On September 6, 2018, Richard DeVos passed away at the age of 92. A lifelong advocate of free enterprise, capitalism and freedom, DeVos and his family are true friends of Northwood University. The piece below was written for Northwood’s annual In Defense of Capitalism publication, and republished to honor the DeVos legacy that lives on at Northwood University.
Richard M. DeVos’ values and determination were shaped at an early stage in his life. Rich DeVos was born in 1926 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a product of the lessons taught by a loving family and the experiences of living through the Great Depression.
His father lost his job during the depression, and the family was forced to move into a temporary apartment in the attic of his grandparents’ home. The makeshift residence allowed his parents to rent their own home to employed tenants in order to meet their monthly mortgage payments.
“We may have been poor, but we certainly had no sense of being put down. We were no poorer than anybody else in those days. My father spent several years sacking flour in a grocer’s back room and selling socks and underwear in a men’s store on Saturdays.”
From the day he was hired by the grocer until he died of a heart attack at age 59, Simon DeVos’ advice to his son was clear: “Own your own business, Rich. It’s the only way to be truly free.”1 The son would pay close attention to his father’s advice. DeVos’ mother and father played a vital role in the development of their son’s character and ethics. From an early age, they helped to instill in him a strong faith in God and provided their marriage and life together as an example he could look up to and respect.
DeVos, a World War II U.S. Army Air Corps veteran, was also influenced by the British statesman Sir Winston Churchill. DeVos believes that all achievers must make a conscious decision to make something of themselves, must take responsibility for their decisions and must be willing to pay the price of success. According to DeVos, “The most important lesson I have learned is the lesson Winston Churchill illustrated in his famous three-word graduation speech: ‘Never give up.’”
A Friendship for Life
Rich DeVos’ life changed forever when he met his fellow classmate Jay VanAndel at Grand Rapids Christian High School. The two would become lifelong friends, business partners and philanthropists. Their dreams would positively influence millions of people and truly make the world a better place.
After graduating from high school and serving their country in World War II, DeVos and VanAndel returned to Grand Rapids and formed numerous businesses together. Some ventures were more successful than others. They owned companies ranging from a flight school and an import/export business to a drive-in restaurant and a toy factory. The two were natural entrepreneurs and quickly became advocates of the American competitive free enterprise system.
It was a strong belief in and respect for the “American Dream,” and their desire to help others attain it, that led them to establish the American Way Association in 1959, later shortened to Amway.
The Establishment of Amway
DeVos and VanAndel started the Amway Corporation out of their basements in Ada, Michigan, just outside of Grand Rapids. Amway, which today is the world’s largest direct selling company, focuses on consumer products.
The growth of Amway was and is predicated on the success of its independent distributors. The independent distributors own their own businesses and dependon Amway to provide quality products and timely distribution so that they can sell and deliver Amway products to customers.
Structurally, Amway and its distributors function much the way McDonald’s does at the corporate level with its individually owned McDonald’s franchises. Operationally, the pride and risk of ownership, incentives and lucrative bonuses drive Amway distributors to increase sales and to provide quality customer service to their consumers.
The company has gone from offering one product, a multi-purpose household cleaner, in 1959 and $500,000 in sales its first full year in operation (1960) to offering more than 700 products and services and over $9 billion dollars (estimated 2015) in sales today. At the founding, Amway had a handful of independent business owners willing to make the company’s dream their own. Today, Amway has over 4 million independent distributors in more than 100 countries and territories around the world with almost 80 percent of sales generated outside of the United States. In 1959, DeVos and VanAndel could afford just one part-time employee, Kay Evans; she handled bookkeeping and correspondence out of their respective basements.
Today, more than 19,000 people work for the Amway Corporation in Michigan and throughout the world. DeVos and VanAndel are both equally proud of the fact that millions of people around the world use quality Amway products daily as well as the fact the company manufactures its products in an environmentally friendly way. Amway Corporation received the prestigious United Nations Environmental Programme Achievement Award for environmentally conscious manufacturing in 1989.
