How this former CFO of Huntsman Corp. learned the gospel brings happiness, even amid tragedy

Regarding Church service, Elder J. Kimo Esplin has learned ‘The Lord isn’t doing it to you; He’s doing it for you’

As a 19-year-old in the Provo Missionary Training Center, Elder J. Kimo Esplin wondered if his mission call was right. 

Learning Japanese was not easy. During the two months at the MTC, the other missionaries in his district had memorized all the missionary discussions in Japanese, while he had learned only the first page of the first discussion. 

He thought, “Japan’s probably not the right place.”

The night before he was to leave for the mission field, the young elder found an empty janitor’s closet. Kneeling on the hard floor smelling of detergent, young Elder Esplin pleaded with the Lord about whether Kobe, Japan, was really where he was supposed to serve.

In his mind, he saw himself and his father the night before he entered the MTC. His father was giving him a priesthood blessing. In the blessing, his father said, “Kimo, I bless you that you will teach and testify in Japanese.”

Remembering those words gave him the courage to fly to the Far East in the morning. 

Elder J. Kimo Esplin, General Authority Seventy
Elder J. Kimo Esplin, sustained as a General Authority Seventy in the April 2023 general conference. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

That sense of inadequacy of being asked to do more than he felt capable of doing has hit him many times over the years, including as a young father trying to work full time, go to school for his master’s degree and serve as the ward Young Men president. He also felt it after being called as a bishop, stake president and mission president, and, most recently, when he was sustained as a General Authority Seventy during April 2023 general conference.

But each time in the past it turned into a blessing, he said. 

In the case of his mission, just a few weeks after being assigned to his first area in Japan, he and his companion walked back and forth between shops on a covered street, trying to talk to people.

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After a while, a 28-year-old man actually stopped. In “terrible Japanese,” Elder Esplin shared what he had memorized from the first discussion about Joseph Smith. Amazingly, the man continued with the missionary discussions and eventually decided to join the Church.

At the man’s baptism, Elder Esplin asked the man why he had stopped that day in the market. The man explained that a few weeks prior, he had seen Elder Esplin in a dream. Elder Esplin soon realized that around the time the man had that dream, he was praying in a janitor’s closet in the MTC.

That tender experience confirmed to Elder Esplin “that the Lord knows us. He knows the end from the beginning, and He’s going to prepare a way notwithstanding our weakness or lack of confidence.”

Map showing location of Kahuku, Hawaii. | Church News graphic

Elder Esplin was born on Aug. 18, 1962, to Ross S. and Olive Ora Moody Esplin in Kahuku, Hawaii, where his father was teaching at the Church College of Hawaii. His parents named him Jon Ross — after his father — with the added name of Kimo — which translates to James in Hawaiian — as an homage to his birthplace.  

As the youngest — and only boy — of eight children, Elder Esplin joked that his parents gave him all the boy names they ever wanted to use. Despite having several options, his seven older sisters all called him Kimo, which is what he’s always gone by.

Elder Esplin described his mother as an optimistic, fun-loving person who welcomed others into her home for a meal or place to stay — even with eight children to look after. At one point, Elder Esplin’s father failed the oral exam for his doctorate from the University of California–Berkeley after five years of study. He was not allowed to retake it. “Dad and Mom were, of course, devastated,” Elder Esplin said, “but Mom pressed on.” 

She persuaded his father to start again at the University of Utah, where he eventually earned his Ph.D. “Mom showed us kids how to enjoy life — even with disappointment and tragedy — which was a product of her faith.”

As a family, they studied the scriptures and prayed together, attended church and participated in their ward. Slowly, one quiet, reassuring moment at a time, young Elder Esplin developed a testimony that the Church was true and that Jesus Christ is his Savior.

When Elder Esplin was a youth, his father became a professor of English literature at Brigham Young University. The family moved to Provo, Utah, where Elder Esplin attended Timpview High School.

Newly called General Authority Seventies Elder Alan T. Phillips, Elder Christophe G. Giraud-Carrier, Elder J. Kimo Esplin and Elder Robert M. Daines, take their seats on the stand during April 2023 general conference
Newly called General Authority Seventies, from left, Elder Alan T. Phillips, Elder Christophe G. Giraud-Carrier, Elder J. Kimo Esplin and Elder Robert M. Daines, take their seats on the stand during general conference on April 1, 2023. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

A few months after returning home from his full-time mission, Elder Esplin and his father were traveling on a two-lane highway. Another vehicle crossed the center line and struck them head-on, killing his father. 

Just a few months later, with his mother sitting beside him, his car was struck from behind by a car going in excess of 100 mph on the freeway. His car rolled, and his mother and baby niece were killed.

