by Lisa Boghosian
When the 1988 earthquake hit Yerevan, waves of aftershocks rippled across the globe. Within days, people from all walks of life sent clothing, food, medical supplies and other essential items to the ruinous area. Volunteers flew half way around the world to help dig through rubble and set up temporary shelter facilities. Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals came by the dozens to tend to the sick and injured. And 6,000 miles away, the owners of the Huntsman Corporation, based in Salt Lake City, had begun drafting up plans to help rebuild the shaken country.
The Huntsman Corporation, otherwise known as “Huntsman,” is a chemical and packaging business, with 81 locations in 23 countries throughout the world. It is a family business run by chairman Jon Huntsman, a Mormon, who started it in 1970. Through his leadership and the efforts of his associates, many of whom are his own children, today Huntsman has $4.3 billion in annual revenues and has given more than $50 million to humanitarian and charitable causes. One of their largest philanthropic projects so far includes the establishment of Spancrete in Armenia, among the largest and most modern prestressed extruded reinforced concrete plants in the world.
Spancrete was opened in 1990 by Huntsman as a long term relief effort for Armenia after the earthquake. Each year the facility produces one-half million square feet of precast concrete slabs to help build enough housing for 100,000 people in the area. At the same time the plant, which is staffed by American and Armenian citizens, is training workers how to manage and work in a free enterprise environment.
“Through the years, Huntsman has always found it important to be philanthropic,” explains Huntsman Vice Chairman Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. “Because we are a privately owned corporation we have the flexibility and autonomy to use our revenues as we wish. In the beginning, all our humanitarian outreach was domestic. We helped soup kitchens, homeless shelters and schools. But as the corporation became more global and profitable, we began looking to make an impact on people who really needed help internationally.
“When we first heard about the tragedy in Armenia, we didn’t know much about the country- all we really knew was that the government was communist, and that the Armenians were the first people to accept Christianity as a nation. No one in our family had ever been there or knew any government officials there. But we did know Armand Hammer, who had long been involved with the Soviet Union.
“Mr. Hammer took Dad, along with other family members, to Moscow and made introductions to key people who ultimately made it possible for us to do something for Armenia. After talking with communist officials, we all agreed that perhaps the most valuable contribution we could make would be to open up a concrete manufacturing plant in Soviet Armenia. Thousands of people were left homeless as a result of the quake and needed housing. And because there isn’t a large wood supply in Armenia, concrete is the chief material to build with. In cooperation with the government, we agreed to establish an operation there and make precast concrete slabs.”
Establishing a plant in Armenia, however, meant bringing all equipment and supplies from America and other parts of the world. Mr. Huntsman Jr. explains, “We had to build the plant in Armenia from scratch. Planes flew all over the world picking up machinery and items to take back to Armenia. In Salt Lake City, a Soviet plane came to pick up items for the plant, then flew to Wisconsin for another pick up, then flew to Armenia to drop off the shipment. It was a difficult effort, but we were committed to the project and to the people.”
At that same time David Horne, who suddenly passed away this January, was asked by the Church of Latter Day Saints to assist with the Huntsman housing project in Armenia as part of a mission assignment. What started as a three month effort at the Spancrete plant, ended six years later. “It was David,” explains Mr. Huntsman Jr., “who really got the plant up and running. He was the day to day operator of the plant and was in charge of everything, including the 80 employees, most of whom are Armenian. A few of the workers are graduates of the American University of Armenia.
“When David first began work at Spancrete, Armenia was not yet an independent country. Then in 1991, when Armenia gained its independence, David worked very hard to train the employees in the principles of Free Market Economics. At that point, we realized that Spancrete wasn’t just about making concrete to build houses, it was about training a work force in new methods. David created some microcosm of entrepreneurship at the plant and taught the workers needed management skills. Before he moved back to America with his wife in 1995, a trained Armenian staff was in place to run the plant.”
While the plant runs smoothly today, and a second site has now been chosen for the production of other concrete products, the Huntsmans and Mr. Horne have had to face many obstacles along the way. “We’ve had to deal with a government in transition and a Parliament always in flux,” says Mr. Huntsman, Jr. “There are ongoing power, electricity and fuel challenges, as well as the difficulties of transferring money, and the seemingly impenetrable borders, along with the macro-political problems with its neighbors.
“So far, we’ve spent between $12 million in Armenia between the plant and other relief projects. And though we’ve said we’d provide material for the construction of 100,000 homes, it doesn’t look like we’ll stop. We’ve grown very close to the project and the people of Armenia. It has become a part of who the Huntsmans are and what Huntsman represents. We’ve also had the privilege of participating in a number of other charitable projects in Armenia, including the distribution of 26,000 containers of high protein food to feed about 50,000 people, and helping sponsor equipment, financial assistance and medical aid from teams of American physicians.”
“The entire effort in Armenia has made our family aware of the plight of those who are geographically disadvantaged,” says Mr. Huntsman, Jr. “People in Armenia are struggling to make the most of their God-given resources, and we want to help them succeed. No where in the world can you find such an example of people lifting themselves up by the boot strap. The experience has allowed us to take a peak into another part of the world, and in the process develop an inseparable bond with a most remarkable people whose country happens to be blossoming democratically and economically.”