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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended August 06, 2000
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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 conglomerate.

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 chairman.

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 "clamshell" container.

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."

Industrial Alchemist
Salt Lake Tribune 6Aug00 B2
By Guy Boulton: Salt Lake Tribune


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