Elder Esplin called that period a switch point in his life. “You start to take life a little more seriously.” 

In the wake of his parents’ deaths, his older sisters, who all had young families at the time, chipped in to send him on a study abroad to the BYU Jerusalem Center. There he met Kaye Davis, who would become his wife.

Having heard about the recent deaths of his parents, Sister Esplin said she expected to meet a sad or solemn person. “But he was just the opposite. I felt like he was ‘all in’ in this experience. It wasn’t just a vacation. It was a real learning experience. And so I admired him and his knowledge of the gospel.”

How was he not crushed by the weight of the tragedies in his life? “I definitely have down days,” Elder Esplin said, “but so much of who I am comes from my faith in the Savior and His plan. A faith that was modeled by my parents.”

During the study abroad, he and Kaye became good friends as their group camped in the Sinai desert, worked in banana fields, and studied the Old and New Testaments together.

When the two returned to Provo, he asked her for a date. “After meeting all those sisters,” Sister Esplin said, “how could I not fall in love?”

They were married on Dec. 13, 1985, in the Salt Lake Temple. They are the parents of eight children — four sons and four daughters — and have seven grandchildren.

“I definitely have down days, but so much of who I am comes from my faith in the Savior and His plan.”

In 1987, Elder Esplin graduated from BYU with his Bachelor of Science degree in accounting, while Sister Esplin graduated with a degree in elementary education. They moved their family, which now included a baby boy, into a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago, Illinois, where Elder Esplin began his career in investment banking. He earned a Master of Business Administration from Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, and they added two more boys to their family.

“Those were good years,” Elder Esplin said.

“We really cut our teeth on Church service,” Sister Esplin added.

After Elder Esplin became executive vice president and chief financial officer for Huntsman Corp., the family relocated briefly to Belgium before settling in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.

As a family, they love to travel and each year they spend spring break on a backpacking and camping trip, often in southern Utah.

Both Elder and Sister Esplin came from families that prized the written word, so reading has been an important part of their family culture. “Every night, the kids knew to put everything away, lay down on the floor, and I would sit and read for an hour,” Elder Esplin explained. They read classics and Newberry Award-winning books, the Harry Potter series and the Chronicles of Narnia.

“It really pulled our kids together,” Sister Esplin said.

J. Kimo and Kaye D. Esplin | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

In 2018, the family underwent a new adventure when Elder and Sister Esplin became leaders of the Japan Tokyo South Mission. In the middle of their service, COVID-19 hit, Japan closed its borders, and they became the leaders of the Japan Tokyo North Mission as well. “We would spend two weeks in Tokyo and then drive up to Sendai five hours away and be with those missionaries for two weeks and then drive back,” Elder Esplin explained.

Although there were challenges, Elder Esplin said it was an amazing time for missionary work. “The members rallied around the missionaries and kept them so busy. We were baptizing as many as we were before COVID, and we had 50 missionaries versus 160.”

Many baptisms came from missionaries teaching their families, Sister Esplin said. “So many of our missionaries were the only members of the Church in their families, and when they would call home they would do ‘Come, Follow Me’ with their families, and so we had a lot of baptisms of family members.”

Family: Born on Aug. 18, 1962, in Kahuku, Hawaii, to Ross S. and Olive Ora Moody Esplin. Married Kaye Davis on Dec. 13, 1985, in the Salt Lake Temple; they are the parents of eight children.

Employment: Worked for nearly three decades as executive vice president and chief financial officer at Huntsman Corp. He has also been a board member for Savage Cos.

Education: Received a Bachelor of Science degree in accounting from Brigham Young University in 1987 and a Master of Business Administration from Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management.

Church service: Area Seventy, president of the Japan Tokyo South and North missions from 2018 to 2021, stake president, bishop, high councilor, ward Young Men president, Sunday School teacher and missionary in the Japan Kobe Mission.

“More family members got baptized outside of our missions than inside our missions,” Elder Esplin said.

“It was really sweet,” Sister Esplin said.

For the past two years, Elder Esplin has been serving as an Area Seventy. One of the miracles of that call has been being part of the process of calling new stake presidents.

As a stake president calling a bishop, or as a mission president assigning missionaries, Elder Esplin said he would fast and pray and “wrestle” trying to discern the Lord’s will. “But as we’ve gone out and done reorganizations, [revelation] has come immediate and specific and powerful in that process as we’ve come with the authority of the [Quorum of the] Twelve. It has just been miraculous to me to sit and interview 30 amazing men and then just know with certainty in short order who the Lord has called.”

It provides another reassurance that “the mantle of this new calling will come in spite of my many weaknesses,” Elder Esplin said.

Concerning service in the Church, he’s learned, “The Lord isn’t doing it to you; He’s doing it for you.”

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