Barefoot to Billionaire: Reflections on a Life's Work and a Promise to Cure Cancer

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9781469061467: Barefoot to Billionaire: Reflections on a Life's Work and a Promise to Cure Cancer
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[Read by Don Hagen]

Jon M. Huntsman Sr. has been very fortunate in life. The company he founded in 1970, the Huntsman Corporation, is now one of the largest petrochemical manufacturers in the world. In 1995 Huntsman and his wife Karen founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute and have been dedicated to the fight for a cure. In Barefoot to Billionaire, Huntsman revisits the key moments in his life that shaped his view of faith, family, service, and the responsibility that comes with wealth. In this increasingly materialistic world, Barefoot to Billionaire is a refreshing reminder of the enduring power of traditional values.

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About the Author:

Don Hagen has been behind the microphone since fifth grade. He is a nine-time winner of the Peer Award for narration/voice-over and twice winner of an AudioFile Earphones Award. He has also been heard in radio and television commercials and documentaries. In addition to his freelance voice work, he is a member of the audiobook narration team at the Library of Congress.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

Chasing the American Dream

HAVING LIVED ON THIS PLANET FOR MORE THAN THREE-QUARTERS of a century, experiencing more than my measure of milestones, exhilaration, triumphs, and tragedy, it is time to take stock of what I have done and observed, and to share it—all of it—including incidents and details never before made public. Many episodes will surprise, some may even come as a shock, especially to those who believe they know me. Part of my life story writes itself, but there are other areas in which details are harder to relate. Just the thought of the free falls from the highest peaks to the lowest valleys and the excruciating climbs back to the top practically gives me a nosebleed.

Don’t get me wrong: My life overall has been a fascinating and rewarding experience. The payoffs were as obvious as they were enormous, though the price of success may have been just as large. Save for a couple of obvious rewrites in the script, I would relive my life in a Wall Street minute, even if it meant making the same business mistakes.

But my ride isn’t over.

I have divided the chapters of this memoir into two parts: “Establishing the Fortune” and “Giving It Away.” It may sound materialistic, but it isn’t. As the chapters that follow will show, from simple and stark beginnings, I spent the last half-century building a global industrial empire with my family’s name on the door. In the process, I made a fortune, and for the last thirty years my focus has been to use that wealth to solidify charities, defeat cancer, educate kids, feed the hungry, and ensure women and children are not abused.

I made it to where I am today because of a solid faith in God and myself and with the unwavering support of my wife, Karen, and nine children. I made it because I come from good stock, a healthy ancestral mix of preachers and saloonkeepers who provided potent DNA for embracing values and accepting others who may not think the same as you do. This nation provides incredible opportunities, especially for those who are focused, tenacious, and willing to take risks. With determination and optimism, I bought into the American Dream. Let’s be honest, a bit of luck and a helping hand along the way is also crucial to success.

My entrepreneurial story includes inventing the clamshell packaging for McDonald’s and other fast food companies, growing a business from a single factory in California into the largest family-owned and operated business in America, creating a global petrochemical empire, becoming the first American to own a majority ownership interest in a company in the old Soviet Union, serving in the Nixon White House, and building a world-class cancer research and treatment center.

Along the way, I teetered on the precipice of bankruptcy four times. Even in the worst of times I would make a sizeable charitable commitment before the money was there or prior to a consummated business deal. My children observe that I was always one acquisition ahead of the company going under. Perhaps that is why I have lived as long as I have. Truth be told, a good portion of my health was sacrificed on the altar of success. Along the way, I was double-crossed a couple of times, saw a son kidnapped, and had a daughter die under the most tragic of circumstances. Still, I retain my wits and there remains fire in the belly at the age of seventy-seven.

I have dabbled in the writing of this memoir, off and on, for thirty years. I am glad I waited. Some of the most significant events occurred in the last fifteen years, not the least of which was the metamorphosis of my focus from building a business legacy to one of philanthropy. In that same time frame, one son became a two-term governor and went on to run for president of the United States and another leads one of the world’s largest industrial conglomerates. Others have done well in varied other areas of business. At the very least, my life is an intriguing cauldron of dreams and realities; of lessons learned and fortunes found; of unspeakable sorrows, friendships, and successes; and of adversities met and conquered.

Mine has been an intuitive life laced with commitment, values, charity, faith, and love of family. And while my wealth is now all but guaranteed, my life continues to be influenced by an often abusive father, a most caring and long-suffering mother, and early household poverty.

