Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” That is what Jon Huntsman Senior, the self-made billionaire who has given away over 80 per cent of his wealth, said to me when I asked him what message he would like to send to today’s wealthy. It’s not his own line – it belongs to Henry David Thoreau, the American author and philosopher – but it was well chosen: it sums up not only the challenge Huntsman took on in life, but what he’s sought to change for others.
“One of the greatest advantages of wealth is to bring joy to other people,” he says. “Humans must seek to lift one another up.” The 77 year-old businessman is worth an estimated $1.1bn (£700m), but he’s been giving away his money for 35 years, and is one of just 19 billionaires worldwide (out of 1,200) to have given away over a billion – in fact, about $1.6bn. “At one stage, I did manage to get off Forbes, but they found a way to put me back on there,” he laughs. He was one of 40 billionaires who signed up to the Giving Pledge in 2009, agreeing to give away half of their wealth. “Warren [Buffett] wanted to get commitments of 50 per cent first, but I said, ‘why not pledge 80 per cent?’” After all, he tells me, no-one needs half of $10bn to live on.
LUST FOR LIFE
Huntsman didn’t come into the world rich – far from it. Born in 1937, he grew up in rural Idaho, with a school teacher father and a stay-at-home mother. His dad went back to studying when Huntsman was 13, meaning he frequently held down three jobs to support the family. “When you come from nothing, giving is emotional and inspiring,” he says. “I’ve been on both sides of the track. I have a very difficult time understanding why people with a lot of money don’t give to their fellow human beings.” In his latest book, Barefoot to Billionaire, Huntsman says: “I desire to leave this world as I entered it – barefoot and broke.”
A scholarship kid, Huntsman graduated top of his class from the Wharton School of Finance. Then, forgoing job offers from Wall Street, he joined an egg-producing company in LA. His observation that the firm was losing money because of poor packaging led to his foray into the plastics business – and hailed the start of his enormous success: he invented the first polystyrene egg carton. He went on to set up the Huntsman Container Corporation in 1970, coming up with the clamshell carton for McDonald’s. He then founded The Huntsman Chemical Corporation in 1982, but his success was never inevitable. In 2001, for instance, the firm faced bankruptcy. A tough path of cost-cutting and refinancing ensued, and it took two-and-a-half years to get it back on its feet. A crisis, says Huntsman, allows us to “dig deep” into ourselves, “and find resolve you didn’t previously know you had.”
CHARITY BEGINS ANYWHERE
Philanthropy has always been a big part of Huntsman’s life. A committed Mormon, ten per cent of his salary has always gone to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the desire to give to others has only grown with a business empire that’s allowed him to give far more than he ever thought possible. “I never expected this life, desired it or anticipated it. But all rewards need to be multiplied and passed on. I never forget that.”
Over the years, he and his wife Karen have donated hundreds of millions to the homeless, abused women and the sick. In 1993, they founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Huntsman, who is a four-time cancer survivor and lost his mother, father and step-mother to the disease, has donated $450m to it. Over 1,400 scientists and medical staff work there, and it houses the largest genealogical database in the world. “An act of charity is what brings true happiness in life. Some people are addicted to alcohol, some to gambling. I am addicted to making others happy and sharing what I have with them”.
Over the years, he and his wife have whittled down the causes that they give to. In the 1980s, they were funding between 30 and 40 charities but decided that injecting far more cash into just a handful of organisations is more effective in terms of impact.
Aside from their contributions to the war on cancer, the Huntsmans have a strong monetary – and emotional – connection to Armenia. Jon watched footage of the Armenian earthquake on 7 December 1988, which killed 45,000 and left 50,000 homeless. Something in him, he says, told him he had to help. The next day, he got on a plane, heading for a country he’d never been to before. To date, he has given Armenia $53m. He funds 26 four-year university scholarships a year. The only proviso for recipients is that they return to the country after their studies to work on rebuilding. Armenia has made Huntsman a citizen, and he and his family have visited 46 times. “It has been an honour to work there,” he says.
“Following one’s moral compass isn’t always easy,” says Huntsman, but he sees no real excuse for doing otherwise. Paying taxes is something he “feels extremely strongly about. Taxes are your tariff to do business. It is a privilege to pay taxes.”
At the same time, he believes the role of the state can water down people’s desire to give. “The majority of people rely on the state to take care of their philanthropic needs. I’m not downgrading anyone else, but there isn’t the same sense of obligation. Those who make it on their own tend to have a freer pocketbook. A lot of people are forced into loosening their strings – there are always going to be different kinds of philanthropists.”
Now in his 70s, and with an entire dynasty stretching beneath him (one of his nine sons, for example, is Republican politician and businessman Jon Huntsman Junior), Huntsman is focusing his energies on a new project: Huntsman Springs. “Returning to his roots”, he has built an outdoor pursuits and leisure club community in the Teton Valley, Idaho. “It’s heaven on earth. It is a place for families to be together, to spend time with one another.” Little pleases him more than being with his grandchildren, listening to the ideas and dreams of the generations that’ll succeed him. When I ask him what piece of advice he’d like to give today’s entrepreneurs, his answer has a similar ring to it: “surround yourself with people better than you and care for them. They make you more than what you are.”
JON HUNTSMAN's CV
Company name: Huntsman Chemical Corporation. Renamed Huntsman Corporation in 1994
Company turnover: Over $11bn (£7bn) in 2013
Number of staff: 12,000 permanent; 22,000 contract. 3,000 in the UK
Born: Blackfoot, Idaho
Lives: Salt Lake City, Utah
Studied: Undergraduate degree at Wharton School of Finance, Pennsylvania. MBA at the University of California
Awards: 13 honorary doctorate degrees from various universities; the 2004 Othmer Gold Medal, awarded by the Chemical Heritage Foundation; the 2013 Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Chemical Marketing and Economics Group