DRIGGS, Idaho – When Jon M. Huntsman Sr. gives speeches, he likes to remind his listeners that they should “prepare young for what people will say at their eulogy.”
That perspective helps explain why Huntsman wasn’t satisfied to found and build Huntsman Chemical into the world’s largest privately held chemical company before taking it public in 2005. It wasn’t enough that he and his wife of 51 years, Karen, raised nine children and became grandparents to 56 more. Nor was it sufficient to give away hundreds of millions of dollars to charities – everything from cancer research to earthquake relief to scholarship funds – sometimes even taking out multimillion-dollar loans to meet his charitable commitments.
The man who built the Salt Lake City-based Huntsman Cancer Institute, one of the world’s leading research and treatment facilities, has another objective: He wants to cure cancer.
No, that’s not quite right. He will cure cancer. Because Huntsman doesn’t try to do things. He does them.
All of which helps to explain why Huntsman ended up back here in Driggs, not far from where he was born, pressing forward on a hugely expensive private golf community called Huntsman Springs in the midst of an historic housing slump.
Others are dreamers and talkers and planners. Jon Huntsman is a doer.
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Huntsman, 73, grew up poor in Thomas, Idaho, about 100 miles southwest of here, hunting and fishing not for fun, but “for survival.” His father moved the family to Palo Alto, Calif., when Jon was young.
He was a natural leader, a student-body president at Palo Alto High School who won a scholarship to study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He graduated in 1959, and by 1967 he was president of a packaging company. In 1970, he and his brother, Blaine, formed Huntsman Container Corp., which, among other things, created the packaging for McDonald’s Big Mac sandwiches. He later founded Huntsman Chemical.
About 15 years ago, Huntsman started returning to Driggs for its world-class fly-fishing. He found himself wondering why Jackson, Wyo., a 40-minute drive across the Teton Mountain Pass, had become such a popular resort and second-home destination while Driggs had languished. He saw an opportunity, so he began buying up land across Route 33 from Driggs Reed Memorial Airport and formulating plans for Huntsman Springs.
“It’s too beautiful an area, with too great a view of the mountains and too lovely a place for families, not to grow over the next 10 or 20 years,” Huntsman reasons.
The Huntsmans are not golfers, but they were aware of architect David McLay Kidd’s triumph in neighboring Oregon, and they hoped he could replicate that success at Huntsman Springs.
“When we first heard that David Kidd designed Bandon Dunes, I wasn’t even sure what Bandon Dunes was,” says David Huntsman, Jon’s 42-year-old son, who runs Huntsman Springs.
What they did know is that people traveled thousands of miles to play at Bandon Dunes. Their hope was that Kidd could produce something similarly magical in Driggs, and they were willing to pay handsomely for it.
It’s not in Huntsman’s nature to cut corners or resort to half-measures. His hospital has been compared to a Ritz-Carlton, complete with fabulous artwork and marble imported from India, because Huntsman believes the comfortable surroundings bolster patients’ spirits and hasten the recovery process. Even so, he plainly enjoys needling Kidd about the final price tag for the course, which was north of $20 million.
“I told David, ‘Spend anything you want,’ ” Huntsman says, making sure Kidd is within earshot. “That’s one of those statements I kind of regret now.”
Kidd, 42, knows how fortunate he was to land the Bandon assignment at such a young age, and he has spent the past dozen years building a portfolio of well-regarded courses that demonstrates that first big commission was not a fluke.
It’s likely that Kidd and Huntsman hit it off in part because both are defiantly unconventional. Just as Huntsman always has prided himself on following his instincts rather than the advice of bankers and lawyers, so too is Kidd openly dismissive of many conventions of modern architecture.
Kidd recalls making his first trip to Driggs in spring 2006, with temperatures well below zero, and finding a dead-flat, snow-covered pasture whose chief asset seemed to be the glorious views of the nearby Tetons. His says his goal was to “create an alternative reality” by drawing the wetlands on the far end of the property back up into the golf course so that it would appear as though “the wetlands already were here and the holes were carved through them.”
The job of engineering that feat fell to design associate Nick Schaan. All told, Kidd’s crew moved more than 4 million cubic yards, an extraordinary number, to bring the wetlands into play and create movement in the land.
The result is a course with huge, wavy greens and sprawling fairways that often present multiple options off the tee. While Bandon Dunes is ranked No. 4 on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list, Kidd knows that he was handed a marvelous site and needed only to uncover that great links. By contrast, he refers to Huntsman Springs “as the pinnacle of my career so far” because he considers it “a bigger achievement to take a site that was maybe a 1 out of 10 and make it an 8 or 9 out of 10.”
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Like Huntsman’s other businesses, Huntsman Springs exists largely to throw off cash for its owner’s guiding obsession: cancer research. Huntsman’s mother died in his arms of breast cancer, ovarian cancer claimed his stepmother, and, he says, “My father died of prostate cancer, but not until he had given it to me.”
Huntsman has had four cancers, most recently a “bad bout with melanoma” earlier this year.
In his 2005 book “Winners Never Cheat,” a treatise on business and personal morality, Huntsman made clear that he views charitable giving not as an option, but as a moral imperative. Among other charitable obligations, he has committed $50 million annually to Huntsman Cancer Institute. He briefly worked for President Richard M. Nixon, but recalled in the book that he soured on Nixon upon learning the president earned more than $400,000 in 1971 but gave just $500 to charity.
“To me, that pittance was more onerous than Watergate,” Huntsman wrote.
In the current economic climate, Huntsman Springs probably won’t generate much money for charity. But Huntsman is in it for the long haul, as evidenced by the fact he put his name on the property.
“If we didn’t have deep pockets, we could never have done this,” he says. “I’ve got almost $200 million sunk into this thing. Nobody in their right mind would do that.”
He also recently took the extraordinary step of offering a 100-percent money-back guarantee to people who buy a park home or mountain-view lodge at Huntsman Springs. Homeowners have the option of selling their homes back to Huntsman for the full purchase price after five years.
“I’ve never heard of a developer doing that, nor have the banks we deal with,” says Clayton Andrews, executive vice president of Sotheby’s International Realty, the largest Realtor in the market.
Huntsman understands what’s going on in the real-estate market, and he knows the bankers would find the project more appealing if he had built Huntsman Springs on the other side of Teton Mountain Pass, near the more chic hideaway of Jackson Hole.
But he remains an entrepreneur to the core, listening to advisers but ultimately following his instincts and his heart. It has worked for him so far, and he has no plans to change.
There’s an obvious, if somewhat morbid, question that begs to be asked, and Huntsman smiles when he hears it.
What would Jon Huntsman – the self-made billionaire, the man revered in the business world for his acumen and ethics, the philanthropist whose life’s mission is to wipe out the world’s most pernicious disease – want people to say when his time comes?
“That I was kind and generous,” he says. “That’s all. I think that would be a tremendous compliment if I could ever earn that.”
Then he flashes a sly smile.
“But I’ve got a long way to go before they’ll say that.”