Amway co-founder, GOP donor Richard DeVos dies

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Amway co-founder billionaire Richard M. DeVos, who donated millions to philanthropic efforts and was a leading supporter of Republican politics, died Thursday morning at his home from complications of an infection, according to a family spokesman. He was 92.

Richard DeVos, Orlando Magic owner and Amway Inc. co-founder, smiles after welcoming fans to the new Amway Center  in Orlando, Fla, in 2010.

The influential businessman and philanthropist started Amway with his lifetime business partner, the late Jay Van Andel, in their basements in Ada, growing it into an international direct-sales giant with billions of dollars in annual sales. In March, Forbes named him the 379th-richest billionaire in the world with a net worth of $5.4 billion.

His business fortunes fueled a family known for its political and philanthropic giving, becoming influential in West Michigan and nationwide. He was instrumental to the revitalization of Grand Rapids.

"Rich and my father built this company from the ground up, and in many ways, Rich was the heart and soul of Amway," Van Andel's son Steve, Amway chairman, said in a statement. "His vision and spirit inspired our employees and independent business owners for more than 50 years."

DeVos was Amway's president since its founding in 1959 until 1993, when he was succeeded by his son, Dick, and then by son Doug in 2002. He remained active as a member of the company's board of directors until his death.

John Truscott, CEO of the public relations firm Truscott Rossman, described DeVos as an optimistic and personable leader who used stories and experiences to win them over.

"He supported people and issues that he believed in them," Truscott said. "Whether that be a community-type organization, a charity or somebody running for office. He made his opinions known, and he fully exercised his right to support people and causes."

In a post on Twitter, DeVos' grandson Rick, an investor and founder of the ArtPrize festival in Grand Rapids, said he would remember his grandfather for his curiosity, creativity and encouragement.

“Anyone who spent any amount of time—as little as a few seconds—with Grandpa knows that he truly, deeply loved people," he said. "He was interested in them, in learning what they were thinking and doing. And he was a relentless encourager...Not a single visit, even in these final days and moments when he was still able to speak, was spent without hearing words of encouragement from him. Warmth and care radiated from his entire being.”

DeVos and his late wife, Helen, were supporters of Christian ministries and churches through their Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. Additionally, their philanthropic efforts supported Michigan colleges such as Calvin College, Grand Valley State University, Hope College, Michigan State University and Northwood University.

Meijer Vice Chairman Mark Murray, the former Grand Valley State president, told The Detroit News that DeVos began his association with the university as a guest lecturer in the 1960s and first served on its board in 1975.

He said DeVos was influential in the growth and development of Grand Valley, and that the "whole experience of Grand Rapids owes a deep gratitude" to him. In the 1970s, DeVos was instrumental in the revitalization of downtown Grand Rapids, including the construction of the DeVos Performance Hall and restoration of what is now the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

"Rich was someone who kept adding," Murray said. "He wasn't a divider. He was someone who brought people in. He asked them what they were interested in, and he brought them in."

DeVos also was a major donor to the Republican Party, in the state and nationally. Truscott said he had the ear of influential leaders and presidents, notably Michigan native Gerald Ford, called him to ask for his opinion on issues.

Steve Mitchell, a pollster and Republican strategist, said DeVos was a major contributor to John Engler's election to governor in 1991 and the Republicans' rise to power.

"Without guys like Richard DeVos, I think the party would be different," Mitchell said. "In order for political parties and political candidates to have the financial resources to carry their message, the DeVos family, starting with Richard, were tremendous contributors, not just Gov. Engler, but for federal and state officials for decades."

President Ronald Reagan appointed DeVos to the Presidential Commission on AIDS. He served as finance chairman for the Republican National Committee and on the Advisory Board for the National Republican Congressional Committee. He was the father-in-law of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

"He was a wonderful man," Betsy DeVos said on a call with media from the first-ever G20 Education Ministers' Meeting in Chile. "I'm privileged to have been his daughter-in-law for 38 years. It's a bittersweet day for the DeVos family. My heart is in Michigan at the moment..."

Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement that DeVos' "giving spirit" is his legacy that will live on forever.

"The positive impact Rich had on our state is truly immeasurable," Snyder said. "Through successful business ventures and charitable endeavors, he created endless opportunities for residents of many different ages and backgrounds."

In a statement, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said DeVos was a "pillar of Western Michigan": His vision, intellect, compassion and mentorship will be missed immensely."

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser hailed DeVos as a personal role model. "As a citizen and philanthropist, he fought to make our world a better place to live," he said in statement.

GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Schuette also shared praise for DeVos on Twitter: "He embodied the very best of America: enterprise, strength of family and faith in God. Rich had an unparalleled belief in the power of entrepreneurism. His positive approach to solving problems, meeting challenges head on and his deep commitment to the responsibility of giving back to your community is a model of American citizenship."

DeVos also championed the merger of Butterworth and Blodget hospitals into Spectrum Health. With his wife, he made a donation for the creation of Helen DeVos Children's Hospital.

"Today we lost a giant in our community and a man with as large of a heart," said Tina Freese Decker, Spectrum CEO. "He wanted to make sure high-quality care was here."

The DeVos family bought the Orlando Magic NBA franchise in 1991. In 2016, DeVos, the senior chairman, was inducted into the team's hall of fame.

“Mr. DeVos' boundless generosity, inspirational leadership and infectious enthusiasm will always be remembered," Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins said in a statement. "Simply, he was the team's No. 1 cheerleader and the best owner that a Magic fan could ever want for their team."

DeVos was born March 4, 1926, in Grand Rapids. He came from humble roots: His father lost his job as an electrician during the Great Depression, and the family had to move in with his grandparents. He once recalled stuffing a baseball with fabric and tying it together because he and his friends couldn't afford a new one. As a sophomore in high school, he was labeled "not college material."

He met Jay Van Andel while the pair were students at Grand Rapids Christian High School. A friendship grew from a business arrangement: DeVos paid Van Andel 25 cents a week for a ride to and from school in his 1931 Model A Ford.

DeVos graduated in 1944 and attended Calvin College before serving in the Army Air Corps from 1944 to 1946 during World War II. In 1953, he married the former Helen J. Van Wesep.

DeVos' and Van Andel's early entrepreneurial ventures included a flight school and one of the first drive-in restaurants in Michigan. In 1949, they invested $49 and became independent distributors for Nutrilite, a manufacturer and direct seller of vitamins. Adopting the company's person-to-person selling approach, they started Amway from their homes with an all-purpose cleaner, L.O.C., as their only product and grew it to be the world's leading direct-selling business.

Van Andel died in 2004, and DeVos retired in 1993, putting the company under the corporate umbrella of Alticor, run by their children.

DeVos was outspoken in his Christian faith, often referring to himself as "just a sinner saved by grace." He served as an elder at Grand Rapids' LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, where he began attending after marrying his wife more than 50 years ago. DeVos attended services there through Easter, said Pastor Peter Jonker, after which he fell ill. DeVos underwent a heart transplant after two bypass surgeries in 1997.

Jonker said DeVos would stay after Sunday service to talk with people. He said after becoming a pastor at the church five years ago, DeVos sent him his memoir with inscription: "To Peter. Love ya, Rich DeVos."

"I sort of wondered about that; after two months, how sincere can you be?" Jonker said. "I learned he's just one of those people who loves people. That 'love ya' thing was really the center for him. His businesses were an expression of who we was."

DeVos is survived by four children and many grandchildren. His wife died in October 2017.

Services have not been announced, though Jonker said it likely will be sometime late next week. The family asks that memorial contributions be made to Grand Rapids Christian School Association, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, or Prison Fellowship Ministries.