Jon Huntsman dies at age 80

Billionaire businessman and philanthropist Jon Meade Huntsman Sr., 80, died Friday, Feb. 2, at his home in Salt Lake City, Utah.

His family released a statement saying he “passed away peacefully” around 2 p.m., “surrounded by a loving family, following long-term health challenges.”

Huntsman had previously beaten prostate cancer, mouth cancer and two types of skin cancer in his lifetime.

“Some 10,000 Huntsman employees today mourn the loss of our founder,” said his son Peter Huntsman, chairman and CEO of the Huntsman Corporation, an $11 billion global marketer and manufacturer of chemicals that operates more than 75 manufacturing, R&D and operations facilities in over 30 countries. “Dad loved to visit our sites around the world. Many of our employees knew him personally, and he knew many of them by name. All respected him deeply. They regarded my father as their personal coach, mentor and friend. While never a chemist, he knew more about human chemistry than anyone I have ever met.

“His passion was building a great company from assets and people that others had seen less value in than he. He leaves behind a great company, but even more so, a legacy of optimism, ethical behavior and philanthropy that will serve as his greatest accomplishments.”

Not only has the Huntsman Corporation lost its founder and chairman emeritus, but the world has lost arguably one of the most benevolent men who ever lived.

Jon and his wife Karen have given over $2 billion to charity.

Beaumont lawyer and close friend of Huntsman Wayne A. Reaud calls Huntsman “the greatest man I know.”

“I don’t say that lightly. I have known every president since Lyndon Johnson. I have known senators and governors and congressmen. And he is the greatest man I know,” said Reaud. “He is the most generous of men. … I was taught that (through) the good deeds that we do in this world, we can put jewels in our crown in heaven. … Those good deeds don’t get us there, but the good things we do can enhance our status in heaven. If that is true, Jon Huntsman won’t be able to wear his crown. It will be so encrusted with jewels he will need 100 retainers to carry it for him. … What an inspiration he’s been to me. I have been privileged to call him my friend.”

Huntsman’s charitable works have spanned continents and affected people’s lives for decades.

Nearly 30 years after an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale devastated northwestern Armenia, killing an estimated 25,000 people, residents in the former Soviet republic are still benefactors of Huntsman’s generosity.

According to Utah newspaper Deseret News, the Huntsmans have given more than $53 million to the country through their humanitarian service.

Huntsman was among those who stepped in to help the struggling country, and his assistance continued over the years. In fact, Narine Sarkissian, a native Armenian, said she credits Huntsman and his company for saving the country.

“If it wasn’t for that help, I doubt it if Armenia would have survived,” she told Deseret News.

In a time of tremendous loss and dire need following the strongest storm to hit the U.S. since 2004, Huntsman pledged $1 million of his own personal money and another $1 million from the Huntsman Family Foundation to help victims of Hurricane Harvey. Overall, Huntsman-related parties have donated more than $10 million to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, according to the company. He also issued a challenge to other business leaders to give.

Although Huntsman was born in Blackfoot, Idaho, and lived in Utah, he also called Southeast Texas home due to his close ties with the workers of Huntsman Corporation’s Port Neches petrochemical plant.

“I started the business almost 50 years ago, and we’ve been in Jefferson County over 25 years, and (it has) the finest employees in the world,” Huntsman said, adding that he visited the Port Neches plant before the press conference following Hurricane Harvey in September to hug each employee and tell them how much he loves each and every one of them.

“Jon Huntsman Sr. never missed an opportunity to acknowledge the men and women who worked at his facilities,” Huntsman Port Neches plant manager Chad Anderson said. “He was clear that it was their efforts that made Huntsman a success. Working for Huntsman was more than being an associate; you were part of the Huntsman family. He once made the statement that his word was his bond, and his handshake was his commitment. That statement has always resonated with me and provided a basis for how to treat people and conduct business.

“Our team in Port Neches cherish his many visits and always encouraging us to be the best at work and at home. We will forever be grateful to Jon Huntsman’s contributions to our facility and the surrounding communities.”

Huntsman was a key factor in the construction and creation of the Wayne A. Reaud Administration Building and Honors College at Lamar University. The building complemented the adjacent Commercialization Center, creating a much-needed new-look entrance for the school.

“Jon Huntsman Sr.’s generosity to Lamar University contributed greatly to the growth and the development of the campus in that it enabled the establishment of the Reaud Honors College,” said Lamar University President Kenneth Evans. “We are grateful for his generosity to LU and, through the ongoing impact of the Reaud Honors College, to all the people of Southeast Texas.

“Beyond his financial support, he was a genuine friend to LU and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities he had to meet with students.”

Those opportunities included a visit to the campus as special guest speaker for the Judge Joe J. Fisher Distinguished Lecture Series in 2014, along with his son, Peter. Jon’s lecture came at a time when students were perhaps discouraged due to high unemployment numbers, a suffering economy, and student loan debt surpassing credit card debt for the first time in U.S. history.

“There’s much to be learned from the lessons of these difficult times,” Huntsman said before quoting former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There’s no education like adversity.”

That’s a lesson Huntsman learned at an early age.

“My folks were extremely modest. Dad was a schoolteacher in rural Idaho who made a little over 99 bucks a month,” Huntsman said in an exclusive interview with The Business Journal in 2016. “I never got a penny, and I never expected anything.”

On top of the poverty came abuse.

