Why True Entrepreneurs Go Down ‘and Still Come Back Fighting’

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Jon Huntsman Sr. discusses how he built a successful business.

In a new book, Barefoot to Billionaire: Reflections on a Life’s Work and a Promise to Cure Cancer, Jon Huntsman, Sr., shares the story of the successful founding of the Huntsman Corporation, a petrochemical manufacturing company that generates more than $10 billion in revenue each year. He also shares why he plans to give his entire fortune away before he dies.

In this interview with Wharton management professor Adam Grant, Huntsman discusses how he built a successful business, the lessons he learned serving President Richard Nixon and working with Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, and why philanthropy has always been a priority for him, even before he had any wealth.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Adam Grant: Talk to us about the story behind your book, Barefoot to Billionaire. How did you go from literally having nothing to running the world’s largest chemical corporation?

Jon Huntsman, Sr.: Through a lot of luck and through the ability to surround myself with many people who had talents and abilities different from and, in many cases, far better than my own. And by being a risk taker and putting everything on the line time and time again, because I believed in myself, believed in my team, believed in the products that we were producing and manufacturing, and because it’s a lot of fun. I knew that if we were successful, we could make other people successful and happy…. There were a lot of deep meanings behind it, but most importantly, there was the opportunity to keep driving and driving and never give up.

Grant: What were the biggest lessons that you learned along the way? Are there assumptions that you held about leadership or business that you thought were true and turned out to be false?

Huntsman: To some extent. I found that academically, it really didn’t matter whether I had received a certain grade in a class; it didn’t matter too much what schools I wanted to attend…. What matters is one’s drive, one’s intelligence…. You have to understand math and [have a] quantitative-type mindset to out-negotiate your opponents. I never have used computers or calculators. I’ve always been able to figure out in my head, far before my opposition has in negotiating for acquisitions, where we need to be and where the numbers are, and how we could get the best sight of the bargain, without having to resort to accountants or assistants or financial experts. I’ve been blessed with that good luck, if you will. But, most importantly, never giving up, believing in yourself and believing in your product. 

There are very, very few entrepreneurs; most people give it a shot for a year or two, and then go to work for somebody else and say, “I’m an entrepreneur who didn’t make it.” They are really not entrepreneurs. True entrepreneurs have to really forego almost everything; they have to put it all on the line.  Twitter They have to go through tremendous downswings and still come back fighting and swinging. They have to know what it means to come out of the valley of death and still be successful and keep a positive attitude. Always make your team around you feel like you are succeeding, even though you know way down deep, it’s a long shot. You have to be the fighter and the leader and the one who instills energy and hope in others.

“True entrepreneurs …have to go through tremendous downswings and still come back fighting and swinging.”

Grant: Do you have any favorite practices for instilling energy and hope? 

Huntsman: I’ve always believed the glass is half full and I was born sunny side up. Therefore, I look at the good and the positive in everything we are doing, and there always is some aspect of goodness and some positive element to a successful acquisition or a successful business, and you build on the successes. The successes may only be 20% or 25% or 30% of the total mix, but, you build on those successes so that you don’t concentrate and focus on the negative. That’s helped immensely….

Grant: One of your early successes was the clam-shell container that many of us have eaten Big Macs out of from McDonald’s. Was that a milestone in your career, and how did it shape what came next?

Huntsman: It really wasn’t [a milestone]. We first invented plastic plates, bowls, dishes, takeout food containers, egg cartons and meat trays. I would go through grocery store aisle and look at everything made of paper and glass and say, “Someday, these could be made out of plastic.” Of course, we ended manufacturing products out of plastic 30 years ago, and are now into very sophisticated composites of plastics for airlines, automobiles, bicycles, paint, rubber, cosmetics, soap, detergents, electronics, medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. 