I made a lot of money in the second half of my life and formulated a plan for the end possessor of that fortune: to distribute it to good causes. I want to give it away—all of it—before I check out. I desire to leave this world as I entered it—barefoot and broke. To many, that may seem like an odd, unrealistic, even foolish thing. Not to me. Too many wealthy people hoard their riches, believing that dying with a large bank account is a virtue. I read about one woman who died and left her dog $10 million. What’s a dog going to do with that kind of money? Help other dogs? I see it another way: If I die with nothing because I have given it away, humanity is the beneficiary. My philanthropic focus today is the Huntsman Cancer Institute, to which Karen and I have contributed, along with other worthy charities, almost $1.5 billion to date. I intend to spend what it takes to help eliminate the suffering and death that all too often accompanies this scourge.

My pursuit of the American Dream has been a made-in-America entrepreneurial journey of risk, reward, and tumult. I literally bet the farm on business deals that were economically akin to drawing inside straights. My company and I have been in the eye of more than one perfect storm. I kept the faith and won far more battles than I lost. I love to read—and on one occasion I came across the Edward R. Murrow expression that states, “Difficulty is the one excuse history never accepts.” That bit of advice stayed with me during those devastating storms.

The quest for the American Dream has shaped this nation’s cultural behaviors for centuries. It has fueled endless visions of freedom, fame, and fortune. It suffers neither pretense nor fraud. While the Dream’s variations are many, there are but two constants: allure and risk. The American Dream dangles opportunity for all but provides a guarantee to none. For each success, there are countless disappointments. For some, the Dream shimmers like a desert mirage, forever beckoning on the horizon. For others, the relatively favorable hand this nation dealt them for openers is sufficient; they are content to let someone else chase the rainbows.

In time, the American Dream embraced all who would take the risk, in spite of cultural practices and artificial restrictions that for a time excluded certain groups. For women and people of color, the wait for basic political rights, equal career opportunities, and a level social playing field was more than two hundred years. We are still tuning the process, but in America there are opportunities for all to climb the ladder of success.

Whether due to mathematical chance or cosmic destiny, I was born in America at the right time. For a twentieth-century industrialist, there was no better time to be turned loose than the 1960s through the end of the century. It was a time when society was starting to rebuild. Some will warn that America is currently on the skids. Don’t believe it. We may find ourselves facing storms of a nature that frustrate or flummox us, but they are only temporary. Every great ship of state worthy of the name eventually rights itself.

For me, the true measure of success is not how much wealth you acquire but how much of it you give back. To be a philanthropist on a grand scale, however, the first part of the equation requires financial wherewithal. You must make money to give it away. It has been my belief that men and women of means must be benevolent stewards of their wealth because that stewardship is temporary. Their job is to see that wealth, modest or vast, is redistributed.

I am certain the genesis of my philosophy of giving springs from my humble beginnings, and the memory of having been on the outside looking in. There is also the example of my maternal grandfather who ran a small, rural motel during the ’30s and ’40s. I remember that he would allow families without means to stay the night free. He had lost his stately home in a fire; his wife died at age forty-two, leaving him with seven young children to raise; and the depression had wiped out his vast sheep raising business. He was humble, sweet, kind, chewed tobacco, and could hit the spittoon at twenty yards.

Throughout my life, I have hustled to outrun the shadow of poverty. Booker T. Washington, the one-time slave turned respected educator, believed success is measured not so much by the position one reached or the wealth one accumulated but by the obstacles one overcame in the process.

Make no mistake, there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Good timing and the occasional helping hand, not to mention a few lucky breaks, are always involved. What wondrous good fortune to have found Karen, the ideal wife and partner, the perennial provider of love, support, and discipline to our children and, now, to an assortment of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, each of whom I love dearly. Let’s face it, without a few fortuitous actions of others, I would not have survived my infancy, let alone received an Ivy League education or had the experiences I relate throughout this book. Most of our business plans succeeded because of persuasive talking, accurate instincts, and determination. But I am the first to acknowledge it was often a matter of being at the right place at the right time. Emotion always plays a key role, too. I am an emotional man, and I often tear up when pressure becomes too intense.

