Don Olsen wrapped up an 18-year career with Huntsman Corp. in September, completing a journey that took him far beyond Huntsman's Salt Lake City headquarters.
Olsen's last business card at Huntsman showed his title as vice president of global public affairs. He spent most of the last two decades promoting the image of both Huntsman and of the overall plastics and chemical industry to the media and to the public. Along the way, Olsen held a number of leadership positions with industry organizations such as the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry and the American Plastics Council in Arlington, Va.
Olsen joined Huntsman in 1988 after spending almost 20 years as a reporter and news anchor with TV station KSL-TV in Salt Lake City. Olsen covered politics, and even spent a couple of years away from the station in Washington working on the staff of Jake Garn, a Republican senator from Utah.
After returning to Salt Lake City, Olsen met Jon Huntsman, the company's founder and owner who was active in local and national politics.
``I was a political reporter and Jon Huntsman was a Republican national committeeman talking about being a candidate for governor, so it was only natural that we knew each other,'' Olsen said in a recent telephone interview.
Jon Huntsman eventually offered Olsen the company's newly created public affairs position. Olsen's experience both in broadcast journalism and in Washington helped him when he switched over to the corporate world.
``From being with KSL, I knew that reporters were just like everybody else in that they had a job to do,'' he said. ``The best you can hope to do from a public affairs standpoint is to build an understanding with the media.''
But unlike at KSL, Olsen was a one-man show in his early days with Huntsman.
``We were a $700 million [in sales] styrenics company that was beginning to grow, and I was the only member of the PR and public affairs staff,'' he said. ``I was riding the lone pony for many years. I was a one-man PR department until 1994 when we began to add people here and there.''
Along the way, Huntsman was becoming a much bigger company by acquiring businesses from Texaco, ICI, Rexene and other companies. Today, Huntsman is a publicly held specialty chemicals and plastics company with annual sales of about $15 billion.
It wasn't always smooth sailing of course. Like many plastics and chemicals companies, Huntsman has had to deal with questions about the safety of its plants and of the products that it makes. The company also nearly went bankrupt before bringing in financial partners and going public.
``I started in the old days of the plastic and solid-waste wars,'' Olsen recalled. ``We were a styrenics company and were dealing with an incorrect preconception of polystyrene.''
``We wanted to educate people about plastics in the waste stream, so I talked everywhere from a women's garden group in Portland, Ore., to an industry gathering in the north of England and everything in between, advocating the company and the industry,'' he said. ``It was something that we saw was needed.''
Olsen added that the media ``overall, has done a good job and a fair job in covering our company.''
``Some reporters did excellent work, but some had an agenda and wouldn't let facts stand in the way of what they wanted to write,'' he said.
Public understanding of plastics and chemicals is better now than it was in 1988, in Olsen's opinion.
``There was the attitude in the chemical industry of wanting to keep our heads down and do our thing and be left alone,'' he said. ``But we learned our lesson and knew that we had to try to put goodwill in a bank, hoping the media would understand what out company does and what our industry does.''
``When things happen, you need to have a relationship built up because you need to work with the press and the public.''
While with Huntsman, Olsen moved around from Salt Lake City to Washington to Houston. In retirement, the 60-year-old Olsen will stay in Salt Lake City and run a media consulting business.
``I have so much experience in government and media and I would like to stick with it,'' he said. ``But first I'll decompress for a while.
``I've been in the pressure cooker for a long time,'' Olsen added. ``Now I'd like to travel and spend time with family. My wife, Lucille, has been a very patient lady.''
And although Olsen might not miss hectic schedules, he said he'd miss some of the relationships he'd made while working for Huntsman and for the industry in general.
``The world as we know it couldn't exist without the plastics and chemicals industry,'' Olsen said. ``I'm fortunate to have been a part of it.''