Jon M. Huntsman Sr., the billionaire chemical-industry magnate who wrote in his 2014 memoir, "I desire to leave this world as I entered it - barefoot and broke," is this year's recipient of the Franklin Institute's Bower Award for business leadership.
The institute on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is known for its prestigious science prizes.
Each year, though, the institute also recognizes a national business leader who transformed a company or industry, and was a generous philanthropist. Past winners include Microsoft's Bill Gates, Cisco's John Chambers, and Intel cofounder Gordon Moore.
Huntsman, 77, seems to be one of the more curious choices. He's best known for commercializing the polystyrene egg container and the clamshell plastic box for Big Macs - which, though mundane, revolutionized fast-food packaging in the mid-1970s, as Burger King, Hardee's, Burger Chef, and other chains copied McDonald's Corp. with clamshell boxes that kept burgers hotter longer and didn't leak.
"In my way of thinking," Huntsman said Monday from his company's headquarters in Salt Lake City, "the world was my oyster and there were thousands of products that could be developed."
He recalled walking through supermarkets in the late 1960s and 1970s and looking at products packaged in paper, cardboard, or glass that could be repackaged in plastic. "I was always on the hunt," he said.
Huntsman sold the plastics-packaging company and over the subsequent decades built a global specialty chemical conglomerate, Huntsman Corp., which is expected to reach $15 billion in global sales in 2015. The company has 16,000 full-time employees and 18,000 contract employees.
But business hasn't been his only passion. Huntsman, who was raised in Idaho, served in the Nixon White House in the early 1970s. A son, Jon Jr., was a two-term governor of Utah and ambassador to China who ran for president as a Republican in 2012.
Over the last 20 years, the elder Huntsman estimates, he has given to charities or nonprofits $1.4 billion through his company or family entities. The biggest recipient of his philanthropic largesse has been the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, which focuses its projects on genetic cancer research.
Huntsman also has been generous with his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, which he attended in the 1950s on a scholarship. He has given $50 million to the university. His name graces the Wharton School's biggest and newest building.
In 1998, Mayor Ed Rendell awarded Huntsman the Philadelphia Business Leadership Award for his financial support of Wharton.
Huntsman said of the Philadelphia Business Leadership Award and the Franklin Institute honor: "It's a little déjà vu. To be honest, I don't know what I did for either one of them."
As for his future philanthropy, Huntsman says he expects to distribute about $1 billion more. "I don't want to have a will or a large fund of money for other people to distribute," he said.
Married to wife Karen for 55 years, they boast a very large family - nine children, 56 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren. In recent years, doctors have treated him for a degenerative joint disease, and he recently published a memoir, Barefoot to Billionaire: Reflections on a Life's Work and a Promise to Cure Cancer.
"Mr. Huntsman is a remarkable individual who really goes under the radar," said Don Morel, chairman of the board of trustees of the Franklin Institute.
The Franklin Institute will hold its annual awards gala April 23, handing out six Benjamin Franklin Awards for science, a Bower prize for science, and the Bower award for business leadership. About 600 to 800 people usually attend the event; tickets begin at $750.
Huntsman said he plans on attending.