GIVEN HIS NAME, it would seem logical that Jon M. Huntsman Jr. would be focused on a career in the chemical business. Although his billionaire businessman father founded Huntsman Corp., one of the largest U.S. chemical producers, the younger Huntsman says he has never aspired to run the firm. Instead, Huntsman, who has been governor of Utah since 2004 and is seeking reelection next month, continues to carve out an upwardly mobile career in politics.
C&EN caught up with Huntsman last month, after he was chosen to give a Sept. 4 speech officially nominating Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as presidential nominee Sen. John McCain's running mate at the Republican National Convention. Huntsman knows Palin through their affiliations with the National Governors Association, where they served together on the Natural Resources Committee, and the Western Governors' Association, which he chairs.
Huntsman, 48, says he became interested in a career in politics long before his family formed a chemical business in 1982. "From my earliest years of life, my desire was to join the foreign service or get involved in public service of some kind—something that was always encouraged by my family," he says. He was influenced, too, by spending some of his formative years in Washington, D.C., when his father worked as a staff member in the Nixon Administration. During that time, the younger Huntsman held a job delivering the now-defunct Washington Star newspaper.
After high school, he served on a mission through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Taiwan, where he learned to speak fluent Standard Mandarin Chinese. He also studied Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a B.A. degree in international politics. Before becoming governor, Huntsman served as a White House staff assistant to President Ronald Reagan, U.S. ambassador to Singapore and deputy U.S. trade representative under President George H. W. Bush, and U.S. trade ambassador under President George W. Bush.
Despite his political aspirations, Huntsman worked with family members to help build Huntsman Corp., eventually serving as vice chairman of the company and chairman of its executive committee. Although he left the company in 2001, other family members have remained in the business. In 2000, his younger brother, Peter R. Huntsman, succeeded his father as chief executive officer of the company, which went public in 2005 and is now pushing to close a deal to be purchased by Hexion Specialty Chemicals (see page 10).
Huntsman says the experience he gained within the family business has been invaluable to his career in government. "Running an embassy is much like running a business," Huntsman says. "It requires that you act as CEO of a large operation with a lot of moving parts and a lot of different departments and agencies." Likewise, he says that working in the family chemical business gave him a "head start in understanding how to be a more effective trade ambassador."
As governor of one of the country's fastest growing states, Huntsman is "most passionate about issues dealing with economic competitiveness," he says. "We are in a free market economy where global competition has never been more intense and where environmental issues are more complex and confusing than ever before in the history of humankind.
"The prize will always go to the most innovative or competitive nation or state," Huntsman says. "Unless you keep a laser focus on economic competitiveness and on encouraging increased investment and technology transfer, there's no way that you are going to be able to pay teachers more or improve human services and transportation or afford the many other things that you need in order to be prosperous."
HUNTSMAN SUPPORTS expanding the use of the abundant reserves of natural gas in the U.S. To highlight his support for natural gas as automobile fuel, Huntsman used personal funds to convert his state-issued sport-utility vehicle to run on natural gas. His stance is in opposition to chemical executives, like his brother Peter, who have argued that more of the natural gas supply should be diverted to higher value applications such as chemical production, where it is used as a feedstock and fuel.
"Clearly, Peter has his views and I have mine," Huntsman says, adding that he is "pushing Utah to the forefront of the revolution of using more natural gas for transportation given that it is cleaner burning, cheap, and readily available." The U.S. has known natural gas reserves of 1,400 trillion cu ft, which amounts to about 70 years of consumption, according to Huntsman.
With strong views on key issues such as energy and competitiveness and experience that includes two trips to Iraq with McCain, some speculate that Huntsman may find a place in the highest levels of the Republican Party in the years to come. U.S. News & World Report is one source that had included him on an early list of potential McCain running mates, something Huntsman dismisses as a "fluke." For now, at least, he says his only goal is "to be elected to serve one more term as governor of the good people of Utah."