Many people may understandably picture me as a straightlaced, nonconfrontational Mormon business and family man. I surround myself with loyal people inside the corporation and believe a gracious approach is more effective than bullying. I am a committed member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and for fifty-two years served in mostly senior leadership positions. My philosophy regarding my faith can be summed up by a statement I always make to our management and leadership teams: “To be a successful leader, one must first learn to be a dedicated follower.” I gave time, energy, heart, healthy financial donations, tithing, and the use of one of my Gulfstream jets to the LDS Church. Almost all of my relatives had been inactive in the faith, so I began a new chapter. The Church has been an anchor for our family. I am as comfortable conversing with atheists as with the LDS Church president. I am fiercely independent. There has been no blinking and no regrets.

The time I spent as a special assistant and White House staff secretary to President Nixon put me at the right hand of the most powerful man in the world. I saw Nixon up close. I continue to respect him as a leader, albeit one with insecurities and who was served poorly by many of those closest to him. (Heck, I even liked Spiro Agnew, the vice president who pleaded nolo contendere and was saved from going to jail. He was a lonely person, disliked by Nixon and his inner guard. Hardly anyone would talk to him, but I found him entertaining and upbeat.)

It ought to come as no surprise to the reader, therefore, that it thrilled me beyond description to see my son Jon Jr. seek the White House as president precisely forty years after I left it in 1972, never looking back.

What isn’t obvious is that some close friends and folks outside my company whose association I enjoy often are swashbucklers of grand proportions. You will meet a couple of them later in the book.

I don’t wear a wristwatch nor do I know how to text. My idea of social media is a handwritten note to children, grandchildren, friends, or associates. I can’t abide someone texting during a meeting. I tend to conduct business on napkins, business cards, and scratch paper. I write or call my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—whose population is hovering around ninety at this writing—on a regular basis. I’m organized and usually composed, yet there is a sign behind my desk that says “All men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Henry David Thoreau is speaking to me.

Karen and I rarely go out to eat; we don’t play golf or tennis. I don’t belong to clubs. I seldom tip less than one hundred dollars because I love to see the surprise in the receiver’s eye. (Gratuities mean everything to those in the service industry. I know. I lived off tips once.) Don’t read too much into this, but I have a weapons-grade collection of Beanie Babies (whose billionaire creator, Ty Warner, I was shocked to learn, was convicted of tax evasion in January 2014), a modest assortment of classic cars, and I am a card-carrying devotee of Elvis Presley. Almost every one of our children and grandchildren has a totally incomprehensible nickname. My guilty pleasure? Reading supermarket tabloids.

I am neither fancy nor a connoisseur of fine art. (Karen, on the other hand, has a stunning collection of Native American art.) I am not into classical music, ballet, or opera—although I believe in financially supporting them and served for years as chairman of the Utah Symphony board of directors. Many think of me as being stuck in the fifties. I am full of contradictions: a chemical manufacturing magnate who dropped out of high school chemistry, and a lifelong Republican who jumped ship to form my own political organization a decade ago—the Cure Cancer Party. I contribute financially to a number of religions beyond my own.

Deep down, I’m a prankster. I was the one who started cake fights with the children at Halloween. I joined the kids in tossing snowballs at police cars from our hiding places, and then ran home the back way and quickly changed clothes to confuse any pursuers. And I confess to dressing as Santa Claus and delivering small, wrapped gifts to our good Mormon neighbors, including the bishop, inside of which were mini-bottles of liquor I had picked up free on plane flights.

I never hold grudges. My mantra is: get mad, not even. Tick me off and I will let you know about it. In a week, though, all is forgotten. It sometimes amuses my children that I come out of negotiations upset with my counterpart. Later, I would be seen with that same person, my arm around his shoulder, and being “dear friends” again. Peter takes this even further: “It doesn’t matter if you are the doorman at his favorite hotel or a lifelong colleague, to my dad everyone is a ‘dear friend.’”

Hypersensitivity can turn into a positive when connecting with other people and their struggles. When I become distressed, for example, I head over to the cancer hospital and hold the hand of someone going through chemo.

My emotions are embroidered on my sleeves and I am easy to read. What you see is what you get. While I occasionally lose my temper, I much prefer being gracious. I am an emotional person but my outbursts are rare and end quickly, and I spend the next three weeks apologizing for them. I also hate being alone. I love to hold hands with my daughters. I tear up easily. Heck, I would start getting emotional when dropping off the children at school. Daughter Christena still recalls that each time she opened the car door to skip off to class I would sing a classic Sam Cooke tune. I'd sing to her about how little I knew about history or biology, but that "I do know that I love you."

What can I say? Sentimentality is a side effect of compassion.

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