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Deseret News dialogue with Jon Huntsman Sr.

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Jon Huntsman Sr. pauses at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City

Jon Huntsman Sr. pauses at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City

Deseret News

We look at our corporate interests purely as a means to fund charity. And the charity comes first.

I'm standing in the exquisite lobby of the Huntsman Cancer Institute on a rainy afternoon. Even with gloomy weather outside, the wood-paneled atrium is bathed in natural light.

I'm waiting for the Institute's benefactor, Jon Huntsman Sr., to arrive for a brief tour and interview. As he steps through the door, Institute employees greet him. But before Huntsman can reach us, he is stopped by a woman overcome with emotion.

She is the mother of a cancer patient in the hospital, anxious to express heartfelt gratitude for the care her son is receiving. Huntsman steps aside to give her his undivided attention. He listens intently and comforts her with a hug.

By this time, Huntsman's son, David, has greeted me. David Huntsman, who is president and CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, tells me that this kind of emotional interruption takes place "every few minutes. Everyone wants to visit with him, and it's important to him take the time to visit."

David Huntsman's words prove true. As we do a photo shoot in the lobby, a cancer patient, who can't contain her gratitude for the hope the Institute has given her, steps forward. True to form, Jon Huntsman Sr., steps aside for a focused, private conversation about her healing. The two finally part after another emotional hug.

It is evident that any sustained conversation with Huntsman about creating a legacy of prosperity and philanthropy — the purpose of today's conversation — is going to have to take place in some place separated from those so directly affected by his giving.

Back at the gleaming corporate offices, Huntsman can talk without interruption. Throughout the building are souvenirs of milestones in the Huntsman family's history, reminders of gifts given and displays that explain the growth and operations of Huntsman Chemical.

Among the many mementos that provide the guideposts for our conversation, including family photographs with presidents, prime ministers and even the pope, we probably spend as much time talking about a small statue as any other item.

The statue was given to Huntsman following his purchase from Shell Oil of a $42 million facility "when I didn't have any money and had to glue together funds from several banks and put the children up for collateral."

The statue is of a riverboat gambler.

"People wonder how it is that you can build a business like this," says Huntsman. "The only way you can do it is by taking enormous risks, risks that give you a headache when you think back on them. But you have to take these risks to build a business and continue to support our charitable organizations. Then you've got to make the risks turn into investments."

I ask Huntsman about how much of his risk taking has been calculation and how much has been based on gut feelings.

He answers with a story. It's about how he acquired the chemical division of Texaco, a business unit with $2 billion in annual sales. After striking up a conversation with a Texaco executive he bumped into during a business trip, Huntsman developed enough curiosity in the business to skip out on his scheduled meeting, follow the Texaco executive directly to Texaco headquarters and, after pleasantries, make a $1.5 billion offer to the corporate officers.

"'I really didn't know much about the company. I'd never seen their financial statements."

He eventually acquired Texaco Chemical for under $1 billion.

Hence the apt comparison to the riverboat gambler.

But is it really apt?

Start engaging Huntsman on corporate strategy, and one quickly realizes the rigorous calculation that's bred deep into this Wharton-trained businessman. The best margins in the chemical business are found in highly specialized chemicals, but it is hard to break into that part of the business. The entry point into the chemical business for a scrappy entrepreneur was through commodity chemicals, and commodity chemical businesses could be purchased at discount during downturns in the business cycle. That's the strategic calculation behind Huntsman's aggressive acquisition strategy.

And start engaging Huntsman on philanthropy, and one can see that the riverboat gambler analogy is more ironic than descriptive. Huntsman might possess the bravado of a gambler, but its hard to find any of the self-serving opportunism of the gambler.

"We look at our corporate interests purely as a means to fund charity," says Huntsman. "And the charity comes first."

How does charity come first? For one thing, giving is not some post-success add-on. It has been an ethic throughout his entire life. He speaks of ongoing charitable involvement that stretches back more than 30 years.

He also tells of making stretch charitable commitments and honoring them at all costs. "We've had many years where the economy was way down and our stock was down, and we didn't have the proceeds to keep all of our charities going. So I'd go to the bank to borrow. These bankers in New York would say: 'Why do you need 50 or 100 million dollars?' I said, 'This is to complete my obligation for our charitable programs.' And they'd say, 'We don't loan for charity.'"

Huntsman continues, "But I said: 'I'll do whatever you need to provide the loan' because the last people who can afford to be let down financially in tough times are those who have received a charitable commitment to care for the homeless or abused women and children. You can't cut back on those who are already suffering. So let me be the accordion, or the buffer, and I'll figure out how to pay the bank back."

He also quips, "It just forced us to build our business faster."

Huntsman is emphatic, "We're in business to relieve human suffering, to help feed the poor, to provide education and culture — but above all else, we're concerned with the relief of human suffering."

Huntsman talks about his humble rural childhood in Blackfoot, Idaho, living in a home without indoor plumbing. "We started from nothing, and I always thought that if we could ever have anything, we would want to share it. We wouldn't want to go and spend it on ourselves."

During our visit, we run into another son, Peter Huntsman, the President and CEO of Huntsman Chemical. Jon Huntsman Sr. excuses himself for a few minutes and I ask Peter about how charity was taught by his father.

"His lesson in philanthropy was never a sermon preached," says Peter Huntsman. "We just grew up knowing that that was the way you lived your life. It's going and taking boxes of food and other items to the homeless. It's having someone come up to you that you don't really know saying 'Please thank your father for having done thus-and-such.'"

"So by the time you become an adult, it's not that you've been hearing this over the pulpit — it's just the way he lives his life — the way my mother lives her life."

As our conversation closes, Jon Huntsman Sr. provides words of encouragement that also reveal the source of his confidence, "Never quit believing that you can develop in life. Never give up. Don't deny the inward spirit that provides the drive to accomplish great things in life."

Paul Edwards is editorial page editor for the Deseret News. Email: pewards@desnews.com