James LeVoy Sorenson: Elusive billionaire

Published: Sunday, Sept. 7 2003 12:00 a.m. MDT

James LeVoy Sorenson, the second-richest man in Utah, has spent a lifetime creating hundreds of jobs, inventing dozens of medical devices and building a family empire.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

James LeVoy Sorenson may be known best for the gift he took back.

After spending a lifetime creating hundreds of jobs, inventing dozens of medical devices and building a family empire, the Utah billionaire's legacy stood on a precipice late in the summer of 1989.

At first, his $15 million donation of Abbott Laboratories stock to the University of Utah's School of Medicine was hailed as the largest gift of its kind to any Utah institution of higher education.

Then-U. President Chase Peterson persuaded Sorenson to make the donation. In turn, Peterson promised to add Sorenson's name to the medical school.

But rumblings by faculty, students and the community quickly ignited a firestorm of controversy.

Just weeks after the gift was announced, many in the community were seething at the thought of the name change. Letters to the editor in local papers ridiculed the offering. Some questioned Sorenson's contribution to medicine. Many labeled him an egotist. Those opposed to the gift had legislation drawn up that would remove Sorenson's name from the school.

Finally, as the controversy reached a deafening pitch, Sorenson asked the university to return the $15 million in stock.

In the 14 years following the incident, Sorenson has remained nearly isolated from public view.

As a result, most Utahns know little about the vast holdings and products of his Sorenson Cos., the parent company to 32 corporations.

They know even less about 82-year-old Sorenson.

Most people likely don't know he survived a fight with prostate cancer last year.

Or that his recent philanthropy included a more than $30 million donation to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the restoration of the Nauvoo Temple.

Or that Sorenson's medical products can be found in hospitals around the world. Or that he holds roughly 60 patents.

Or that an unrelenting drive to find a better way still pushes the entrepreneur to work 40 to 50 hours a week.

Yet now Sorenson is taking a hesitant step back into the public eye.

Learning from the past

In a rare interview last month with the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV, Sorenson talked about his life and the legacy he hopes to leave behind.

Still housed in an old two-story brick building on West Temple in South Salt Lake, Sorenson's office is more befitting a used-car salesman than the second-richest man in Utah — behind only industrialist Jon Huntsman.

A man with the means to buy his own skyscraper and emblazon his name across the top, Sorenson instead is content to work in what he jokingly refers to as the "grunge" part of town. It is here, for the past 41 years, that he has spent his time dreaming up new inventions and amassing a fortune.

And he has done it his way.

His political leanings depend on the person running for office. He has given campaign contributions to Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Rocky Anderson. He likes Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt and speaks fondly of Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson.

Until a few years ago, Sorenson was content to fly coach.

"I enjoyed being in coach as well as being up front," he said. "If the plane went down, we went down together."

He once owned a private jet, but he sold it several years ago to Alcoa for $1 million more than he paid for it.

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