Jay Van Andel Biography

Born June 3, 1924, in Grand Rapids, MI; died of Parkinson's disease, December 7, 2004, in Ada, MI. Entrepreneur. Amway, the company co-founded by Jay Van Andel, grew into one of the most impressive—and controversial—success stories in American entrepreneurship. Van Andel was the architect of Amway's alluring direct-marketing strategy of selling consumer goods through a network of personal contacts, though the company sometimes attracted unfavorable attention from consumer-watchdog groups. Along with longtime business partner Richard DeVos, Van Andel was one of Michigan's most prominent business leaders, and a generous contributor to Republican Party and conservative political causes.

Van Andel was born in 1924 in Grand Rapids, a city in western Michigan that in the late nineteenth century had become a mecca of sorts for Dutch immigrants who belonged to an evangelical Protestant sect, the Christian Reformed Church. At the city's Christian High School, Van Andel met DeVos, and teamed with him to start a flight school after returning from service in the Army Air Corps during World War II. They opened a drive-in restaurant that made butter-fried hamburgers from their mothers' recipes, but later sold both businesses and bought a schooner to sail the Caribbean. They had planned to launch a sea-going business with it, but the vessel was wrecked near Cuba and they returned to Grand Rapids.

Back home, Van Andel and DeVos set up an import business, and also sold a food supplement called Nutrilite for its manufacturer. Using what they learned from selling that to friends and family, they founded Amway in the basement of Van Andel's house in 1959 with L.O.C., an all-purpose household cleaner. Their company moniker was short for "the American way," and relied on a multilevel direct marketing scheme. New sales recruits would buy a shipment of the products, and sell them to others at a markup price as an independent distributor. The key to success, however, was to recruit others to join the growing sales force; in return, independent distributors would receive a percentage of the profits from what their recruits sold.

Van Andel wrote all the sales and marketing materials himself in the early days of Amway, which grew to include self-help books and motivational tapes. These, too, would be sold to new recruits by the independent distributors, and the range of Amway-brand products grew to include nearly every consumer product, from soap to vitamins. Amway's blend of free-enterprise basics and motivational selling was not without its detractors, and some dissatisfied members claimed the company operated what was essentially a large-scale scam. It was investigated by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for a number of years, but the founders' connections to a Grand Rapids-born Republican who went to the White House in 1974, Gerald R. Ford, helped it avoid further inquiries. Amway failed to elude an investigation by the Canadian government, however, which in 1983 brought tax-evasion charges against it for misstating the value of goods that crossed the U.S.-Canadian border. Amway paid a fine that totaled $58 million, the largest ever levied in Canadian history.

Amway expanded internationally, and gained a particularly large number of members in China and other Asian countries during the 1990s. The company eventually changed its name to Alticor and was thought to be valued at $6.2 billion by 2004. Van Andel retired as company chair in 1995, and continued to devote himself to philanthropic causes. Both he and DeVos gave generously to various Grand Rapids cultural institutions, and among the many projects that bear the Van Andel name is the Van Andel Institute, dedicated to education and medical research. He also funded an Arizona facility hoping to prove, through scientific methods, that the world was created by a supreme being in six days, as the Christian Bible asserts. He was also an enthusiastic donor to Republican Party coffers, and during the 2004 presidential campaign donated $2 million to Progress for America, an organization which produced a series of television ads that questioned the values and experience of Democratic White House hopeful John Kerry.

Van Andel was married to Betty Hoekstra of Grand Rapids in 1952, with whom he had four children. She died in January of 2004 on a private island the family owned in the British Virgin Islands, and later that year Van Andel spent his final weeks there, too. He returned to Michigan and died at his home in Ada, Michigan, on December 7, 2004, age 80, after suffering from Parkinson's disease for a number of years. His is survived by his sons Steve and Dave, his daughters Nan and Barb, and ten grandchildren. His personal fortune was estimated by Forbes at $2.9 billion. "For me, the greatest pleasure comes not from the endless acquisition of material things, but from creating wealth and giving it away," he wrote in his 1998 autobiography, An Enterprising Life, according to Adam Bernstein in the Washington Post. "The task of every person on earth is to use everything he's given to the ultimate glory of God." Sources: Grand Rapids Press, December 8, 2004, p. A7; Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2004, p. B8; New York Times, December 8, 2004, p. A29; Washington Post, December 8, 2004, p. B6.

Carol Brennan

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