Born in 1926 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Richard M. DeVos, Sr. is an American businessman who in 1959 partnered with Jay Van Andel to found what would become the biggest direct selling company in history to date.
“We were just two guys from Ada, Michigan, who wanted to have a business of our own,” says Rich. “We were two kids (it still feels like that sometimes) who were hungry for success and who wanted to give others the chance to be in business for themselves, too.”
Last year Rich’s company did almost $12 billion in sales volume with a network of over three million distributors. Rich and Jay’s global enterprise operates in over a hundred countries and has 21,000 employees worldwide.
Rich has also owned professional sports franchises, including the Orlando Magic of the NBA. In 2012, Forbes magazine listed him as the sixtieth wealthiest person in the U.S. with an estimated net worth of $5 billion. At one point, he was one of the ten wealthiest Americans.
A lifelong advocate of free enterprise, Rich is a charismatic speaker and author of several books including Compassionate Capitalism (1993), Hope from My Heart: Ten Lessons for Life (2000), and Ten Powerful Phrases for Positive People (2008). At the occasion of his newest release, Simply Rich, we asked Rich to share his reflections on partnerships in business and in life.—J.G.
You start your book with, “I’ve been a cheerleader most of my life.” You define cheerleading as encouraging others to have confidence and use their talents to follow their dreams. Is success really this simple?
My father always taught me to believe in the unlimited potential of individual drive and effort. Any time I’d say, “I can’t,” he’d stop me and say, “There’s no such word as can’t.” He impressed on me that “I can’t” is a self-defeating statement. “I can” is a statement of confidence and power. My father always reminded me, “You can do it!” Those words stuck with me and guided me for the rest of my life. I’ve used the same words to guide and inspire others all over the world.
You can make excuses about not having the right education or experience, not coming from the right background, being afraid to attempt something new or a challenge that appears too daunting. You can sit around and cry about what you perceive as a life stacked against you, or you can try. Just try, and if you fail, try again. In my experience, trying always beats crying.
You grew up in the Great Depression with 25 percent unemployment. Even your father lost his job so your family had to move in with his parents. Despite the hardships, you never lost hope or stopped dreaming. Do you see any parallels with our economic times?
My father always encouraged me to go into business for myself. His experience was that he had no control over being employed or unemployed. His destiny was in the hands of his employer. More importantly, he convinced me that being a business owner was not an impossible dream.
You mention being inspired by the partnership of your mother and father. Can you draw any parallels between parenting and leadership?
My parents instilled a strong work ethic early on in my life. With my parents as role models, I accepted work as part of life and essential to a successful home and family. Starting a business, starting a life of your own, or starting a family—it all takes a lot of strength and courage. You’ve got to really apply yourself and work at it consistently and persistently. Parents need to work at helping children learn accountability and the value of work. We need to take an interest in our children, teaching them how to communicate, seeing that they get the right education, and helping them be aware of where they’re at in life. We need to dedicate ourselves to helping them grow to be the best they can be.
I love the story of how you met Jay Van Andel and the special friendship that ensued. You say you were unlike each other, but alike in worldview and philosophy. Can you speak to the power of partnership? “Lifelong partnerships in business are rare...” What makes them work—and last?
The reasons for our lifelong partnership and friendship seemed so simple and natural but are hard to put into words for anyone who has not experienced such a unique relationship. The beginning was so inconsequential: a deal of 25 cents a week for rides to school. Just a few years later in a time of war, Jay is writing me as “your best friend and pal as always.” A few months later we are in my parents’ garage, barely men, proposing the formation of a business partnership.
Very rare is the lone businessman who has all the wisdom, knowledge, skills, and talents to make it on his own. Jay and I knew that from the start. We saw that opposites attract—or the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, or whatever. Jay and I were two different parts that somehow meshed to make everything work.
You dedicate your book to your wife “who was an integral part of it.” Can you say something about that partnership?
When we started the company, my basement was the warehouse and Jay’s was the office. Helen knew how to type and helped with secretarial duties. Helen thumb-tacked yards of muslin, which her Brownie Girl Scout troop had tie-dyed in pink over the bare stud walls in an unfinished room downstairs that had become my office. I appreciate, now more than ever, Helen and her role in the early days. She probably was wondering what she had gotten herself into with a business being run out of her basement, but she gamely joined in the adventure.
Building a successful family begins with a successful marriage. In 2013 Helen and I celebrated our sixtieth wedding anniversary, and the years have been good to us. I think about what a blessing she has been and how I took those early years for granted. When you’re young, you are unaware of all the blessings you have.
Jay Van Andel and Rich DeVos, friends since school days, had been business partners in various endeavors including a hamburger stand, air charter service, and a sailing business. In 1949 they were introduced by Van Andel’s second cousin to a California-based direct sales company. In August 1949, after a night-long talk, DeVos and Van Andel signed up to become distributors for food supplements.
They sold their first box the next day for $19.50, but lost interest for the next two weeks. Shortly thereafter, at the urging of their cousin, who had become their sponsor, they traveled to Chicago to attend a company event. The meeting was at a downtown hotel, with over a hundred people in attendance. After seeing promotional filmstrips and listening to talks by company representatives and successful distributors, they decided to pursue the business opportunity with enthusiasm. They sold their second box of supplements on their return trip to Michigan, and rapidly proceeded to develop their new business further.
