Giving in Good Times and Bad

The head of Huntsman says it's easy to be generous when the economy is flush -- but even more important to do so when it's not

By Bremen Leak

Until his family business went public this year, Jon Huntsman sat at the top of the world's largest privately held chemical company, Huntsman Corp. (HUN ) Nearing bankruptcy just a few years ago, Huntsman staged a remarkable comeback. Now it's paying off pledges and thanking supporters with new gifts.

A cancer survivor, the University of Pennsylvania graduate continually funds his cancer institute and the Wharton School at his alma mater. Our No. 42 giver spoke to BusinessWeek reporter Bremen Leak about his rags-to-riches tale and the importance of helping others. Edited excerpts follow: You recently wrote a book, in which you say philanthropy is obligatory. How so?

To me -- someone particularly who comes from a humble background, it's an obligation whether you're born of wealth or of poverty to give back and to be generous. It's just part of our way of life. I mentioned in my book that my father was a rural schoolteacher, and I'm not Jewish, but a wonderful Jewish family gave me a scholarship to the Wharton school.

I've given out over 5,000 of them now, and I never give one out without thinking first of what someone had done for me. So I think there's a great obligation for people of wealth, as Andrew Carnegie said in his masterful book, The Gospel of Wealth. We're temporary trustees, and it's our job to simply redistribute what funds we've been fortunate enough to gather.

I've been awfully grateful that we've been in a position to do something, because I think charitable contributions are much like the widow's mite. It isn't the amount of money you give but how much you give, given your capacity to give. Someone of a modest income giving $10 or $20 is just as significant as a rich man giving $1 million.

What do you hope to accomplish with your giving?

Our giving over the years has gone to a wide variety of causes, but in recent years it's been more channeled to help alleviate human suffering. I would hope in our modest contributions that we could help eliminate human suffering, and in that process we might provide opportunities for those who would otherwise go without.

How has your philanthropy evolved with the global expansion of your business?

We have the need of food and shelter in many countries, but we're getting more into medical care and particularly cancer care in different parts of the world. It started strictly with the earthquake of 1988 in Armenia, and that evolved into a lot of apartments-- 40-unit apartment buildings. We've been building those for probably 15 years. We've brought in trainloads of food -- 75 railcars at a time -- during harsh winters of '93 and '94.

We opened a beautiful new school, one of the largest in Armenia, about a year and a half ago, and we continuously provide medical equipment and supplies. It's always been a labor of love, and it's been a great source of joy to be able to do this, particularly in areas where we have facilities and where people really appreciate the private sector getting involved. I'm not Armenian or from any of those areas, but it doesn't matter. When it comes to charity and humanitarian focus, one is totally color-blind.

How do you make sure that your charitable dollars are doing the most work?

I have people here in my office who are just focused on our charitable giving, and what they focus on, under my direction, is to see that our dollars go directly to the people involved and not into administration. We're very, very careful when we give these large sums of money, for instance, to Armenia. We do it through our own warehouses. We distribute food through our own warehouses -- and fuel, eyeglasses, concrete panels that we build to construct buildings.

We do all the distribution ourselves in countries where we're large enough, so that we can have total accountability with our own people. In areas where we can't, we ensure that the overhead is as minimal as possible. At the Huntsman Cancer Institute, where we give a vast amount of money (but where we're also raising money), the family pays for all the overhead there, so that every dollar we raise goes 100% to cancer care and cancer research.

How should charity-minded companies respond during economic downturns?

Corporations, in my opinion, have as much of an obligation to putting back into society as they do to enhancing shareholders' wealth. You won't hear that from many people, but I believe that firmly. During the difficult years of Huntsman, in 2001, 2002, and 2003, when energy costs were extremely high and the company was not profitable because of recession and energy costs spiraling out of control, I simply had to borrow money from banks to keep the cancer institute going, to keep my obligations at Wharton and to universities and Armenia.

You can't just give money during good years, because during good years most charitable causes are flush with funds anyway. The time they need them is during the difficult times when most people say: "I can't afford to give anymore." That's the exact time when you have to honor your commitments and to stand up and let your character and your integrity be more than your pocketbook.

You have nine children, all of whom have worked for the family business at some point. Where did you teach them the most about philanthropy -- in the workplace or at home?

Around our table at home has always been where the principal lessons of life, including the economic and financial lessons, as well as philanthropy, have been taught. For 35 years, our board meetings were held around our dining room table, and every discussion regarding one of our 35 or 36 acquisitions was held under that type of condition.

Whether our children were in the fifth grade or eighth grade or high school or college, I would go around the table, and I wanted to hear from each one of them, even though they were so young at times they didn't clearly articulate and understand everything we discussed. And then I would call them into the board room for a formal vote because they represented our entire board of directors until just a few months ago.

Over 35 years it's become quite a school of importance to them, and they're all very concerned about philanthropy and about charity, because that was all part of the growing up process. It's just been intertwined, just like our faith has been. It's inseparable.

Is there a mantra by which you live your life?

I have this expression: "No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down and lifting another up." It's on a large plaque right behind my telephone, so every time I'm on the telephone, I'm reading that expression, which is what I've used, by the way, at a couple of university graduation exercises. Instead of giving a speech, I just give that one sentence, and I get a standing ovation because it's short and to the point, and no one wants to hear a long, drawn-out talk. But it says as much in a few words as I could articulate over the next half hour.

What is the best part about giving?

I think the best part about giving is -- number one -- to see the twinkle in people's eyes and the glow on their faces when they know they've won a scholarship or when they know there's help around the corner if they're homeless. Just to see the expression on their faces that somebody cares about them is a remarkable thing.

The second aspect is to see how many of them reciprocate in some way to others as a result of their good fortune. We've been at this for a long time, and as we've watched situations, almost invariably those who have been the beneficiaries of something good have turned around and made it good for someone else. I think, to a great extent, charity is contagious, and that's a wonderful blessing we have in America. It's basically an American tradition and trait.

Leak is a New York-based correspondent for BusinessWeek

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