Jon Huntsman, an alumnus of the Wharton School who built a world-class business from the ground up, recently came to China to promote his new book, Winners Never Cheat: Everyday Values We Learned as Children But May Have Forgotten. On September 12, he spoke to a packed auditorium at CEIBS (China Europe International Business School) in Shanghai.
He began by talking about his childhood in a poor family and his career in the White house where he assisted in the effort to develop stronger ties between the U.S. and China. He had visited China in 1978, and two of his sons speak fluent Chinese. He also talked about his company, Huntsman Chemical, which began as a small business 35 years ago and has since grown to have revenues of $13 billion and plants in 43 countries around the world.
In his book and to his audiences, Huntsman talks about the need for ethics and honesty in all business transactions as well as in one’s personal life:
l I would suggest that money is not the most important thing in life. There are certain aspects in our lives far more important than money.
l I happen to believe that the most important quality of a person who goes into business is that he is ethical and honest in his dealings. These qualities are very, very essential.
l I told my employees that the number one concern is their families. If they ever put the company above their families, their priority is wrong.
l Life is not fair, but we must be fair. During your career in business, there will be many times when events and transactions will not be fair deals, but you must play by the rules.
l You must remember that one of the great rules in life is that if you have the opportunity to praise other people, praise them in public, but if you have to criticize someone, do it privately.
l Graciousness, being kind and being charitable are very, very wonderful qualities.
l Guard carefully your character. Guard carefully your integrity.
He told the audience a story about how important a handshake is compared with getting $200 million.
“In 1986, I made an agreement with the CEO of a company to sell 40% of my company for $54 million. I shook hands with that CEO to seal the deal. It took six months for the attorneys to prepare the contract. By that time our profit margin had gone up substantially; our 40% value was now worth $250 million. The CEO came to me and said ‘I will tell you what I want to do; I think it will be fair if we split’ the money in two and ‘I will give you $125 million.’ At that time, nothing was legal. It was all based on a handshake six months earlier. I said, ‘I have a better idea. Why don’t we agree on $54 million because that was the price I shook your hand on. We shook hands and that means more to me than money.’ When this man died, his wife invited me to speak at his funeral because he had told her that I am the fairest man he ever knew.”
Huntsman talked about attending funerals, which is a fascinating topic to a Chinese audience: “I have attended many funerals in my life and I conducted almost 200 of them. I never heard in a funeral that this or that person has made a lot of money or is politically very strong. They never discuss that. In a funeral, people discuss how this person was very kind, or very gracious or had character and integrity. People want to deal with honest people. For some people who are not kind, not thoughtful or gracious, their funerals are very short because nobody has anything to say. So I learned from the funerals that we have to plan our funerals when we are very young. Plan your funerals, start early, by being kind, smile, and be gracious to others.”
His speech was followed by a Q&A session. When asked whether he was born with such strong moral beliefs or whether these qualities were developed as he went along, Huntsman answered that he thinks people are the products of those who are their heroes, mentors and coaches. One has to decide what kind of person he or she wants to be. One woman asked how he could guarantee that his 52 grandchildren will be better than him. Huntsman replied that all he can do is to love his children and grandchildren and try to teach them correct principals. His education philosophy is “try to teach them correct principals and let them govern themselves.”
He also noted that it’s hard to say money doesn’t count. Money does count. “But if you make the most money in the world and lose your family, you may lose your priorities. We can do two or three things very well in life, such as have integrity, character, a family, and be financially successful.”
When asked how to pick advisors wisely, Huntsman replied that his very personal opinion on choosing employees is: no.1, experience; no.2, grades in colleges; No.3, loyalty; and no.4, competence. He says that loyalty is very, very important. “Business has high and low points. I take care of my employees at all times and they have to take care of me during the bad times. Many people would take competence to be the no.1 criteria. But I would choose a loyal person with average intelligence who is absolutely loyal to me. I would train him how to be competent but I can’t train him how to be loyal. During my 40 years in business, this is how I place the order of priority.”
He shares this view with his long time friend, the CEO of Shell Oil, who said the most important qualities for businesspeople are humility and ‘teachability.’ “If people are not teachable, I don’t want them to be in my business.”
Huntsman concluded his speech by inviting the audiences sharing his favorite two verses:
No man is an island,
No man stands alone,
Each man’s joy is joy to me,
Each man’s grief is my own.
We need one another,
So I will defend
Each man as my brother,
Each man as my friend.