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The Huntsmans: a family of faith and philosophy

Respected worldwide for its business acumen, the Jon M. Huntsman family also is widely known for its philanthropic practices, particularly in areas of cancer research and alleviating hunger and other forms of suffering. But some wonder what direction the privately held corporation will take when its founder, chairman and chief executive officer, Jon Huntsman Sr., relinquishes the reins to the second and subsequent generations.

Deseret News editorial writer Mike Cannon recently interviewed Mr. Huntsman and his oldest son, Jon Huntsman Jr., about these and other issues including the 2002 Winter Games and their impact on Utah.

Deseret News: The Huntsman family is known for its independence and for doing things its own way. How has that impacted your business operations?

Jon Sr.: It has become quite obvious over the last 30 or 40 years that our business has been a product of our own personal viewpoint and not a consensus viewpoint. Most of our positions in business have been contrarian. We've purchased most of our plants, our divisions, our operations at the low of the chemical cycles when other companies thought they were worth considerably less.

Deseret News: Do your business philosophies differ from those that guide your personal and family life?

Jon Sr.: No. They are reflective of our beliefs in general. Over the years, we've adhered to a very strong philosophy of how we operate our businesses and how we try to conduct our personal lives. We have done our best to be consistent in terms of philanthropy. We were significant contributors in years we didn't have very much money as far as a percentage of what we were doing. This is no new wellspring of ideas, a la Ted Turner and his quest to have people donate. We've tried throughout our lives to follow an established pattern that we thought was appropriate and correct.

Deseret News: Has the passage of time influenced those philosophies one way or another?

Jon Sr.: I don't know that we've changed much over the years. We haven't changed much in our taste for clothing, in our priorities of life. The family, our faith and our businesses are the cornerstone of what has brought us maximum happiness and has enlightened our lives.

Deseret News: What is your family's lodestar?

Jon Sr.: Our quest the last 10 to 15 years and continuing into the future is the deep concern for the elimination of human suffering. That hasn't changed over the years and won't into the future. We believe in keeping the ship steady as she goes, constantly on the same course, not varying a great deal in our philosophies, objectives or mission statements over a lifetime. That has paid strong dividends as far as personal happiness and reasonable success.

Deseret News: Would you be more specific about your efforts to relieve human suffering?

Jon Sr.: The elimination of human suffering is a broad, overall mandate. We receive some 200 requests per week for either money, support or funding from one cause or another. Some ask, "Isn't it a heartache or problem to have to deal with so many in need?" We consider it a blessing. We did not expect that we would be in a position where people would look to us to find support and aid. But at the same time, we direct our funding to those areas where we believe we can have the greatest impact. Every other person out there has their own list of priorities.

We, for many years, have focused on feeding the poor through St. Vincent de Paul, making sure to the extent we can that people have food and shelter. Homelessness has been a very important concern for us in America, Armenia and other countries. We lend our support to hospitals in our area and elsewhere, whether they be children's hospitals or otherwise. Medical research has been a very high priority for us because through it much can be done to help eliminate suffering over the long run.

Support of our local universities and others is important to help see to it that people can be educated more effectively and that some who would not receive education be able to get one. Other primary areas of support include abuse centers, the environment and the arts.

Jon Jr.: This whole idea of alleviating human suffering comes down to what can we do to better the individual; what can we do to take care of those people who, through no fault of their own, have stumbled upon bad times and don't have shelter, who don't have food, who don't have access to adequate education or who suffer from serious illness.

You can get too widespread, as we have discovered internally, with philanthropy. From the very beginning, we decided we would always do it under the relatively broad aegis of relieving human suffering.

Deseret News: Your charitable donations come out of pocket, do they not?

Jon Sr.: Our philanthropic contributions come off bottom line. We have not, over the years, felt that we should wait to give until the point where we had a large foundation. In order to establish a large foundation, we would have to sell a substantial piece of our holdings. At the end of 1997, we took $42 million in mostly business interests, other investments and a chunk of my own salary and put those proceeds into areas of importance to us, the areas of concern we feel deeply about.

Establishment of a larger foundation will happen, however, and we are beginning to do that now. We are starting to sell small divisions and other established pieces of our business holdings and put that into the foundation.

Deseret News: Will that spirit of giving continue with the second generation?

Jon Sr.: In the years to come, the second, third, fourth and fifth generations will have a wonderful foundation to draw upon for philanthropic purposes, probably $100 million a year or more. We feel very good about that.

Jon Jr.: The view of the second generation is very much an outgrowth of the first generation. Thank goodness, the first generation has been willing to establish some firm principles that are now deeply embedded.

I think one of the great elements of success - and perhaps I'm speaking with bias - that I take from Dad, whom I consider the first generation, is the fact that he's set a great example. He has driven home some very important principles that we have all embraced rather enthusiastically.

They include taking a position in life and not being afraid to defend it; taking a contrarian view when building a family business; not at all shying away from the use of risk in building that family business, because without risk you'll never get anything done. Then at the end of the day, realizing the best way you can benefit the community around you, that has allowed you to build up this business, is by giving back to it and keeping it strong and sound.

Deseret News: You have been the fastest growing chemical company in the world the past 10 years. Is it hard to picture yourself relinquishing control of this very successful enterprise you have given so much to establish?

