He has come a long way since he graduated from the University of
Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance.
He began surprising observers after he graduated from the Wharton
School of Finance, when he began working for his uncle's egg company
instead of on Wall Street. While there, his introduction to
petrochemicals began as the company developed a plastic egg carton.
Later, he struck out on his own and developed the McDonald's Big Mac
Years of struggle followed, as the energy crisis laid to waste the
careful financial projections. It became difficult to obtain the raw
materials needed for plastics. Heavy debt forced him to borrow money
to make payroll. By trading commodities, however, Huntsman was able
to weather the storm. Stockholders decided to sell the company to
Keyes Fiber Corp, with the requirement that Huntsman stay on as
president for four years. "I learned from that experience and many
other experiences since then that I would do it alone," Huntsman
said. "You don't make success and progress in life when you have to
wait for others to give you approval."
After a three-year LDS mission, Huntsman Corp. was established in
1983. In building the company by acquiring the cast-offs of Shell
Chemical Co. and other corporations, Huntsman has developed a stellar
reputation as a manager. When he bought an old Shell plant in
England, he was quoted as saying "We can make rust work."
His hands-on management style means that he pours himself into new
acquisitions, visiting them frequently. Much of his success is
attributed to his charisma. "Let me tell you something about him from
my view: He has unbelievable charm and charisma," says Nathan
Hubbard, vice president of the North American operations. "He can
talk people, including bankers, including employees, into doing
things they won't do for other people. It's like nothing you've ever
seen. This guy could fire you and you'd thank him."
A key to Huntsman's success is his practice of buying companies when
business is poor. He calls it the "shopping-for-a-Christmas-tree
theory" of acquisitions. "I never buy a Christmas tree unless I can
negotiate a guy down," he says. "And on the 24th of December, you've
got all the aces..... When you see some of these companies that are
down and out, and know the management made a decision to sell, you
can buy them for a third of their value," Huntsman says.
Huntsman's connections with the LDS church are strong. He is an area
authority for the church. His father-in-law is LDS Apostle David
Haight, and his son, Peter, is married to Russell Ballard's daughter.
Still, he has the reputation of being an outsider in the Salt Lake
establishment. He rattled the state when he spoke openly against Salt
Lake City's bid for the 2002 Olympics, saying that the budget
projections were too low.
His ire also scared University of Utah officials when he defended his
wife Karen's appointment to the university's board of trustees. The
student newspaper featured an editorial critical of the appointment
because she lacks a college degree. The specter of losing their
greatest benefactor prompted school officials to work feverishly to
smooth relations with the Huntsman family. It appears that the
Huntsman Cancer Institute and other U of U activities sponsored by
Huntsman will continue.
In addition to his large-scale charitable activities, Huntsman is
known for helping on a smaller scale. His friend, basketball coach
Rick Majerus, says that Huntsman sometimes tips 100% of the meal when
they dine at restaurants. Majerus says, "I can just see the help
shuddering, 'Christ, I hope Majerus isn't buying tonight.' "
The next generation of the Huntsman family now is more heavily
involved in the multinational company. "You kind of walk a very fine
line between the role of a father and the role of a chairman,"
Huntsman says. He acknowledges the high pressure that his family
members face. "The positive side is they were born with a silver
spoon and the opportunity to jump ahead of the pack, let's be
honest," Huntsman says. "The negative side is that almost no matter
what they accomplish, they are going to be criticized, because they
were born with a silver spoon."
The children also see the challenges. John Jr. says, "My father is
almost a mythical being in this industry. You don't meet Mr. Dow."
Son Peter agrees, "I'm not under any false illusions. I don't think
there are many college drop-outs who are in the position I have."
Salt Lake Tribune 6Aug00 B2
By Guy Boulton: Salt Lake Tribune