Web Date: February 5, 2018
Jon M. Huntsman is dead at 80
Jon M. Huntsman Sr., Huntsman Corp. founder, packaging innovator, and philanthropist, died on Feb. 2. He was 80 years old.
To the chemical industry, Huntsman is best known for the company that bears his name. In 2016, Huntsman Corp. was the sixth-largest U.S. chemical company and the 29th largest in the world, with $9.6 billion in sales.
Huntsman came to the chemical industry in the early 1960s as an egg salesperson in Southern California. Using a plastic extruder and improvised thermoforming machine, he developed the first polystyrene foam egg cartons.
This invention led to a packaging joint venture with Styrofoam giant Dow Chemical and the founding of Huntsman Container Corp. in 1970. That company would continue to innovate, inventing the polystyrene foam clamshell container used for McDonald’s Big Mac and other takeout food.
Huntsman founded Huntsman Corp. in 1983 with the purchase of a Shell polystyrene plant in Belpre, Ohio. He would grow to be known as a shrewd negotiator with a knack for sensing the right time to buy and sell businesses. Two of his company’s biggest deals were its $1.1 billion acquisition of Texaco Chemical in 1993 and its $2.8 billion purchase of ICI’s polyurethane, titanium dioxide, and petrochemical businesses in 1999.
Huntsman stepped down as chairman of Huntsman Corp. at the end of last year, handing over the reins to his son Peter Huntsman, who is also the firm’s longtime CEO. Huntsman Corp. and Clariant had just canceled a $20 billion merger due to pressure from Clariant shareholders.
Huntsman was a familiar face around his company. “Dad loved to visit our sites around the world. Many of our employees knew him personally, and he knew many of them by name,” recalls Peter Huntsman. “While never a chemist, he knew more about human chemistry than anyone I have ever met.”
Huntsman gave away more than half a billion dollars to various causes over the years. Perhaps most notable is the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, which Huntsman, twice a cancer survivor himself, founded in 1993.
The Huntsman family recently pledged an additional $120 million to the center. “Other than his family, his goal to eradicate cancer from the face of the earth was the greatest passion of his life,” says Mary Beckerle, Huntsman Cancer Institute director.
Dedications to Huntsman have been pouring in since his death was announced. “Jon Huntsman’s greatest legacy will be as a healer of men,” noted former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
“It’s our honor and privilege to preserve Jon’s legacy of hard work, service, and philanthropy through the Huntsman Program and Jon M. Huntsman Hall, the place we call home,” tweeted the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
The Huntsmans are one of Utah’s leading political families. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. was the state’s governor and currently serves as the U.S. ambassador to Russia. Jon Huntsman Sr. served for a time in the Richard M. Nixon administration.
In 2006, the Society of the Chemical Industry’s America Section honored Huntsman with its Chemical Industry Medal. In preparation for a story on Huntsman, this reporter sat down with him for a couple of hours to talk about his career.
The visit was about a week after an ill-fated quail hunting trip during which then-vice president Dick Cheney shot a longtime friend. Huntsman had a photo of himself fly fishing with the vice president on his office wall. Asked about the hunting accident, Huntsman commented that Cheney must have felt awful.
“I’ll tell you though,” he added, “he’s zinged me in the ear a couple times with the fly.”
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