But, in the early days, the Big Mac container was quite successful, in the sense that McDonald’s overwhelmed me with orders, and it caused us to build several new plants here and in Europe, and it was, obviously, a first breakthrough from paper, which cost twice as much, leaked and used more energy. Its biodegradable abilities were the same as plastic. When you put anything under dirt, it doesn’t biodegrade, anyway, no matter what it is made out of. And it allowed the products to stay fresher longer, so they could produce more [sandwiches] before lunch, and move many more products off the shelf. In 1973, 1974, it was a great breakthrough in fresh foods and in keeping products fresher longer. Today, it has its upsides and its downsides environmentally. 

We were great leaders in the areas of recycling and reusing products, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build some of the greatest and largest recycling facilities. Today, and for the last 25-30 years, we have not been in those products, but it was a great start. I always told Dow Chemical, when I was working for Dow before I started my own business 45 years ago, they should get into some of these products, but they were too large and bureaucratic, and to them, innovation and creativity just didn’t exist. Today, there are partners in different products around the world, so life has changed.

Grant: In those early days, you also spent some time in the Richard Nixon Administration. What did you learn from that experience?

Huntsman: From the Richard Nixon Administration, I learned a great deal of information and knowledge about what I didn’t want to do. Sometimes, we have role leaders who teach us by example what to do. I’ve found in my life that most of my leaders have taught me great examples of how I should do the opposite or [showed me] some aspect of what they’re teaching that I didn’t want to pursue…. 

The President was …a very intelligent man, very gracious to the children. I was his executive assistant, staff secretary and assistant. I found President Nixon to do some great things for America. [He] opened relationships with the Soviets for the first time in history, and Reagan, later, was able to capitalize on that. The War on Cancer on December 23, 1971, meant a great deal to me. My mother had just died of cancer. [Nixon also] opened relationships with the People’s Republic of China. 

“I said, ‘You have given me the greatest lesson: in how not to build a business, on how not to manage people, how not to treat people, and I want to thank you for this experience.’”

Unfortunately, there was another side to Richard Nixon, the cynical side, the dubious side, the more — it’s hard to pick a word that doesn’t hurt somebody’s image — a non-positive side. It was more of a negative side, and I never worked with him when I saw that side. Around me, it seemed there was always a very professional approach. But, from Bob Haldeman, who was his Chief of Staff, he was the one who implemented a lot of Richard Nixon’s negative suggestions. Haldeman was a terrible role model, and from him, I learned what not to do. I told him that when I left the White House. I said, “You have given me the greatest lesson: in how not to build a business, on how not to manage people, how not to treat people, and I want to thank you for this experience.” That was in our last days. After he got out of prison, and years later, at Pat Nixon’s funeral, I put my arms around him and gave him a hug and told him that all was forgotten, and he said the same thing. He died a few years later.

Grant: This is an example of something else I wanted to ask about. You are known by I think everyone who’s interacted with you for having impeccable integrity and honesty, and that leads you to be willing to speak about some things that others, perhaps, are not. How do you think about that? Do you ever hesitate in a situation like that, to speak your mind? 

Huntsman: No. I think each one of us was born with a moral compass, and some of us have that at birth, others are taught that through schooling or through proper parentage. In my case, I felt very fortunate that I have known right from wrong. I knew when Haldeman would tell me to do something, and I wouldn’t do it, that I could get fired, but I knew it was wrong. People know when they’re doing something that’s not right. Their moral compass tells each of us whether it’s right or wrong. 

I’ve spent a lot of times in classes, of course, the studies about the difference between something that’s ethically, criminally or morally wrong. In my own mind, I just felt I would never do that in my life; it wasn’t worth it. I wanted sons and daughters, a lovely wife and a family and to be respected. When I was here at Wharton, I always found Wharton to be an enormous example of strong, moral values, honor, honesty and integrity. I learned so much at — at Wharton and at Penn…. I was raised with nothing, in a rural farm community in Idaho, and I found this school to be a great school for ethics.

Grant: You have certainly given us a shining example of that, as one of 19 people on Earth who have ever given away over a billion dollars.

