Jon Huntsman and the Joy of Giving

jon huntsman

The cynics of the world should probably meet Jon Huntsman. So touching and unshakeable is his belief in human nature’s fundamental capacity for goodness that he could easily proselytise on the subject and in fact, has.

He has written two books on the subject: Winners Never Cheat and its sequel,  and is about to have a third one published (“half the book is about how I made money and the other half is about how I spent it”, he says). The more apt word is, of course, how he’s given it away  to causes close to his heart.

His original title was Play by the Rules  – because he has lived his life by a set of rules that amounts to no less than a code of honour that the early Mormon settlers in Idaho would have been proud of.

I spoke to the man for more than an  hour and thought the entire time, how do I put across this philosophy for living, this passion for doing the right thing without sounding cheesy?

Well, first of all, there is Huntsman’s phenomenal record of philanthropy, the scale of which is rarely seen, the Giving Pledge notwithstanding.

He was the one who, when the billionaires’ group  was still only 45 strong, advocated that his fellow ultra-wealthy commit to giving away not 50, but 80  or even 90% of their fortunes, and disburse it during  their lifetime.

So, I thought it best to quote him liberally, in the  hope that the conviction and sheer force of his  personality come through.

“I have given over 80%”, he says, “I’ve been doing it  for 35 years”.

“I gave a little speech at the Giving Pledge meeting  and proposed that we up the percentage, but Warren (Buffett) said to me, “Let’s just get them to  commit to 50% first”.

“I admire Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Lots of  folks are generous but if you are worth a billion,  you should give away 90% of it and you should give  it in your lifetime. Giving it after you die is hardly  charitable – after all, if you don’t die, you wouldn’t  be giving anything at all. I never thought much of  people who give after their death. It is sad that with  1200 billionaires in the world, there are only 19 who  have given over a billion.”

“If someone has made a billion and gives  away half of it, they can still live pretty  well on half a billion and at the same time  help other human beings.”

This brings us neatly to my next question: why Armenia?

To place my question into context, Jon Huntsman  was so moved by the plights of the Armenian people  at the time of the 1988 earthquake that he ended up  giving the country a staggering $53m so that it can  rebuild itself – more than any other organisation has, in fact. And he still does…

He funds 26 scholarships a year paying for 4 years  education, room and board, transportation, tuition,  fees… The only condition is that graduates go back to their country and help build its infrastructure.

He has been helping Armenia and Armenians for 25  years now and has visited with his family 46 times.  Armenia has rightly given him a medal of honour and made him an Armenian citizen.

He speaks warmly of the people he has so generously supported. “We stayed there the longest”, he says, speaking of the earthquake humanitarian effort. “It was a privilege.”

Jon Huntsman knows a thing or two about staying the course. He did not inherit his vast fortune – he made it from zero and went through patchy times, but survived and prospered spectacularly. He even  beat cancer not once, but four times. His businesses operate in 75 countries and he is a legend in the petro-chemical industry. We have him to thank for some of the most commonly used items today: the egg carton and the McDonalds burger box, to mention just the ubiquitous.

I ask him why and how people become philanthropists, knowing full well he can only answer for himself. He says some people are simply born to give and to share what they have with others. His own philanthropy is based on his upbringing and on “personal urge”, he says, and half of what he has given was given anonymously.

“There is no greater thrill than to give a 100 million to a hospital, for example, or a greater satisfaction than to be able to give someone an education.”

How does he decide who or what he gives to? “Good question”, he answers.

There are no selection committees and the like, though. “People write us letters and we read them. It’s a great joy to be able to change someone’s life, but it must be something that impacts your personal life, that impacts your heart – something you have lived through.”

“When I first went to Armenia, I knew what it was like  to not have food or medical attention. I related to it.”

“I relate to cancer, because many of my relatives died of it.”

“When I was young, a wonderful Jewish family decided to sponsor this poor kid from Idaho and gave me a full time scholarship to an Ivy League college. I have tried to repay this by doing the same for others.”

“So when you give money, it has to be a cause that  touches your soul. You don’t give to causes you can’t  relate to, or at least not vast amounts.”

Many would agree with you and your driving principles, I tell him, but the world has changed a lot in the last few decades. The prevalent ethos seems to be “get everything fast and get as much as you can for nothing”.

I have a hard-working builder who tells me, with a degree of bitterness, that the world belongs to the fast talkers rather than the doers. What message does Huntsman have for ordinary, hard-working people like him who get  dispirited and discouraged?

“Genuine winners don’t need to cheat”, says Huntsman, “but only follow their hearts and you must find it in your heart to be nice to people, to be honourable.”

“Unfortunately”, he continues, “a substantial number  of people belong to the fast-talking/money grabbing/ showing off category, especially the rogue financiers, but there are still some very nice people in the world who play by the old rules and I hope that what I have to say in my books will tie young people to the old values”.

“Friendship and respect are so much more important  than making money. People have forgotten this.”

“Some people want to have a lot of yachts or planes or marry several women in their lifetime.  My addiction is making people happy and  sharing what I have with others.”

“Popularity is something that comes and  goes – it is a temporary state. Respect is  permanent. I’d rather be respected. I gave  this same speech at school because I believed  this even as a young man. My principles were  well-entrenched even at that age and I don’t  think I am the only one. There are a lot of  decent people in the world and certainly a lot  here in America. Men and women who don’t  look for any notoriety or commendation –  they are just honourable thoughtful people.”

If there is one thing that you could change in the world, what would that be, I ask him.

Jon Huntsman would like to have two, so I let him.

“I would choose two equally important  things: world peace and the opportunity to  cure cancer. I can’t do much about number one, but I am doing everything I can about  the second. I have built the finest cancer research centre in the world. Cancer is more  prevalent today than ever before, yet not  enough resources are dedicated to curing it  – probably because there are no immediate  returns to the investment. I will be trying to help cure this epidemic until the day I die.”

Huntsman Springs

Jon Huntsman has been busy with something else that’s close to his heart.

“I wanted to come back home to my roots”, he says, “where my father was a school teacher and build  something there for the next generation”.

Home, of course, is Idaho, where he bought “a great piece of land, on which I thought it would be good to  develop an alternative to Jackson Hole, Wyoming –  away from the tourist traps and junket shops”.

“Originally Mormons came to this part of Idaho because there was plenty of water and because of its beauty.”

“It is every bit as beautiful as the Swiss Alps and  what we built is a great summer and winter resort  on the other side of the mountain from Jackson Hole. Huntsman Springs has one of the best golf courses  ever built in the world, fantastic skiing and skating, fly fishing, deer and wild buffalo.”

“And just as everything is first class in our cancer hospitals, schools and all else we build, so it is with  Huntsman Springs.”