Jon M. Huntsman Jr. has worked for four presidents, served as governor of Utah and most recently was the nation’s ambassador to China. At every other point over the past three decades, he has worked for Huntsman Corp., the multibillion-dollar chemical company his father founded.

Huntsman Corp. provided the Utah Republican with his personal fortune, estimated at $17 million to $84 million, and a jump-start in politics. As Huntsman pursues the presidency, his executive positions are the kind of real-world corporate experience many voters see as necessary to turning around the economy.

On Huntsman’s Web site, for instance, the candidate states that in 1985 “Huntsman Corporation faces major financial troubles. Jon works with his father and brothers to rebuild the company.” Elsewhere the site says, “No other candidate has hands-on business experience like Jon.”

Huntsman’s corporate experience also carries political risks, however. Some of the products made by Huntsman Corp. have alarmed environmentalists and been phased out of the market. The $9 billion-a-year company has eliminated hundreds of U.S. jobs as it gradually shifts operations to Asia. And it has helped fund cancer research even as it stands accused of exposing communities near its manufacturing plants to cancer-causing and other harmful chemicals.

Unlike rival Mitt Romney, who also served as a governor and has extensive private-sector experience, Huntsman talks sparingly on the campaign trail about his years at the firm. He’s much more likely in public to talk about his business savvy in creating jobs as Utah’s governor than his decades of work at what he has called a “typical family business.”

The candidate’s campaign declined to discuss any aspect of his work at Huntsman or the firm’s history, other than to confirm the titles he held there.

“Governor Huntsman is proud that he was part of building a family business from the ground up, one that has built thousands of good American jobs,” campaign spokesman Tim Miller said.

Born from an idea

The Huntsman empire grew from an idea for a better egg carton. Huntsman’s father, Jon Meade Huntsman Sr., a devout Mormon, helped develop the idea of using polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam, to make safer egg shipping containers.

The concept took off. Huntsman purchased polystyrene plants from major chemical companies and used them to make products that became ubiquitous in American life — including the clam-shell containers once used to package McDonald’s hamburgers and the plastic egg used for L’eggs pantyhose.

As the eldest son in the growing family firm, the candidate says in one campaign video that his father was “one of the greatest entrepreneurs I’ve ever known.”

Huntsman Jr. took on more responsibilities as the company grew. He ran a chemicals unit, headed a division responsible for Asian expansion and eventually became vice board chairman. He left in 2005 when he was elected governor.

“I had the great opportunity, the great privilege of working in different capacities in Huntsman Corp.,” he said in his campaign video, “adding to it, watching it grow, participating in its growth.

As the company grew, it won plaudits for its integrity and business smarts but also drew controversy. In the early 1990s, activists zeroed in on the McDonald’s containers as a symbol of environmental abuse, and the company suffered a blow when the fast-food chain canceled its contract.

Huntsman Sr., a huge philanthropist, responded by banding with other Styrofoam manufacturers to encourage recycling.

Carcinogen releases

A Utah newspaper once described Huntsman Corp. as “nice guys in a nasty business,” as the company became a player in the Texas petrochemical industry.

A Texas grand jury investigation found a criminal pattern of releasing benzene, a carcinogen, at a Huntsman plant in Port Arthur. The pollution occurred before and shortly after the company bought the plant.

In 1997, Jon Huntsman Sr. met with the lead prosecutor, according to an internal company presentation. After a two-week investigation, the prosecutor moved to indict two plant managers and decided not to prosecute the corporation, finding that leadership wasn’t aware of the managers’ actions. (The prosecutor later joined Huntsman Corp. as an environmental compliance adviser.)

Huntsman paid $9 million, then the largest fine imposed under the state Clean Air Act, to settle a state civil case stemming from the pollution.

Other problems had erupted in Odessa, Tex. The smokestack of a Huntsman plant emitted chemical clouds for three days in late 1998 and early 1999, and again in 2000. Some of the chemicals released had been deemed cancer-causing.

Texas regulators played down the problems, saying such releases were typical in the industry. But as national news reports later described the Odessa incidents, Huntsman Corp. launched an environmental monitoring program. In 2004, Peter Huntsman, the company’s chief executive and the candidate’s younger brother, said most fines were due to legacy issues.

Texas state records show that Huntsman Corp. continues to have numerous and regular unauthorized releases of pollutants. Since 1999, the company has paid $10.8 million in fines in 42 cases. More than half of those fines were imposed after 2004, including $10,000 last month and $117,715 in April 2009.

Peter Huntsman said in an interview that complex industry regulations make it impossible to avoid violations but that minor releases do not threaten health.

The candidate’s father ranks among only 19 billionaires in the world who have donated $1 billion or more to philanthropies in their lifetimes. Much of his money has gone to the Huntsman Cancer Institute, a research center, and a hospital based at the University of Utah, largely motivated by his mother’s death from cancer.

The founder in 1993 named his son Jon Jr. the first chief executive of a foundation that got the institute built and running. Funding for the institute also came from other generous donors and federal grants, and from a change in state law that provided it a portion of annual tobacco settlement funds.

While running for governor in 2004, Huntsman said that if he were elected, he would recuse himself from discussions of possible state funding for the institute.

In 2007, as the institute struggled to make up for declining federal funds, it asked for state help. Early that year, during the debate over the state budget, Huntsman told Utah news media that he had high regard for the institute’s work but wouldn’t throw his name around.

“If they are talking to members of the legislature, I would [do] anything I could to support a center of excellence — that [the Huntsman Cancer Institute] or the Moran Eye Center or the Diabetes Center,” he said.

The institute won nearly all the state funding it sought from the GOP-controlled legislature. As requested, lawmakers provided $10 million outright and $4 million in annual funds, $1 million less than it requested.

The American Cancer Society and other cancer advocates said they were somewhat disappointed, having lobbied unsuccessfully for funding for patient care, such as early screening for breast cancer and cervical cancer. But they did not comment when asked by local reporters whether they had been politically outgunned by a group tied to the governor’s family.

Job migration

Huntsman’s corporate experience exposed him to another issue likely to surface in his presidential campaign: the steady migration of jobs overseas.

Huntsman Corp. employs about 12,000 people worldwide, but from 2004 to 2010, the number of positions in the United States dropped from 3,200 to 2,139. Huntsman officials estimate an uptick of 108 U.S. jobs in the first half of 2011. The share of its U.S.-based revenue has dropped from two-thirds to one-third in the same period.

When announcing layoffs in the United States and Europe in 2008, Huntsman officials described the cuts as part of a long-term restructuring begun in late 2006.

“The intent of the restructuring is to simplify the organization and move the center of gravity more toward Asia, because this is where the industry is moving,” Huntsman spokesman Guy Wolff said then.

The candidate stopped working at the company in 2005, before most of the reductions in U.S. jobs occurred.

Peter Huntsman said that the company does not “offshore” U.S. jobs to places where labor costs less but that it has moved its operations closer to customers, including textile manufacturers who have relocated to Asia.

“These economies are growing at more than five times the rate of other more mature economies,” Peter Huntsman said. “Obviously, we are going to see stronger growth there than we see in America and Western Europe. . . . That’s not at the cost of U.S. jobs.”

Staff writer Nia-Malika Henderson and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.