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Huntsman's charity sets him apart

Published: Tuesday, May 15 2001 3:59 p.m. MDT

Time listed Jon Huntsman Sr. last year as the sixth-largest philanthropist in the United States.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

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Jon Huntsman Sr. stands before the windows of his large office — a 40-foot-long expanse of 10-foot-high tinted glass that gives him a commanding panorama of the Salt Lake Valley. But Huntsman, listed as the third most influential person in Utah in a Deseret News study, says he prefers the longer view.

Like across the world.

Huntsman, 63, is chairman of the largest privately held petrochemical corporation in the world, Huntsman Corp., which has 121 facilities in 44 countries. Forbes magazine lists him as the 47th richest man alive, worth $6.6 billion.

Huntsman calls heads of state and leading corporate giants his friends. He is one of the few Utahns to have had a private audience with Pope John Paul II. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has stayed at his Deer Valley retreat.

While it is Huntsman's wealth that makes him unique among Utahns, even Americans, it is his charitable giving that puts him in the ranks of the state's most influential people.

Huntsman said he's surprised to find himself in the newspaper's top three with LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley and Gov. Mike Leavitt. He said he can see how President Hinckley and Leavitt got there — the leader of the dominant religion and the governor.

"But I've never perceived myself as one who had great influence," Huntsman said. "I've tried to be very honest, open and frank in any comments I've ever made." (He was an early critic of how Utah bid for the Winter Games but now strongly supports the Games.)

Candor "doesn't necessarily translate into any influence or power per se," notes Huntsman.

But money and connections do.

Huntsman, his wife, Karen, and their nine children have donated $350 million to various causes in the state, he notes. Time magazine listed Huntsman last year as the sixth-largest philanthropist in the United States.

Huntsman's leading effort is the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah Medical Center.

Both of Huntsman's parents died of the disease and he has survived two episodes of it himself. Huntsman plans to build a cancer hospital next to the institute, which sits about a mile away from his corporation's headquarters, high on the city's eastern foothills.

But his touch is felt in many other areas: the annual Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, the Huntsman Awards for Excellence in Education that annually give 10 Utah teachers $10,000 each, homeless shelters, sanctuaries for abused women and children, to name a few.

Huntsman moves easily in the halls of power in Utah and elsewhere. President Hinckley uses the Huntsman corporate jet whenever he travels and Huntsman is son-in-law to Elder David B. Haight of the LDS Church's Quorum of The Twelve.

One insider said church leaders routinely ask Huntsman to take on special projects, "ones where Jon can use his international connections and resources to solve an immediate problem."

Huntsman was the national finance chairman for Elizabeth Dole's presidential campaign in 2000. He is chairman of international services for the American Red Cross and sits on the board of the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a master's degree.

Jon Huntsman Jr. is leaving his job as Huntsman Corp. vice chairman to become a top trade ambassador in the new Bush administration.

As Huntsman reaches the peak of wealth and influence, he appears on the brink of taking a new, broad step: Getting out of the petrochemicals business and concentrating on his charitable foundation.

"We are getting closer and closer to the point where I can sell some or all of my business holdings," Huntsman said in the second of two long-ranging interviews. Huntsman said he owns personally about 66 percent of Huntsman Corp., the rest held by his children.

But he gives no time frame for redirecting his efforts. And, in fact, Huntsman Corp. last month made two major purchases, buying a division of Dow Chemical and a European petrochemical firm. Huntsman Corp.'s holdings are now 60 percent outside of the United States and much of its day-to-day operations are run out of its Brussels offices, where son Peter Huntsman has relocated to be company president and CEO.

"As soon as the economy turns around, as soon as the chemical industries that I'm in get stronger . . . as we pull out of (a slumping economy) and move forward I'd like very much to convert my plants and operating equipment — people think that because you have some affluence that it's in cash — in order to do the things I'd like to do — build the research centers and do more in areas to help those who are suffering with disease, or lack of education, poverty or homelessness," Huntsman said, naming a few of his charitable endeavors.

Following in the footsteps of Carnegie, Rockefeller and Armand Hammer will take money. "And it takes large amounts of money," Huntsman said. But he's eager for the challenge.

And for those who think Huntsman comes late in life to such concerns, think again, says Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson. Huntsman has always gathered friends around him who may, on the surface, seem quite dissimilar.

Anderson, a liberal Democrat and non-Mormon, is an example. Anderson, a noted trial attorney before entering politics, was Huntsman's personal lawyer in the early 1980s. They've stayed close ever since.

"I was impressed with Jon from the first, when he told me he lost respect for Richard Nixon (Huntsman served as a special assistant to then-President Nixon in the early 1970s) when he learned that Nixon had not given anything to charity one year he was president," Anderson said.

He got to know Huntsman in the early years of Huntsman Chemical, when the young firm was noted for making plastic egg cartons and Big Mac hamburger containers. "Yet even then it was clear to me that Jon's real motivation in his work and accumulation of wealth was to give much of what he has to make people's lives better," Anderson said.

Said Huntsman about his desire to help others: "It's a very, very deep-seated situation that's very hard to explain to a person who doesn't understand that our sole mission and objective in life is to lift the hopes and dreams of others."

In fact, when in town Huntsman often visits his cancer institute and sits, talking, with patients as they get their doses of chemotherapy.

His charity work "sounds to some people artificial. But I don't care. That doesn't matter to me one iota what others think. It's what I believe."


E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com ; lucy@desnews.com

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