Richard DeVos, Great American Scam Artist
Right-wing billionaire Richard DeVos, who died at ninety-two last week, tried to cover up his life’s record — pioneering the cruel pyramid scheme Amway, attacking organized labor, fighting LGBTQ equality — with philanthropy. But he should be remembered as a bigoted con artist.
The New York Times obituary for Amway founder and former CEO Richard DeVos praised him for his civic service in Grand Rapids, Michigan, his philanthropy in medicine, education, and religion, and his mentorship of Shaquille O’Neal as owner of the Orlando Magic. But a more accurate portrait of DeVos’s legacy can be gleaned from a slightly less highbrow source: the subreddit r/AntiMLM (Multi-Level-Marketing).
The subreddit reads like an oral history archive of the destruction sowed by DeVos and Amway, the multi-level marketing company he co-founded with Jay Van Andel. In a thread titled “Be Especially Wary of Amway, Starbucks Baristas!,” the poster complains that the company “is known for scouting baristas specifically” and recounts how “Amway infiltrated the Starbucks I used to work at … and turned one employee and his fiance into the most insufferable assholes almost overnight.” In another thread titled “My ex got involved in Amway. Cue divorce,” a Redditor laments that “Every cent of our minuscule budget (in our 20’s) was spent on expensive products, ‘training’ materials and conferences.”
While the accounts vary, one theme is consistent: Amway has wreaked havoc on people’s lives. Through its blend of bootstraps ideology and evangelicalism, Amway duped millions.
The corporation operated as the world’s biggest pyramid scheme, and DeVos should be remembered as one of its primary architects. But DeVos’s misdeeds didn’t stop there. His conservative philanthropy, which earned him that glowing Times obituary, helped spur the unprecedented wealth inequality we see today. Perhaps that was DeVos’s greatest con: funding the policies that kept Americans poor, preying on that economic vulnerability to bring them to Amway and further enrich himself, and then repeating the cycle.
A Path to Redemption
Ironically, the free market crusader DeVos owes some of his riches to communism. In 1927, the Chinese Civil War forced American businessman Carl F. Rehnborg, who had worked for the U.S. Steel, Carnation, and Colgate corporations, back to the United States. Taking advantage of the budding vitamin and direct sales industries, Rehnborg founded Nutrilite, a dietary supplement company, in 1934.
Fifteen years later, grade-school buddies Van Andel and DeVos conceived of the exotic-sounding Ja-Ri Corporation (a fusion of their first names). Like Rehnborg, Van Andel and DeVos had an imperialist’s knack for exploiting foreign markets, and the short-lived business got its start importing wood products from Latin America. Facing weak sales, the company switched from mahogany to Nutrilite — Rehnborg’s creation. Amway, short for the American Way, was born.
From the beginning, DeVos amassed his fortune by swindling ordinary people. He inspired in his adherents an unwavering belief in a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative — then offered them no other person to blame when they failed. “Those who really want to succeed, succeed,” insisted DeVos, “and the others didn’t try hard enough.”
Of course, this was a sham. At Amway, failure was, and still is, assured: in 2011, the Consumer Awareness Institute calculated loss rates exceeding 99.9 percent. Amway’s business model involves selling overpriced products (soap, vitamins, skin care, home goods) and minimizing the bonus payout to distributors through a complicated hierarchy of distributors, called the “downline” in Amway parlance.
In a 2008 UK case, government authorities reported that out of a distributor population of 33,000, only about 90 made enough income to cover the costs of running the business. Former seller Eric Scheibeler published an expose on Amway, Merchants of Deception, which showed, among other revelations, that DeVos had been aware of Amway’s pyramid-scheme practices for over twenty years.
DeVos, who has forked out $200 million since the 1970s to fund the conservative movement, including many evangelical groups like the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and the Acton Institute, was never afraid to bring evangelicalism into his business.
Amway meetings have been likened to church revivals, and DeVos to the evangelical preacher Billy Graham. “Amvox,” Amway’s voicemail system, the primary way the company communicated with sellers (that they were also required to spend $15 a month to subscribe to), broadcasted a blend of free-market fanaticism and right-wing religious ideology to its distributors during the 1990s and early 2000s.
The gospel of Christian free enterprise permeated all levels of the organization.
“It wasn’t like any church I’d been to,” remarked one of Amway’s distributors to the Charlotte Observer in 1995. “I saw people professing their faith in Jesus Christ and not ashamed. … I didn’t see one person who reached high levels who didn’t acknowledge the Lord and give him credit for the success.”
The sociologists David Bromley and Anson Shupe have argued that what is unique about Amway is not its melding of God and capitalism, an amalgam almost as old as Christianity itself. Instead, the power of Amway lies in its ability to harness these ideologies “to motivate individual salespersons far beyond the scope of their actual remuneration or realistic prospects thereof.” Amway takes free-market worship a step further, garnering much of its wealth from selling the idea of prosperity itself. Upper-level distributors, the top 2 percent, don’t sell soap — they hawk instructional seminars, CDs, books, website access, voicemail recordings, and other sales “tools” to the lower-level sales force — at huge profit margins.
DeVos and Van Andel sold Amway not only as a path to wealth, but as a path to redemption for the alienated American worker. They recruited distributors by peddling a vision of small entrepreneurship and individual freedom in a corporate, bureaucratized, and —coinciding with Amway’s rise during the 1970s and ‘80s — increasingly economically unstable world. Bromley again: “The message [in network marketing] is: `We’re putting the family back in charge. The corporation doesn’t control you.’”