Huntsman: Well, thank you.

Grant: We are obviously all grateful for that. It’s interesting that this happened at a particular stage in your career when you had previously not done much philanthropy. All of a sudden, you just gave and gave and gave. What caused the shift for you?

Huntsman: It was because as a young boy, I always would share what I had with my relatives, who were without most everything. Most of them lived in very small towns, either Idaho or Utah, and struggled to get by. They would be on the poverty level today; but, believe it or not, they were all strong Republicans. I would share what little I had as a boy, not much; they would share what little they had with me, which wasn’t much. Maybe it was a pair of shoes. I remember one time, they let me wear their pocket watch to class, a one dollar pocket watch, which was a big deal for me. They let me drive their old pickup trucks, which taught me how to drive. I maybe was 12 or 15 years old. But, we would share what little we had. 

“I said, ‘We ought to be ashamed of ourselves just to be talking about giving 50% [of our wealth] away. We should be giving 80% away, 90%.’”

As I grew older and developed a small amount of wealth, I would share back with them, and I would begin to share with others all throughout my life. It’s just been a matter of gaining wealth, so you can give it back. I had never thought about giving wealth away as anything other than the normal, usual thing that individuals do. It never occurred to me that anybody would ever say, “Is that different? Why do you do that?” I just thought everybody did that, and that was the way we were raised.

Grant: You have gone to some unusual lengths, however, taking out personal loans to fulfill charitable commitments and voting against your own political party, if there’s another candidate who would fight cancer. What is it that pushes you to give to that level?

Huntsman: People who have the means and don’t share it with others are not particularly people I enjoy being around…. A wonderful Jewish family sent me to Penn. I’m a Mormon boy from rural Idaho. They didn’t ask my religion. I’ve given over 5,000 scholarships. I always think of [the family that sent him to Penn], because they didn’t ask me anything other than, “Are you honest and have you done your best?” That’s all I ask. They set a tone and a temperament that allowed me to see a side of life that meant more to me than anything in the world. So, with others, I copied them.

Grant: You’ve been awfully original for someone who claims to copy. It’s interesting that when you went to talk about signing the Giving Pledge [a commitment by the world’s wealthiest people to give away more than half their fortunes to philanthropy or charitable causes], you had an objection to Warren Buffett that few would have expected. You said, “No, I don’t think this pledge is right.”Tell us about that.

Huntsman: Warren has always been a great friend. He’s a wonderful American, and so is Bill Gates. They give tremendous amounts for malaria and other diseases in Africa. But, when Warren put together his group of, originally, 45 billionaires, so that they could give 50% of their fortunes away, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s the most unusual thing I’ve ever heard. Some of these people are worth $10 billion or $20 billion. If they lived on half of it, supposedly, [that would be $5] billion dollars….”I had been giving a good portion of whatever we’ve made for maybe 25 or 30 years by the time the Giving Pledge was established about three or four years ago. 

At our first meeting …some of the folks said, ” I gave $500,000 the other day.” And somebody else would say, “Well, let me tell you my story about giving a million dollars away.” I thought, “These folks are worth billions. What are they talking about? Giving 1% or 2%.” I stood up in the back, just toward the end of the meeting. I said, “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves just to be talking about giving 50% away. We should be giving 80% away, 90%.” How much does it take us to put food on our table and [to have] the necessities of life, to live a comfortable life and have everything we really need…. People need the money, and we don’t. Why don’t we make it 80%?” Warren said, “Jon, sit down and be quiet. Let’s get them up to 5% and then 10%, and then 50%. Not all of us started out like you did, where you have always given.” I have all my life. I was making $300 a month as a young naval officer, and I was giving $50 a month to a family down on the street who needed it more than I did, in addition to my 10% tithing to my church. But, it is just part and parcel of who you are and what your values are.

Image credit: Jon Huntsman Sr. at the 2004 Huntsman Award Ceremony by Chemical Heritage Foundation. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

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