Paul S. Edwards: Deseret News dialogue with Jon Huntsman Sr.

Published: Sunday, Oct. 30 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

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

Deseret News

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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?

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