Central to this ideology is the notion, present in most Amway literature, that the individual seller could, through hard work and determination, control his destiny. “Amway is just the good old American dream,’ said William Campbell, a distributor for the company in Hilton Head, South Carolina, told the New York Times in 1977. “Everybody has the idea to open their own business and see it go. Amway lets you.”
This small business owner ethos is also reflected in the multi-level marketing model itself. Because salespeople rely on an informal network composed mostly of friends and family, distributor networks function as both extended family and business network. The model relies on a high degree of exploitation, as people’s social and family relationships become weaponized to coerce them into buying or sell Amway-brand protein powder or dish detergent.
As Amway prophet and profiteer Dexter Yager once noted when describing Amway’s model, “If you work just for money, you’ll reach a point where you may have enough and you’ll let up. We build relationships, and people don’t normally quit on people who love them.”
The valorization of the small business owner is in many ways a product of the twentieth-century conservative movement, but it’s also rooted in something deeper. In crafting their business ethos, DeVos and Van Andel drew on a relic of the old republic: the independent yeoman farmer. The yeoman farmer, always envisioned as a white man, was a symbol of the ideal American for founding fathers like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. The ultimate embodiment of settler colonialism as well as republican values, the yeoman farmer owned his own modest farm and profited from the labor of his own family. Above all, he was independent — unlike the wage-laboring class, he was not reliant on an employer to support his livelihood.
An anecdote from Stephen Butterfield’s book Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise illustrates how the company’s leadership marketed this ideology to its salesforce. One “Emerald” (top-performing) seller relayed to his distributor network a brief history lesson, no doubt culled from the top brass, on the reason that people have jobs: “Americans got lazy and did not want to be in business for themselves anymore. Workers in short were in the working class because they ‘lost their Dream.’”
By holding up the independent distributor as the modern equivalent of the yeoman farmer, Amway played into sellers’ dreams of a life free from the tyranny of a boss — even as the company controlled every facet of sellers’ lives: personal, economic, spiritual, and political.
Indeed, DeVos and the Amway leadership did not limit their activities to privately funding conservative causes. They also enlisted the Amway sales force in that project. Butterfield notes that in “the elections of 1980 and 1984, Amway leaders everywhere were using their tax deductible business functions to drum up support for Ronald Reagan.”
A 1996 Mother Jones investigation revealed widespread use of corporate resources, including the Amvox system, to influence the election of Republican congresswoman Sue Myrick, in what may have been a violation of campaign laws. “They tell you to always vote conservative no matter what. They say liberals support the homosexuals and let women get out of their place,” Karen Jones, a former distributor, said.
Perhaps the investigation’s most bizarre finding was a leaked voicemail message forwarded from Yager to his distributors on the Amvox system: “If you analyze Bill Clinton’s entire inaugural address, it is nothing but a New Age pagan ritual. If you go back and look at how it was arranged and how it was orchestrated, he talked about forcing the spring. So what they’re trying to do is … force the emergence of deviant lifestyles, of a socialist agenda, and force that on us as American people.”
For a man so purportedly fixated on individual freedom, DeVos — like many American bosses — never had any reservations about coercing his sales force into doing his political bidding.
In fact, contempt for workplace democracy has been a hallmark of the anti-labor organizations and legislation funded by the DeVos largesse. An early supporter of “right to work” laws, DeVos was a Director of the Council on a Union-Free Environment, founded in 1977.
Throughout the years, he has contributed vast sums of money to anti-worker organizations like the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, the National Conservative Political Action Committee, the American Conservative Union Victory Fund, the National Right to Work Committee, and the Public Service Political Action Committee. Most recently, the DeVos clan, led by DeVos’s son and daughter-in-law, Richard “Dick” DeVos, Jr and Betsy DeVos, funded the passage of right-to-work legislation in Michigan, which has provided a blueprint for other states.
A Life Marked by Fraud and Deception
The DeVos name has been in the news ever since Betsy’s appointment as Secretary of Education to President Trump. Of all of the curiosities in Trump’s cabinet, which has included at various times a fast-food CEO as nominee for the Secretary of Labor and a professional wrestling executive as head of the Small Business Administration, Betsy DeVos may be the most instinctually odious to the Left. She cleared the ground for the proliferation of for-profit charter schools in Detroit, which has resulted in the lowest scores the district has seen, as well as a “Wild West” ethos in which profiteering and mismanagement runs rampant.
Betsy’s bankrolling of anti-LGBTQ causes, to the tune of almost $2 million, also aligns perfectly with her father-in-law’s record. Richard DeVos’s hostility to LGBT rights traces back at least as far as the 1980s, when he served on President Reagan’s Commission on the HIV epidemic. He later reflected on the experience:
I listened to three hundred witnesses tell us that it was everybody else’s fault but their own. Nothing to do with their conduct, just that the government didn’t fix this disease … I said, you are responsible for your actions too, you know. Conduct yourself properly, which is a pretty solid Christian principle.
While hospital buildings, concert halls, and sports arenas in West Michigan bear Richard DeVos’s imprint, so do multiple, ongoing lawsuits and regulatory crackdowns against Amway, a recent Janus Supreme Court ruling that draws on his long-funded battle against unions, and numerous exposés from former Amway sellers who paid a high price for buying in to the American dream.
In a life marked by fraud and deception, the bootstraps narrative was one of Richard DeVos’s greatest swindles. The Redditor whose marriage fell apart because of her husband’s involvement with Amway might agree. Even as his marriage crumbled before his eyes, her soon-to-be-ex was intransigent: “Do not blame Amway for this!” he instructed as she walked out the door. “Amway is just a vehicle for success!!”