Presidential Candidate Huntsman’s Wealth and Philanthropy Built on Styrofoam

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July 30, 2011; Source: Washington Post | Among the herd of Republican presidential candidates lining up to face Barack Obama in 2012, Jon Huntsman Jr. is something of an odd duck. A former governor of Utah (and a Mormon, like Mitt Romney), Huntsman also served as Obama’s ambassador to China and entered the campaign with a reputation for decency, knowledge, and professionalism. Most people probably don’t know that Huntsman was also a philanthropist, associated with the family foundation capitalized by the wealth generated by the family business, not a corner store, but the multibillion-dollar Huntsman Corp. chemical company founded by the candidate’s father.

Huntsman’s father, Jon Meade Huntsman Sr., made his money by using Styrofoam to make sturdier egg shipping containers. Huntsman gave the world “the clam-shell containers once used to package McDonald’s hamburgers and the plastic egg used for L’eggs pantyhose” in addition to the ubiquitous egg cartons. After heading the company’s unit for Asian expansion (Huntsman is relatively fluent in Mandarin), Jon Jr. became vice board chairman of the company before becoming Utah’s governor in 2005.

Styrofoam is not a particularly environmentally friendly product, and protests eventually got McDonald’s to eliminate the polystyrene hamburger containers. Huntsman’s dad worked with other Styrofoam manufacturers to encourage recycling. Besides the environmental hazards, the company was cited for carcinogens released from its plant in Port Arthur, Texas, and eventually paid the largest fine ever under the state’s Clean Air Act to settle the complaints.

Many of the nation’s philanthropies are based on wealth earned from industries that were no less environmentally friendly than Huntsman’s, and in Huntsman’s case, much of the family philanthropy (his billionaire dad has donated $1 billion during his lifetime) has gone to the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. In 1993, presidential candidate Jon Jr. was the first CEO of the foundation that created the institute.

Candidate Huntsman calls the Huntsman Corp. “a typical family business,” sort of modest for a corporation that ranks #264 on the Fortune 500. He is not listed as a board member of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation (assets of $27 million) or his dad’s foundation, the Jon and Karen Huntsman Foundation (assets of $247 million). But as the scion of a billionaire chemical manufacturer, worth tens of millions himself, Jon Huntsman Jr. is not your “typical family philanthropist” either.—Rick Cohen