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Jon Huntsman’s biography provides a look at a plastics icon – and a good human being

Jon M. Huntsman, Sr., a name that everyone in the plastics industry should know, has just come out with a new memoir titled, "Barefoot to Billionaire: Reflections on a Life's Work and a Promise to Cure Cancer" (Overlook Press, $35). While I've not read this recently released book, I certainly plan to as I've long admired Huntsman and his successful entrepreneurship in the plastics and chemical industries.

I remember the day many years ago, when I was a journalist for another plastics industry trade publication, that I met Jon Huntsman Sr. at his office in Salt Lake City, UT, for an interview. I loved doing "people" stories, and have always been fascinated with knowing how people got to be where they are.

A t the time Huntsman was the president and CEO of the world's largest privately-held chemical corporation, Huntsman Chemical Corp. that specializes in upstream polymer chemicals that go into making plastics and other products. Huntsman began his career in plastics after being employed as VP of Operations by Olson Bros. Inc., a commercial egg production business. The company was experiencing losses from egg breakage due to insubstantial packaging. In 1965, Huntsman contacted the polystyrene group of the Dow Chemical Co., and was key to helping to develop the first expanded polystyrene (EPS) egg carton.

In 1967, Huntsman became the president of a joint venture between Olson Bros. Inc. and Dow Chemical Co., The Dolco Packaging Corp. Huntsman left Dolco in 1970 to found Huntsman Container Corp. with his brother, Blaine in Fullerton, CA, and performed further work on EPS cartons and containers. In 1974, Huntsman created the EPS clamshell for McDonald's Big Mac hamburgers, along with other EPS containers, plates and bowls.

I still remember when McDonald's decided to go "green" and gave up the EPS clamshells for paperboard boxes, something that irked Huntsman. "Use old dinosaurs, not new trees," he admonished the packaging world. That has long remained one of my favorite sayings.

In 1982, Huntsman founded the Huntsman Chemical Corp. in Salt Lake City, UT. Over the years he began acquiring businesses in the polystyrene sector when there was a glut of PS and these companies weren't profitable. From 1986 - 2000 Huntsman acquired 36 companies, 35 of them became profitable for the corporation.

Huntsman's life began on June 21, 1937 when he was born to a school teacher and his wife in the town of Blackfoot, Idaho - humble beginnings to be sure! I remember sitting with Huntsman a few years after my initial interview with him as he waited for the time for his speaking engagement at the Western Region of the Society of the Plastics Industry in San Diego, CA.

"How did you get to be a multi-millionaire?" I asked him as we chatted. (I don't think he'd become quite a billionaire at that time).

"Well, Clare," he said. "How does the son of a school teacher from Blackfoot, Idaho, get to where I am today? I'm not sure I can answer that."

At that time, and many times since, I've thought about that answer. Many of us could say that our lives took us along a path that we hadn't really planned out. But he did go on to say that he took advantage of opportunities. He added that he wasn't always successful in some of his ventures, but he was willing to take risks and he kept moving forward building the corporation as he went.

In an interview for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, he told journalist Christine Rappleye, "I was honored to start a small business, and to borrow an enormous amount of money and to build piece upon piece, place upon place, building upon building and product upon product, throughout the United States and eventually Europe and facilities around the world."

I believe that's what meant when he told me all those years before that he wasn't quite sure how it happened: it happened one step at a time, day by day. Huntsman is the epitome of the American success story. He's also a major player in the ongoing success of plastics and all of us in this industry today. The plastics industry should be proud of Jon M. Huntsman, Sr., and of his contributions to the industry.

However, his contributions don't end there. Huntsman has given away $1.2 billion over the years. Most notably, he founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in 1993 with an initial gift of $10 million. The work being done there continues with the support of the Huntsman family and on the promise of Huntsman himself to "cure cancer."

I'd recommend reading this book and learning from it how success is done in the plastics industry - which could translate to almost any industry really. Plastics has its challenges in today's world, but there's a lot to be learned from how Huntsman met the challenges he confronted during his long career in the industry. 

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