With high unemployment numbers, the economy still in recovery, and student loan debt surpassing credit card debt for the first time in U.S. history, it’s easy for young college students to feel discouraged.
But Jon Huntsman, self-made billionaire and philanthropist, told students at the crowded Lamar Distinguished Lecture Series Thursday, April 3, to keep their chins up.
“There’s much to be learned from the lessons of these difficult times,” Huntsman said before quoting former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli by saying, “There’s no education like adversity.”
The life of Jon Huntsman is a true American rags to riches story, complete with adversity and with the happy ending we are all accustomed to. Huntsman shared his story, many words of advice, and a little tough love to the attendees of the Lamar Distinguished Lecture Series. Huntsman was the 11th lecturer in what is known as the Judge Joe J. Fisher Distinguished Lecture Series.
“Known worldwide as a leader in industry, his phenomenal business success is matched by his equally incredible generosity. On every level, his is an inspiring story,” said Kevin Smith, senior associate provost and chair of the Judge Joe J. Fisher Distinguished Lecture Series committee.
The series was created in 1986 to honor Judge Fisher’s many contributions to Southeast Texas and Lamar University. The people of the community established the series to benefit Lamar students and to honor the longtime federal judge who passed away in June 2000. Past lecturers in the Fisher series include former President Gerald Ford, Larry McMurtry, Vladimir Sakharov, Stephen Jay Gould, Linda Ellerbee, Antonin Scalia, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, James Watson, and former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Originally known for bringing the Styrofoam egg container and the famed Big Mac clamshell container to the American public, Jon Huntsman’s rise in the world of business is a story of great perseverance despite great challenges. He is a self-made businessman, founder and now executive chairman of Huntsman Corporation. Huntsman Corporation’s operating companies manufacture and market specialty chemical products used in a wide range of industries. The company’s diversified product portfolio consists of chemicals that can be found in some 10,000 products – ranging from computer parts to airplane wings and Nike shoes. Keeping up with the times and the increasingly popular environmental movement, Huntsman Corporation also produces specialty chemical supplies used for UV-reflective paints, insulation foams and windmill blades.
On stage an emotional and seemingly weary Huntsman informed the audience that he was going back to the hospital for his 17th surgery that evening, but the mogul didn’t let that get him down. He shared his personal obstacles and triumphs during the lecture titled “We are not put here to fail,” a quote from his dear friend, Beaumont attorney Wayne Reaud, whom he credited with helping him through many discouraging times. Huntsman’s witty, plucky personality shined as he spoke about his most recent health obstacles.
“One of the doctors said I was a walking miracle, and I said, ‘No I’m just getting started. I’ve got another 20 years to go, and I intend to live it out.”
After battling cancer four times Huntsman, now 76, will not be throwing in the towel anytime soon.
Ties that bind
“Twenty-two years ago, I mustered up the courage to buy Texaco Chemical Company. It began a love affair with Beaumont, Jefferson County and the surrounding areas,” explained Huntsman.
It seems the people of Southeast Texas hold a special place in his heart. Jon Huntsman described the community as an area where “people are honest, dedicated, loyal and hardworking. They’re great All-Americans in every way,” he said.
Huntsman is very familiar with hard work and dedication to a craft. Starting the small entrepreneurial plastics packaging company was no small feat. Growing up poor in rural Idaho, son to a heavy drinking father, young Huntsman could not have dreamed of the future billionaire philanthropist he would one day become. Receiving a scholarship from Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania, Huntsman had to work through college to pay for what the scholarship did not cover – a scenario common to many current college students.
With a little experience under his belt, Huntsman decided to form his own company; his next hurdle was financing. He was repeatedly rejected for loans.
Huntsman quipped “No is only the beginning of the conversation, particularly with a banker.” After many rejections, Huntsman’s determination finally nailed them down. He was granted a “meager” loan and was able to begin his small business. Acquisition after acquisition, the company grew and expanded. Huntsman attributes early success to his genuine belief in himself and his family.
“I was adamant no one else was going to determine my own personal destiny,” he said.
Huntsman’s many life lessons evoke memories of a tougher generation, one that didn’t give up when the going got tough. “Difficulties in life are intended to make us better — not bitter, better. We must remain positive because nothing comes easy,” he said.
“Our very own character is formed by lessons of trial and challenge,” added Huntsman. “Until one is plunged into the depths of near disaster or felt the pains and sorrows of terrible illnesses – one has not understood what it is like to grow from adversity.”
Today’s Huntsman Corp.
Huntsman’s global empire is thriving, now headed by son Peter Huntsman, who also attended the lecture. The company employs more than 12,000 people in multiple locations worldwide. According to Huntsman Sr., his son Peter “jokes that he’s trying to make it as fast as Dad gives it away.”
And he does give it away. Of the more than 1,200 living billionaires in the world, he’s one of only 19 who have donated at least $1 billion, according to Forbes.
A large portion of his charitable giving went to the creation of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Cancer touched the life of Jon Huntsman early on with the passing of his mother from breast cancer and later the death of his father from prostate cancer. Jon Huntsman had his first battle with the devastating illness in 1992 after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Founded in 1995 with his wife Karen, the institute’s mission is to accelerate the work of curing cancer through human genetics and is now one of America’s major cancer centers dedicated to finding a cure. Huntsman has been known to make rounds visiting patients staying at the Institute. “My heart is deeply touched every time I embrace patients at the Huntsman Cancer Institute,” he said.
Huntsman’s is more widely known for haven taken the Giving Pledge; he, like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and a group of now 112 billionaires, has committed to returning the majority of his wealth to charitable causes. Huntsman recalled his conversation with Warren Buffett during the first Giving Pledge meeting.
“I don’t understand why we’re only asking for 50 percent because the other 50 percent amounts to two, three, four billion dollars. Why don’t we make it 80 or 90 percent? That’ll leave them each with a billion dollars. We can all get along fine with a billion dollars,” said Huntsman. Apparently, Warren Buffett responded in jest, saying “Why don’t you sit down, let’s try to get 50 percent first, because most of them here aren’t giving anything.”
You don’t have to be a billionaire in order to be charitable, said Huntsman.
“I’ve always remembered that it isn’t how much you give; it’s how much you have in your own ability to give,” he said. “That’s what makes wealth worthwhile.”
Until you make your first billion, do what you can with what you have where you are, and as Jon Huntsman said, “go for the roses.”