How will we be remembered when we're gone?
That simple question took me back to early 1999, when I traveled from Cleveland to Salt Lake City to interview Jon Huntsman Sr., the plastics and chemicals icon who passed away Feb. 2.
Huntsman had agreed to be interviewed as part of Plastics News' special 10th anniversary issue. At the time, his self-named firm was transitioning from being a major polystyrene-resin maker and moving into different types of plastics and specialty chemicals.
I had been covering the industry for less than two years and still learning my way around. But there I was, in a taxi on the streets of Salt Lake City, with the Wasatch mountain range looming nearby.
At Huntsman headquarters, I was met by Don Olsen, senior vice president of communications. Olsen and I waited in his office for a while before meeting with Mr. Huntsman. The office had a great view of the mountains. I told Olsen that if my office had a view like that, I'd have a hard time getting anything done.
"Well," he said, "Mr. Huntsman has the good view."
Soon, we went up to Mr. Huntsman's office on a higher floor of the building. Olsen was right. Mr. Huntsman had the good view.
Jon Huntsman was generous with his time that day, recalling the ups and downs of his career and sharing his thoughts on the plastics industry. At one point, he picked up my tape recorder and looked it over while commenting about the irony of how even people who are opposed to plastics use many products that could not exist without plastics.
PN ran the interview with Huntsman in a question-and-answer format. Many of his comments still ring true almost 20 years later. Here, for example, is part of his comment on resin buying:
"The processor will buy from fewer companies because of consolidation. … Buyers of resin will have to be aggressive, and loyalty will be critical. One can't shift from supplier to supplier to save a half-cent a pound. We're going to see that type of business disloyalty stop in the future.
"In my opinion, buyers will be directed to certain suppliers and suppliers will be locked in to resin buyers to protect pricing, quality and service. This evolution will be healthy because, right now, it's a free-for-all. … It's changing as we speak."
For the most part, that's how things have played out. And here's Huntsman commenting on the industry in general and his firm's place in it:
"I would like to believe we have been a responsible and significant addition to the petrochemicals and plastics businesses. Today, as we broach the new millennium, virtually everything you see, feel, touch or wear has products or ingredients originating in the petrochemicals industry, and many are plastic-related."
Huntsman had a knack for turning around businesses that were in decline. But his commitment to charity and philanthropy was incredible.
In the 1999 interview, he said he didn't want to take the company public because doing so might limit its ability to contribute to the Huntsman Cancer Institute, which he founded at the University of Utah, and to other charities.
Huntsman Corp. eventually did become a public firm, but Jon Huntsman continued his generosity on an epic scale. In 2016, Forbes magazine estimated that Huntsman and his wife, Karen, had donated almost $1.6 billion in their lifetimes, an amount that was equal to 160 percent of their net worth at the time.
Huntsman's total charitable giving at the time of his death was estimated at more than $1.8 billion.
These philanthropic efforts shaped most decisions made by Huntsman, a father of nine who also was a devout Mormon and a cancer survivor. And these efforts are what Jon Huntsman will be remembered for, long after his impressive achievements in business and in the plastics industry are forgotten.
Huntsman himself recognized this in the introduction to his 2014 autobiography, "Barefoot to Billionaire: Reflections on a Life's Work and a Promise to Cure Cancer."
"If I die with nothing because I have given it away, humanity is the beneficiary," he wrote. "I desire to leave this world as I entered it — barefoot and broke."
Esposito is a Plastics News senior reporter. Follow him on Twitter @fesposito22.