Jon Sr.: It takes unusual self-confidence and a deep sense of personal affection, of love and respect and dignity, for the second generation to come along and say, "We think the first generation, with respect to their thoughts and their motives and actions, has merit. Therefore, we would like to some extent pattern our objectives, our goals, from theirs." I give very high marks, enormous respect, a great sense of love and personal admiration to Jon Jr. and to our other children. They have been a part of our business efforts from the beginning.

Our family has been a very unified body. I don't know we've ever had much of a cross word between us. There's a great sense of harmony, a deep sense of gratitude and thanksgiving, a marvelous feeling of uniqueness. At the same time a sense of being personally blessed in a way none of us expected or, we feel, deserved. Because of that, there has developed a bond between the first and second generation of unusual respect and ad-miration that runs both ways. I watch how our sons and daughters and sons-in-law - eight of the nine are in the family business, the other is a consultant to our industry, so we work closely with him - I'm very proud and very grateful they would say, maybe, Dad has developed something we can continue with. The tradition today is often to say, "The old man really didn't know what he was talking about; let's go do it our way." That is not the case here.

Deseret News: How have you been able to compete globally with other chemical conglomerates while headquartered in Salt Lake City?

Jon Sr.: We have done it out of an unusual base. In our business, it's usually done out of New York, London, Singapore, Tokyo and pos-sibly Rotterdam. But never Salt Lake City. To some extent we disarm our competition. We have disarmed our bankers for years, who have tried to convince us to move to New York or Chicago or Houston. But we have done it our way, in a way that has brought maximum happiness to our family. We have always tried to prepare well and work hard and have been able to handle both business and personal extremes that have come our way.

Deseret News: You have had your fair share of adversity both personally and professionally. How have you weathered it?

Jon Sr.: It is the extremes in life that deteriorate and erode families and businesses. I think we're the strongest when times are the most difficult and trying. When margins are the lowest and down cycles are the most severe in the chemical industry, we seem to thrive.

One of the elements that I've felt in my own personal life, which has been critical, is that the only time a cheerleader is really required in life is when the storm clouds are darkest and most severe. As a family, that's where our greatest hours have been, when we were in the times of greatest difficulty.

All families have some type of tragedies. We have been spared some, and we've grown in enormous strength from these tragedies and difficult times we have had. On my mother's tombstone down in Fillmore are these unique words from Shakespeare that we talk about, think about: "Sweet are the uses of adversity." It's a truism that has been useful to remember in our lives.

Jon Jr.: There may be the perception of some on the outside that we don't encounter a lot of these obstacles when I think just the opposite is true. We are like any other home on Main Street America. We hope for the same things and have many of the same challenges. Some-times the challenges are even exacerbated well beyond the typical family simply because of our interesting makeup. Beyond other important reasons, we always have the driving need to hang together tightly as a family to keep the business intact.

Deseret News: Some have charged that you will not stick with programs such as cancer research over the long haul if you do not attain quick results. Is that true?

Jon Sr.: We will have dedicated by this time next year a $50 million research center at the University of Utah. That center will be around for 50 or maybe 100 years. We plan to expand it to see it grow dramatically into what we hope is one of the great research centers in the world.

We have no interest whatsoever in starting programs that will be abandoned. I can't help but feel that somehow in our zest to run businesses where every day you have to focus on the bottom line, and every day you have to focus on results to be competitive on a global basis, that perhaps there has been a bit of a mix-up in reporting our objectives and our mission with respect to philanthropic needs.

Of course we look for results. Of course there is a certain amount of pressure to succeed. If there wasn't in any form of life, nothing would happen. Sure, we have a very strong interest in progress, but not to the extent that we are willing to abandon a hope and a dream and an objective as lofty and critical to humankind as this. We are very much in this for the long pull, and we're in it for heavier dollars than what we've put forth so far. Already, it's exciting to see the results that our people are getting. These are men and women with unusual skill and ability at the cancer institute who are very committed to results. They don't need a lot of prodding from us.

Deseret News: Why establish such an enterprise locally instead of in one of the nation's major medical centers?

Jon Sr.: There was enormous competition and attractive offers to put this institute at Stanford, Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, the Uni-versity of Southern California and elsewhere. At five or six of the leading medical centers of the world, people were willing to match our funds. They were willing to give us free buildings. The cost of coming to the University of Utah was somewhat higher, quite frankly, than it was at any other campus or non-campus environment where people came and talked to us. Dollars for medical research are hard to find.

We were committed to Utah for two very critical reasons: Number one, it's our home. It was settled by our ancestors and by the ancestors of other people who live here. Our roots are very deep. It is critical that we not forget from whence we came, those people who struggled and paid a price to settle this area.

Number two, and more critically, from the research centers come the medicines and approaches that directly help people. Whether patients are with the University of Utah Medical Center or Intermountain Health Care or other medical facilities and programs throughout Utah and the Intermountain West, they will be the beneficiaries of this research and be the very first ones to be able to apply it and have it translated from the research labs to the human body.

We hope that this area, eventually, will find a far increasing level of life expectancy for those who have had cancer or other serious diseases because we will have, over time, one of the foremost research centers of the world here.

Many of our people will be in trial and high-risk programs where we can give them immediate attention and where we can convert the results from the laboratory immediately into surrounding hospitals and to their patients. This is a very important link. When you combine that with the genealogical history of the LDS Church and its knowledge of family history and illnesses, the combination of these two things helps immensely.