“My dad was a tough taskmaster and heavy drinker,” he said. “My mother was sweet and lovely and died young of cancer. My dad never let her drive, never let her go to church, never let her write out a check, didn’t trust her. There was all this tension in the family. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to take all these tensions and do the reverse of what my dad did.’ I look back and I think, ‘Thank the good Lord. It could have been worse.’”

His mother’s death was his inspiration for his $225 million donation to establish and fund the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) in Salt Lake City, Utah. HCI hosts more than 125,000 patient visits annually, and its researchers have identified more cancer-causing genes than any other cancer center in the world, according to the institute’s website.

In June, HCI officially opened its Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center, a facility dedicated to advancing research in cancer. The 225,000 square-foot expansion doubles HCI’s research capacity. Huntsman also announced a commitment from his family and Huntsman Cancer Foundation to give an additional $120 million to HCI.

“From the very beginning, our goal has been to build an unrivaled cancer treatment and research campus that is at the forefront of scientific discovery,” said Huntsman. “With this expansion, we’re one step closer to realizing our vision to eradicate cancer from the face of the earth.”

Jon and Karen Huntsman have done more than anyone to bring world-class cancer care and research to Utah, said Utah Governor Gary Herbert.

“Through their kindness, they have offered hope to thousands of patients and their families,” Herbert said. “This new research facility stands as proof that there is more reason for hope and optimism than ever before.”

In 2003, Huntsman was the recipient of the Humanitarian of the Year Award from CNN’s Larry King. He also served eight years as a member of the Board of Governors of the American Red Cross.

Ever the optimist, Huntsman never used his upbringing as an excuse not to achieve.

Huntsman earned a scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s renowned Wharton School of business. He then joined the Navy, serving as a gunnery officer aboard the USS Calvert. Huntsman also earned an MBA from USC.

He worked his way to the top of the business world but first would serve in the White House as Special Assistant to President Richard Nixon.

Huntsman made his fortune by partnering with his brother Blaine and a business associate to formulate a detailed business plan for a new enterprise called the Huntsman Container Corporation.

In 1974, Huntsman’s big break came through a McDonald’s sandwich that became popular six years prior — the Big Mac.

“My small, three-person packaging development team created a new product — a clamshell container, that, if accepted in the marketplace, would alter the concept of fast-food packaging. In point of fact, it ended up forever altering food packaging throughout the world,” Huntsman told The Business Journal in 2016.

The clamshell container was first sold to Burger King for its ham-and-cheese sandwich, which helped bring it back from the dead — the company was considering phasing it out, but the new container reversed the plummeting sales numbers.

Huntsman had resigned his White House position with the Nixon administration before Watergate because he was perturbed at unethical practices by his supervisor. In the midst of Watergate investigations, Huntsman received a visit from men in black suits whom his secretary assumed were FBI or CIA but were actually McDonald’s representatives who, having seen the container Huntsman’s company designed for Burger King, were interested in the product.

In fact, Huntsman Container designed a container specifically for the Big Mac and McDonald’s bought hundreds of millions of them.

This transaction would expand the Huntsman fortune, and he started out buying up downtrodden businesses with borrowed money through his Huntsman Chemical, founded in 1982. In all, he purchased 34 companies, including Texaco’s petrochemicals operation for $1.06 billion in 1994. Included in the sale, was Texaco’s complex in Port Neches, now Huntsman Port Neches Operations.

Huntsman Corporation would go on to become the nation’s fourth largest chemical company.

But Huntsman always gave back and even publicly suggested that billionaires give 80 percent of their wealth in response to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates’ “The Giving Pledge,” which encouraged the wealthiest people in the world to give half.

“I don’t understand why we’re only asking for 50 percent because the other 50 percent amounts to two, three, four billion dollars. Why don’t we make it 80 or 90 percent? That’ll leave them each with a billion dollars. We can all get along fine with a billion dollars,” said Huntsman.

Huntsman has driven others to philanthropy including his friend, Wayne A. Reaud.

In addition to the Beaumont Foundation, Reaud, through his Reaud Family Foundation, touches the lives of thousands of children each year through its Bicycles and Bibles event. Reaud’s Beaumont Foundation of America, which Huntsman served as board member, regularly donates to food banks throughout the state of Texas to help strengthen their mission of feeding the hungry.

Huntsman also inspired Beaumont Cardiologist Dr. Rodolfo P. Sotolongo to found the Cardiovascular Foundation of Southeast Texas. Huntsman served on the Executive Advisory Board of the organization, whose mission is to improve cardiovascular outcomes through clinical research, education and patient assistance.

“I want to give back, and this foundation will allow me and my family to do so on a larger scale,” Sotolongo told the Business Journal in 2016. “I’ve been blessed with six grandchildren … (and) as soon as they are old enough … I am going to name them on the advisory board … I want them to recognize the importance of giving back; I want them to appreciate it, live it and understand it.”

Huntsman himself has eight surviving children. In addition to Peter, chairman and CEO of the Huntsman Corporation, there’s also Jon Jr., former governor of Utah and current U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Although Jon Huntsman Sr. has physically died, because of his influence and the example he set during his time on this earth, perhaps it is through future generations that Huntsman’s spirit can live on through their benevolence. They can continue his mission, heeding his words, “If I die poor, it’s humanity that will have benefited.”

Photo by Dale Stagg - Jon Huntsman Sr. greets an employee during a visit to the Port Neches Operations plant. Huntsman never missed an opportunity to acknowledge the men and women who worked at his facilities, Huntsman Port Neches plant manager Chad Anderson said.

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