Economic Development, Human Resources, and Manufacturing

Rich DeVos leaves a legacy of 'stewardship'

Family, community leaders say Amway co-founder used his wealth and knowledge for the betterment of Grand Rapids.

September 7, 2018
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Rich DeVos
Richard M. DeVos died of complications from an infection Sept. 6. He was 92. Photo by Michael Buck

It would be hard to make it through a day in West Michigan without seeing evidence of Richard M. DeVos’ presence.

Whether it’s the thousands of people employed because of Ada-based Amway, a global direct-selling company he co-founded with Jay Van Andel; the many downtown buildings he and Van Andel helped plan, build and fund that bear his or his partner’s name; his support of health care, education and entrepreneurship; or the causes he and his children and grandchildren’s foundations, businesses and nonprofits now support, such as the arts, religion, politics, and children and families — it’s undeniable DeVos and his late wife, Helen, made their mark on the region.

DeVos died Sept. 6 of complications from an infection. He was 92.

Community respects

Tributes from business and community leaders poured in after his death, from Fifth Third Bank Regional President Tom Welch — who said DeVos was a “servant leader” in all his doings — to Michael G. Ford, son of former President Gerald R. Ford and chair of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, who noted the DeVos Learning Center named in the man’s honor would live on at the museum for “generations.”

Richard “Rick” M. DeVos III, in a series of tweets Sept. 6 said he celebrated his grandfather’s “incredible legacy of creation and generosity.”

He posted a letter of thanks he read aloud to his grandfather on his 90th birthday, which described Rich DeVos as “a man who has trusted and invested in and partnered with people through decades” and whose name he has the “daunting honor” of bearing.

DeVos’ net worth as of Sept. 6 was $5.5 billion, according to Forbes. Rick DeVos said his grandfather maintained an attitude of “cosmic humility” about his advantages throughout his life.

“Thank you for teaching us the meaning of stewardship,” he said in the letter. “Whether it is the proper care of a boat or proper governance of a business and respect for partners and employees, you have taught us to value what we have been entrusted with, and the joy that comes from taking responsibility for it.”

Grand Valley State University President Thomas Haas called DeVos “an exemplar” of stewardship.

“He was investing in the future with our students and our alumni serving West Michigan and the rest of the world,” Haas said. “His legacy will be felt by Grand Valley for decades, if not centuries. We are a much better place because of him.”

Haas added DeVos understood the regional economy needed talent to power its industries and fuel the economic engines, which is why he espoused a spirit of collaboration in partnerships with other leaders, philanthropists, the city, business owners and higher education partners.

“It was not just him personally; he was able to bring so many others around him to support Grand Valley and the economic vitality of this entire region,” Haas said.

Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place, West Michigan’s economic development agency, said her heart is “full of gratitude” to DeVos, the “heart and soul of this community.”

“From an economic development perspective, we wouldn’t be looking at the Grand Rapids we are today if not for his leadership tackling the issues he did,” she said. “He loved his hometown and passed the love onto his children and grandchildren. The way it looks, the vibe it has, it all started with a handful of people under his leadership to say, ‘Let’s tackle issues to get this going,’ and he did.”

Philanthropist and businessman Peter Secchia said he knew DeVos for 40 years and “loved him like a brother.”

“He was a mentor, a leader and a visionary,” Secchia said. “He’s a place I went whenever there were any big questions on how to turn this town around.”

Thankful for DeVos’ help with the Millennium Park project and developing Medical Mile, Secchia said DeVos had a practical rationale for putting his names on buildings and urged Secchia to consider it, too.

“He said to me, ‘If people don’t know whether they should put their name on a project and donate, maybe they would consider if they saw your name. Put your name on a building, and others will join up.’ That was his logic,” Secchia said. Michigan State University College of Human Medicine’s Secchia Center opened in 2010.

Secchia said DeVos was “tuned in” to global issues and used his big-picture thinking to revitalize Grand Rapids.

“If I had to pick any one person as the seed for Grand Rapids’ resurgence, it would be Rich DeVos,” Secchia said. “He was a great man, and I will miss him greatly.”

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said DeVos had an “infectious” level of belief in Grand Rapids and its people and potential.

“Richard DeVos was a kind, generous and relentlessly positive man,” she said. “While he impacted lives around the world, I am particularly grateful for his leadership, vision and commitment right here in Grand Rapids. Rich DeVos literally changed the landscape and future of our city for the better. My thoughts and prayers are with his family as we all mourn the loss of a true legend and friend of Grand Rapids.”

Richard M. DeVos

DeVos was born March 4, 1926, in Grand Rapids, graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School, attended Calvin College and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1944-46.

He married the former Helen J. Van Wesep of Grand Rapids in 1953, and they had four children: Dick, Dan, Cheri and Doug. Helen DeVos died last October.

Amway

DeVos and Van Andel founded Amway from their homes in Ada in 1959, adopting a direct-selling approach they learned about 10 years prior working as independent distributors for Nutrilite, a California manufacturer of vitamins.

After the first year of business, they moved to an abandoned service station at the site of Amway’s current headquarters.

Over the next five decades, they built their business into an international corporation, which reported $8.6 billion in 2017 sales.

DeVos was Amway president from the company’s founding until 1993, when he was succeeded by his son, Dick, and in 2002 by his son, Doug. Doug DeVos and Steve Van Andel currently are co-CEOs.

Philanthropy

In the 1970s, as chair of the New Grand Rapids Committee, DeVos was instrumental in the revitalization of downtown Grand Rapids, including building DeVos Performance Hall.

He later spearheaded projects to improve his hometown through higher education, health care, economic development and the arts.

He and Jay Van Andel led the restoration of the former Pantlind Hotel, which was purchased by Amway and is now the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. DeVos and Van Andel also spearheaded the Amway-owned JW Marriott Hotel.

DeVos and his late wife supported many other community projects, such as DeVos Place Convention Center and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

The couple also supported Christian education, including the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Arts and Worship at Grand Rapids Christian High School, the DeVos Communication Center at Calvin College, the Helen DeVos College of Education at Lee University and Hope College.

They supported other higher education institutions as well, including Grand Valley State University, Northwood University, Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and The King’s College in New York City.

Politics

DeVos was an active political supporter and major contributor to the Republican Party.

He was a friend of U.S. Presidents Gerald R. Ford, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Presidential Commission on AIDS.

He served as finance chairman for the Republican National Committee and was a member of the Advisory Board for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Local civic leadership

DeVos served numerous organizations with board leadership locally, including as chair, Butterworth Health Corp.; honorary committee member, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital; board member, Spectrum Health; director, Grand Rapids Economic Club and of the Heart of West Michigan United Way; president, Junior Achievement of Grand Rapids; and board member, Gerald R. Ford Foundation.

Other pursuits

DeVos spoke on freedom, family, faith and philanthropy to “hundreds of thousands” of people worldwide and kept a full schedule of speaking engagements for a variety of business and charitable organizations across the country, according to the RDV Corporation.

He wrote five books: BELIEVE! (1975), Compassionate Capitalism (1993), Hope from My Heart (2000), Ten Powerful Phrases for Positive People (2008) and Simply Rich (2014), a memoir.

The DeVos family purchased the Orlando Magic in September 1991, and DeVos was senior chair at the time of his death.

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