In October 2000, Alticor Inc. was announced as the parent company for the following: Amway Corporation (the worldwide direct-selling giant), Quixtar Inc. (a Webbased business in North America), Access Business Group LLC (business-to-business provider in manufacturing and logistics) and Pyxis Innovations Inc. (product and sales innovations). Alticor companies focus on nutrition and wellness, beauty and home products, and manufacturing and logistics services. Vitamins, food supplements and cosmetics are among the company’s leading global brands.
In addition to his involvement with Amway, DeVos and his family own the National Basketball Association’s Orlando Magic.
DeVos, a Horatio Alger recipient, is the author of the best-selling book Compassionate Capitalism. In the book, he urges men and women to dream great dreams and then to evaluate what they need to change in their lives to make those dreams come true. DeVos argues that people must focus on trading despair for hope, debt for probity and indifference for renewed devotion to “God, country, family, and work.”
The book emphasizes the need for companies to balance profitability and innovation with corporate responsibility and civic stewardship. DeVos notes that Amway independent distributors and employees around the world earn billions of dollars that improve many local economies with income from jobs, tax revenue and multiple acts of volunteerism and charity.
Even though a fire almost destroyed Amway’s manufacturing capabilities and risky heart transplant surgery nearly ended his life, DeVos never gave up on himself or his fellow man. He heeded his father’s advice and has owned many businesses including one of the world’s most famous.
He is the quintessential example of what Tom Brokaw referred to as America’s “Greatest Generation.” DeVos never questioned when his country called him to serve in World War II, nor did he question his duty to help transform the post-World War II American economy.
Today the United States is the world’s beacon of liberty and the cornerstone of global capitalism because of entrepreneurs like Rich DeVos. Perhaps more important than his economic contributions are his numerous examples of civic stewardship. DeVos and his wife Helen have donated millions of dollars to charities ranging from colleges and universities to hospitals and churches. “Giving is a joyful experience,” says DeVos. And with his children now playing a major role in the businesses, you can count on his legacy continuing well into the future.
In addition to Compassionate Capitalism, Rich has authored or co-authored the best-selling books Believe, Hope from My Heart Ten Lessons for Life, Ten Powerful Phrases for Positive People and Simply Rich: Life and Lessons from the Cofounder of Amway.
Not Slowing Down
Mr. DeVos recently celebrated his 92nd birthday and continues to make a great difference in the world. He currently serves on the board of trustees of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is a museum dedicated to the U.S. Constitution. He also sits on the board of Christian Leaders Institute, a nonprofit organization that is in over 158 countries and offers free Bible training for people all over the world.
The Fruit Didn’t Fall Far from the Tree
From living in his grandparents attic as a youngster to becoming one of the world’s most recognized and successful entrepreneurs, Rich DeVos has always cherished his faith and his family above all other successes. The love and guidance provided by his parent’s has permeated his marriage of more than 60 years. Rich and Helen have raised four wonderful children who resemble their parents in faith, in focus on family, in business acumen and philanthropic actions. The fruit certainly hasn’t fallen far from the DeVos Family Tree when it comes to their four children. They have been amazing tributes to their parents and their upbringing…consider the following:
- Dick DeVos is an entrepreneur-businessman. Dick served as CEO of Amway and Alticor, the consumer goods and distribution company his father co-founded from 1993–2002. After retiring from Alticor, Dick became president of the Windquest Group, a privately held investment management firm with primary holdings in the technology, manufacturing and real estate sectors. Windquest has made sizable and successful investments in technologies that have been environmentally sound and economically sustainable. In 2006, DeVos ran for governor of Michigan, but lost to Democratic incumbent Jennifer Granholm in a highly competitive race. Dick has been a long-standing member of the board of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and a champion of school vouchers and Right-To-Work legislation in the state of Michigan. Through the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, the DeVos’s have supported many causes since 1990 including Kids Hope U.S.A., DeVos Children’s Hospital, Mars Hill Bible Church, Potter’s House, Northwood University, Calvin College, Princeton University, Hope College and Choices for Children, to name a few. DeVos received his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northwood University and received an honorary doctorate and an outstanding alumni designation from his alma mater.
