DeVos, Richard M.

Along with his partner, Jay Van Andel, Rich DeVos founded Amway in 1959. After establishing his wealth, DeVos made major investments in downtown revitalization. He also supported education and the arts, including the Grand Rapids Symphony through his philanthropy.

Biographical Highlights

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1926, Richard DeVos is a product of the Great Depression and World War II. An ambitious entrepreneur during the post war boom, he founded Amway with his partner, Jay Van Andel, in 1959. Still headquartered in Grand Rapids, Amway grew to a multi-national, multi-billion dollar earning corporation. DeVos has given of his time and money in his hometown and beyond.

Historic Roots

Richard DeVos was born March 4, 1926 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Ethel and Simon DeVos. Much of his childhood was spent during the Great Depression and, like many others, his family struggled, including having to leave their home for a rental house for a period. DeVos was a Grand Rapids Press carrier as a boy. He attended Grand Rapids Christian High School and then Calvin College. He met his close friend and lifelong business partner, Jay Van Andel, in high school. Their backyards were adjacent. DeVos served in the United States Air Force from 1944 to 1946. After his World War II tour of duty, he was inspired, along with Van Andel, to open a flight school in Grand Rapids called Wolverine Air Service. The partners next pursued a series of short-lived business ventures, including a drive-in restaurant and a table tennis manufacturing operation.

DeVos married Helen Van Wesep in 1953, and the couple has four children—Dick, Daniel, Cheri and Doug—all of whom are also active philanthropists in Grand Rapids. Dick (Richard, Jr.) ran for governor of Michigan in 2006, but was defeated by the incumbent governor, Jennifer Granholm.

In 1949, DeVos and Van Andel became Nutrilite distributors, selling vitamins and other dietary supplements. They opened Harvest Health, a health food store on Eastern Avenue, and continued to sell Nutrilite for a decade. The two men launched Amway in 1959. The name is an abbreviation of “American Way.” At that time, they sold one product, a multi-purpose cleaner. Amway earned half a million dollars in 1960, six million by 1963, and five billion by 1997. The company expanded to Canada in 1962, Africa in 1997, and eventually to at least 80 countries. In 2000, a parent company, Alticor, was established with subsidiaries Amway, Quixtar, and others.
 
Importance

Richard DeVos played a major role in the revitalization of downtown Grand Rapids, beginning in the 1970s. Amway purchased the Pantlind Hotel in 1978, conducted a major renovation, and reopened it as the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in September 1981. The project leaders wanted to have a better place to accommodate Amway distributors and an improved central city for Grand Rapids in general. The $24 million renovation of the former Pantlind Hotel is widely regarded as the pivotal act that saved downtown from the decline that it and other midsized cities experienced in the latter half of the twentieth century.

The Grand Center and DeVos Performance Hall opened adjacent to the Amway hotel in October 1980. The Grand Center is a convention facility capable of attracting large groups of business people to spend extended time in Grand Rapids. DeVos Hall is an auditorium equipped for performances of the symphony, ballet, and opera. Richard M. DeVos was actively involved in the planning of these Grand Rapids attractions, and he also gave large gifts of money toward their creation. He did the same for DeVos Place that opened in December 2003.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Richard DeVos served on the boards of the Grand Rapids Symphony, United Way of Kent County, Butterworth Hospital, Grand Valley State University, St. Cecilia Music Society, the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, and many others. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, including the Calvin College Distinguished Alumni Award, a Doctor of Letters from Hope College in 1982, and a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Grand Valley State University in 1992. He has given millions of dollars toward community efforts and has had several buildings named in his honor in response. The Richard M. DeVos Center, housing the Seidman School of Business and the International Trade Center at Grand Valley State University, broke ground in October 1997. The DeVos Center for Arts and Worship at Grand Rapids Christian High School was completed in 2002. Grand Valley State University’s Cook DeVos Center for Health Sciences opened in 2003.

