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Business Analysis & Features

Jon Meade Huntsman: The carton king with a big ambition: to die broke

The Mormon billionaire who bought ICI Chemicals first went to work on an egg, he tells Margareta Pagano

Ever wondered who created the “clamshell” containers for McDonald’s Big Macs? Or why they came about?

Well, here goes. The man behind the clam is Jon Meade Huntsman, a big bear of an American from Idaho, who dreamt up the idea for the clamshells after inventing some rather clever new plastic cartons for eggs to stop them from breaking. After coming up with the Styrofoam cartons for eggs in his thirties, it was only a matter of time before he designed the packaging for Big Macs, moving on to making plastic plates and all manner of useful things.

From such inauspicious beginnings great fortunes are hatched. Today Mr Huntsman heads the world’s biggest speciality chemicals company, Huntsman Corporation, with revenues of $11bn (£6.5bn), 12,000 employees and operations in 80 countries making chemicals, pigments and dyes for the food, textiles, aerospace and drugs industries. Huntsman makes thousands of different products that are used in detergents as well as the new carbon-fibre chassis of the latest Lamborghini Aventador. Only Araldite is branded.

All this makes Mr Huntsman one of the world’s wealthiest self-made men as his family owns 20 per cent of Huntsman Corporation, valued at $7bn on the NYSE. But he gives back, and is second only to Bill Gates in the world for his generous philanthropy, giving more than a $1bn to charity. He founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah with his wife, Karen, now one of the world’s pioneers in cancer research with around 2,000 medical experts working on 200 different cancers. He supports scholarships for one of his favourite projects – educating the under-privileged – and has given more than $50m in aid to Armenia and many more charities. He has said he wants to die “broke” by giving away everything to charity.  

Mr Huntsman is 77 next week. He has survived cancer himself four times and suffers from a rare skin disease. Yet here he is holding court in a rather ordinary suite on the eighth floor of the Park Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge. And he is still wheeling and dealing. He has flown over from the US to talk to his UK employees and to promote another new venture, the stunning Huntsman Springs holiday resort in the Teton Valley, close to Jackson’s Hole, where he also breeds white buffaloes.

What on earth makes him still going? “You know, I’ve been working since I was a young boy. We lived in the most rural part of Idaho where my father was a teacher; one of those schools where there were only four teachers to the 12th grade.  Life was tough, we had outside plumbing and no money; I was picking potatoes when I was eight.

“In my teens I worked to help pay for my father’s studies at Stanford. I decided then that I never wanted to depend on anyone or work for anyone else but to be an entrepreneur. So I’ve been working and giving all my life. In Vietnam I gave away some of my pay to families who had less. It’s what I do and giving is part of my Mormon faith.”

It all started with the egg. After being funded through university, Mr Huntsman went to work for his uncle at the egg-producing company Olson Brothers in Los Angeles. They were losing money because so many eggs broke during delivery – and that’s when he came up with the idea for polystyrene cartons, setting up a joint venture with Dow Chemical to develop the science. In 1970 he and his brother set up on their own; he mortgaged his house and borrowed heavily from the banks. The clamshells came in 1974,  and from there he grew the business aggressively, buying more than three dozen companies in one decade and taking on even more debt. At one stage, the company’s borrowings were 15 times cash flow.  

 So you like to gamble, I suggest? “Oh yes, this was pure gambling. But it was a risk I had to take to grow the company. Only one of the companies I bought wasn’t good.”

If risk-taking is like breathing to him, then doing battle is what he calls his “sport”.In 2008, long after he had retired as chief executive, he took on the private equity group Apollo Management after it backed out of a deal to buy out Huntsman. He won.

The company is now is run by Peter Huntsman, one of his nine children. “I spend about half my time here and the rest on charitable work. Don’t tell my shareholders,” he says, laughing.

They are unlikely to mind too much: Huntsman stock is trading at new highs and business is looking up in the US, Europe and UK. “The media doesn’t cover this but Europe is looking much brighter.”

So is the UK, where he employs 2,000, having bought ICI Chemicals in 1999. 

Business is booming in the US, but the political situation is bad: “It’s a divided nation. I’ve never seen the political scene so polarised. It never used to be like this: Republicans and Democrats would argue badly but we would always work together. Not any more.”

He flirted with a political career after working as chief of staff to President Nixon in his early thirties, but decided that the cut and thrust of business was more to his liking than politics – he was disappointed to discover that Nixon gave nothing to charity. Yet he likes the company of politicians: the Thatchers were friends and came to stay in Idaho (the stories he has to tell about Denis and why he provided gin in the otherwise alcohol- free lodge are hysterical). Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew has also been a visitor.

He doesn’t have much time for today’s leaders: “President Obama is a total wreck. The Republicans are deeply divided with a growing number of extremists. It’s time for some damage control but unfortunately most US politicians are dimwits.”

Apart from his son.  Jon Huntsman Jnr is a former ambassador to Singapore and China, and twice governor of Utah, He was a presidential candidate for the Republicans at the last election. He heads the Atlantic Council think-tank and co-chairs the No Labels group, a mix of Democrats, Republicans and independents who want to promote problem-solving rather than point-scoring.

 Only a few days ago Salt Lake City was buzzing with rumours that Jon Jnr will run again at the next elections. His father won’t say: “I don’t know whether Jon will run but I do know he would make a brilliant president – he’s a diplomat, a businessman and he’s been governor twice.”

What he did say is this: “If Hillary Clinton runs for president, she’ll win by a landslide. She’s very able and competent and Jon knows her well. Jon would be perfect as Vice-President or maybe Secretary of State. Now that would be a great combination.”

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Day in the life: the personal touch

Jon Huntsman used to get up at 6am, be at the office at  7am and work until 8pm, but nowadays takes it a little easier, largely due to his health. No day is the same, but about a third of his time is spent visiting his businesses around the world and meeting staff. His wife often comes with him. He also spends a lot of time visiting the cancer institute and other charities, scholarship students.

He has just finished the book “The Emperor of all Maladies”, about the evolution of cancer. He also likes autobiographies and enjoyed  “The Fourth Star”.

Car: Lincoln Navigator

Planes: Two Gulfstream 4SPs. One used for business and one for humanitarian use – taking cancer patients, church use, etc.


Jon Meade Huntsman

Born: 21 June 1937 in Blackfoot, Idaho.

Education: Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, USC Marshall School of Business.

Career: Olson Brothers. Dolco Packaging Corporation.

Founder and chairman: Hunstman Corporation

Family: Married to Karen, nine children and 56 grandchildren.

Charities: Huntsman Cancer Institute; Aid to Armenia; University of Utah.