Richard DeVos, co-founder of the direct marketing company Amway and father-in-law of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has died. He was 92.
Richard DeVos was a billionaire, one of the richest men in Michigan for decades. But he came from humble beginnings. Because of his rags to riches success story, DeVos was fond of saying that anyone could succeed if they had the right tools and enough encouragement.
“You can do it. You can do it. It does pay. You can get ahead,” DeVos told a group of young leaders at a conference in 1966. His popular “Selling America” speech was released on vinyl in 1967.
“My dad used to say that to me. I used to say ‘oh I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ And he’d say ‘you say can’t once more and I’ll knock your block right through that wall,” DeVos told the crowd.
DeVos was born in 1926 in Grand Rapids to Dutch immigrants. They lost their home during the Great Depression. DeVos served in World War II.
Then he and his school buddy, Jay Van Andel, started businesses; several business. Most of them failed. But then, in 1959, the two started what would become the world’s largest direct selling company.
Amway, short for the American Way, sold concentrated, bio-degradable cleaning solution. But there wasn’t an Amway store. You had to buy it from your Amway seller.
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DeVos really believed if people had enough encouragement and a seed investment, one of these little kits with vitamins and shampoos to sell, it was possible for them to make something of themselves.
“To take a little kit and make a beginning and discover freedom and give them a little hope,” DeVos said, “Do all of them make it? No. But that’s not the key. The key is that the door was open so that they can make a beginning and lives are changed.”
Amway faced a number of legal challenges over the years, but the business continues to flourish, despite some lingering assertions that’s it’s just a giant pyramid scheme. The multi-billion-dollar business is still privately held by the DeVos and Van Andel families.
Arguably one of the biggest benefactors of Amway’s success is the city of Grand Rapids. Walk almost anywhere downtown and you’re bound to find a building named after Richard DeVos.
He made key investments back when Michigan’s second largest city was dubbed “Bland Rapids.” Those investments have helped revitalize the city. His donations to the arts, schools, churches and hospitals in West Michigan go back decades.
“They’re the kind of family that has done a lot for our community and we should be proud of their work,” Congressman Justin Amash (R-Grand Rapids) said in a 2014 interview with Michigan Radio.
Amash has had DeVos’ backing for years, even when other Republicans turned on Amash for his independent, libertarian streak.
“Also I’m proud of the fact that they really only ask that I represent the whole district to the best of my ability. I can’t say the same for some other people in the district who have come to me and asked for special favors,” Amash said.
DeVos once served as the finance chairman for the Republican National Committee. Over the decades, he and several of his family members contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to conservative political causes.
“In this city I hear a lot comments about the evils of giving,” DeVos told a group of Republican members of the U.S. Senate and House in 1998.
“Somehow it’s wrong for us in the private sector to give a lot. Like success is supposed to be sinful. Like poverty is virtuous. But that’s the America that I know and that I believe in,” he said.
“When we give generously to politics because it represents the same cause of giving people hope and freedom then it’s (considered) evil. And I’m sorry; I make no apologies for our giving to politics,” DeVos concluded.
Later in life, DeVos focused a little less on business and politics.
He was a deeply religious man, belonging to the Grand Rapids-based Christian Reformed Church. Over the last several years, he was much more open about trying to get people to accept Jesus Christ as their savior.