Key Related Ideas

Raised in a family that endured the Great Depression and having served in World War II himself, Richard DeVos is a representative of what has been called the Greatest Generation. These national events affected the people who lived through them with a common attitude toward community responsibility. His strong Christian upbringing also inclined him towards giving back, tithing, and philanthropy. Successful entrepreneurship enabled DeVos to build a multi-billion dollar fortune. His views on capitalism and philanthropy have led him to support conservative politics and to be active in the Republican Party, including on a national level. After establishing his wealth, DeVos made major investments in downtown revitalization and in cultural, educational, and medical organizations, especially in Grand Rapids.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Helen DeVos: Also born and raised in Grand Rapids, the former Helen Van Wesep met Rich DeVos in the Christian school and married him in 1953. Helen has been Richard’s partner in philanthropy since then. The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation was formed in 1970. The children’s hospital in Grand Rapids is named for Helen.
  • Jay VanAndel: VanAndel and Richard DeVos were friends since childhood and business partners since just after World War II. The two founded Amway in 1959. VanAndel was also active in philanthropy, especially in Grand Rapids. There is a public arena and a museum named for him.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Grand Rapids Christian Schools is an independent, non-profit, preschool through twelfth grade system dedicated to educating students in a faith-based environment. (http://www.grcs.org) The DeVos Center for Arts and Worship at Grand Rapids Christian High School is a 1,205 seat auditorium serving students and the community. (http://www.dcaw.org)
  • The Grand Rapids Symphony was officially organized in 1930 and is recognized as one of America’s leading regional orchestras. Eight concert series and extensive education and community service programs provide the community with performances designed for young children through adults, featuring a diverse repertoire. The Symphony sponsors the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, Grand Rapids Youth Symphony, and the Classical Orchestra. It also provides the orchestra for Opera Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Ballet Company. (http://www.grsymphony.org)
  • The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation focuses its giving in the area of Christian ministry and outreach. The Foundation also seeks to improve the quality of people’s lives and build stronger community through grants to a variety of local organizations.
  • St. Cecilia Music Society was established in 1883 and promotes the appreciation, study and performance of music in order to enrich the human spirit and enhance the quality of life for the residents of West Michigan. (http://www.scmsonline.org/Brix?pageID=1)

Related Web Sites

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Amway. Wikipedia. Accessed June 16, 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amway

Alticor, Inc. Company History. Answers.com. Accessed June 16, 2009. http://www.answers.com/topic/alticor-inc#Company_History_ans

The 400 Richest Americans: #73 Richard M DeVos. 09.21.06. Accessed June 16, 2009. http://www.forbes.com/lists/2006/54/biz_06rich400_Richard-M-DeVos_GLPH.html

Cross, Wilbur and Gordon Olson. Commitment to excellence: the Remarkable Amway Story. Elmsford, New York: Benjamin, c1986. ISBN: 0875021360

DeVos, Richard M. with Charles Paul Conn. Believe! Old Tappan, N.J.: F. H. Revell Co., [1975] New and revised 10th anniversary edition in 1985. ISBN:   0425074560

DeVos, Rich. Compassionate Capitalism: People Helping People to Help Themselves.
New York: Dutton, 1993. ISBN: 0525935673

DeVos, Rich. “Grand Rapids Visions: Highlighting Western Michigan” Pagoda Group, 2007.

DeVos, Rich. Hope from My Heart: Ten Lessons for Life. Nashville, Tenn: J. Countryman, 2000. ISBN: 0849957079

DeVos, Rich. Ten Powerful Phrases for Positive People. New York: Center Street, 2008. ISBN: 9781599950983

Fugate, Sandy. For the Benefit of All: A History of Philanthropy in Michigan. Battle Creek: W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 1997. ISBN: 1891445006

Maine, Donald. Maine Street: A Tribute to 27 West Michigan Entrepreneurs. Boston MA: Pearson Custom, 2002. ISBN-13: 9780536679918.

Richard Devos. Wikipedia. Accessed June 16, 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_DeVos

Williams, Pat with Jim Denney. How to Be Like Rich DeVos: Succeeding with Integrity in Business and Life. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 2004. ISBN: 0757301584

Clipping file and oral history in the SOUL of Philanthropy collection in the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections of the Grand Rapids Public Library