- Dan DeVos serves as the chairman and CEO of DP Fox Ventures, LLC. He is the majority owner, CEO and director of the Grand Rapids Griffins. DeVos has ownership interest in the Orlando Magic of the NBA where he serves as chairman, CEO and director. Dan is also a limited partner in the Chicago Cubs organization. He is also a partner at Georgian Automotive Group, LTD., CWD Real Estate Investment LLC, and the West Michigan Auto Auction, where he also serves as a director. Dan co-founded Georgian International Limited in 1994 and serves as its chairman of the board. Dan serves as chairman of RDV Sports Inc.; he serves as a Director of Alticor Inc.; and serves on a number of corporate and non-profit boards, including the chairman of Northwood University, Grand Rapids Art Museum, DeVos Children’s Hospital, Co-Chairman of Children’s Miracle Network, Frederick Meijer Gardens, Family Outreach Center and Hope Network. The above and numerous other causes are supported annually through the Dan and Pamella DeVos Foundation. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northwood University. Dan was awarded an honorary doctorate from Northwood University in 1999 and is a recipient of the Northwood University Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award.
- Suzanne “Cheri” DeVos served as Amway’s vice president of corporate affairs and also served as director of health and beauty marketing. Cheri worked in Amway’s management training program and early in her career was a project specialist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Cheri served as chairman of the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation and as executive vice chair of RDV Sports and the governing board of the Orlando Magic NBA basketball team. DeVos serves as a director of Alticor Inc. She is a member of the Hope College Business Advisory Council, the Hope College Board of Trustees, and Director of the Michigan Chapter of Operation Smile. Cheri has also served as the chairman of the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Governance Committee. She graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School and earned a degree in business administration from Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Cheri is president of the CDV5 Foundation, whose primary focus has been the funding of various religious organizations.
- Doug DeVos serves as the co-CEO of Alticor Inc. and The Amway Corporation and has been president of both since 2002. He has been the president of Amway Malaysia Holdings Bhd since 2002 and is president of Amway Australia. He serves as the president of Solstice Holdings Inc. and Amway Canada Corp. Doug founded Quixtar, Inc., a subsidiary of Alticor Inc. in 2002 and has served as its president since inception. Doug is the board chairman of the Direct Selling Education Foundation and serves as a vice chairman for the U.S. Direct Selling Association. Doug also serves on the boards of The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, the Holland Home and the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation. Many charitable causes dedicated to helping young people and families in the greater Grand Rapids area are supported through the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation. Doug is a member of the Global Strategic Advisory Council for Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management where he earned his bachelor’s degree.
People clearly do make the difference in this world and Rich DeVos, his wife, Helen, and their four children have accomplished more than most. From a humble start after The Great Depression, The DeVos family has created and/ or run multi-billion dollar businesses, employed millions of people and donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charity. One can only imagine how much brighter the world will be when Rich and Helen’s 16 grandchildren add their contributions to those of their parents and grandparents.
- Bruce Burrsmon, “Rich DeVos’ Second Wind.” The data was obtained at website http://www.strang.com/nm stories/nmy96ric.htm.Ibid.
- Wilbur Cross and Gordon Olson, Committed to Excellence (New York: The Benjamin Company, 1986) p. 14.
- Hoover’s Handbook of Private Companies 2001.
- Rich DeVos, Compassionate Capitalism, (New York: Dutton, 1993) p. 335.
- Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation, (New York: Random House, 1998), p. 1.
- Daniel G. Fricker, “Conversation with Richard DeVos,”The Detroit Free Press,