By 1958, DeVos and Van Andel had built an organization of over 5,000 distributors. However, following concerns about the company’s stability, in April 1959 they and some of their top distributors formed The American Way Association to represent the distributors and look for additional products to market.
Their first product was a concentrated organic cleaner developed by a scientist in Ohio. DeVos and Van Andel bought the rights to manufacture and distribute it and later changed the name. They subsequently formed their own corporation to procure and inventory products and to handle the sales and marketing plan, and a second services corporation to handle insurance and other benefits for distributors.
The company expanded overseas to Australia in 1971, to Europe in 1973, to parts of Asia in 1974, to Japan in 1979, to Latin America in 1985, to China in 1995, to Africa in 1997, to India and Scandinavia in 1998, to Ukraine in 2003, to Russia in 2005, and to Vietnam in 2008.
In 1999 the founders of the corporation established a new holding company and launched three sister companies: an e-commerce company, a research and development company, and a company responsible for manufacturing and logistics.
As of 2011 the corporation operates in over 100 countries and territories, organized into regional markets: the Americas, Europe, greater China, Japan and Korea, and Southeast Asia/Australia.
Today Doug DeVos and Steve Van Andel oversee daily operations of the company their fathers founded, leading a diverse global management team that supports a growing network of independent business owners around the world.
Gratitude and Praise from Network Marketing Leaders
Many network marketing leaders feel a debt of gratitude to Rich DeVos who gave them their first vision and education about network marketing. We asked some of today’s leaders in the profession how Rich has influenced their success. Here are their testimonies about the man we might call “the godfather of network marketing.”
“I met Rich DeVos my first few months in the company. Rich and his partner Jay became like my second fathers to me. Rich has always had a unique ability to connect with people. He has been a master communicator and motivator. When I heard his first recording Selling America, it was the beginning of his huge influence in my life.”
“Exceptional leaders communicate inspiration by their actions, choice of words, and authenticity of spirit. Very early on Rich DeVos discovered that life really does work best when it’s lived from the inside out. I’m so grateful he was brave enough to not only build a global business, but also to fight tirelessly for all entrepreneurs in direct sales and network marketing.”
“I was far too young in the sixties to participate in the company’s early ground floor days, but in the early nineties I was flown to Texas by a major magazine publisher to interview Bill Britt. When he told me his feelings for Rich DeVos, he was so emotional he got tears in his eyes. I made a decision right then: If I could wave a magic wand and travel back in time to any particular year and participate in any particular event, my choice is simple. I would travel back to 1959 and sign up on the very ground floor of Rich’s company. Then I would cultivate a relationship with Rich DeVos and learn every single thing he knows. What a life!”
Richard Bliss Brooke
“Rich DeVos is the Dalai Lama of network marketing. I have had to opportunity to listen to his beliefs and visions twice for several hours. He is the most riveting speaker in authenticity and spiritual sense in our profession. His ‘inspiring capitalism’ speaks for itself… a totally boot-strapped global business with three million stakeholders producing over one billion dollars a month in sales. And growing!”
“Every profession has pioneers on whose shoulders the rest of us stand. Rich DeVos is such a person. He makes not just network marketing, but free enterprise stronger.”
“Although I never heard Rich speak in person, he had a huge impact on my life because I learned the business of network marketing climbing up and down a mountain in Phoenix, AZ in the eighties listening to his company’s training tapes. I have a box of at least 300 cassettes and a few of them have Rich addressing a crowd of enthusiastic distributors. Rich’s book Compassionate Capitalism is timeless and helped to shape my philosophies around being an entrepreneur.”
“I have invested the past twenty-four years of my forty-one living through the influence of Rich DeVos. Being new to direct selling, I never earned more than $500 in a month in his company during my seven active years of building. But I gained a wealth of philosophy that will serve me for a lifetime. Rich’s teachings taught me how to be a friend to people who were not in a position to be a friend to me. This has become one of my biggest assets today. I am forever grateful for his vision, his strength, and his compassion.”
“The type of vision that Rich DeVos has is truly a gift. What started out by Rich just being impressed with a shiny new car has fathered a $160 billion global marketing phenomenon. His vision changed my mom and dad’s life back in 1969 along with my life and my family’s life for generations to come! Rich is the Steve Jobs of marketing!”
“Rich DeVos was a great inspiration to me. As a Diamond in his company, I had the opportunity to visit his home and I still prize the picture I have of him and me together. He is a leader with integrity and a crusader for free enterprise and living the American dream. His audio tapes kept me in the business during trying times and inspired me to stay the course. I owe who I am today to his example.”
“I personally owe a deep debt of gratitude to the DeVos and Van Andel families for the tremendous opportunity they offered me to create financial freedom for my family. Rich in particular was an extraordinary role model for me as an inspiring speaker and leader of people. His philosophy on free enterprise and compassionate capitalism transformed my life and played a big role in making me the leader I am today.”
“When I was a teenager, my father encouraged me to read a book titled Believe by Rich DeVos. The inspiring messages from that little blue paperback launched my lifelong pursuit of personal development, which has been the foundation for my success in direct sales, both as an independent distributor and as a corporate executive. I now have the privilege of ‘paying it forward’ by encouraging others to begin their pursuit of personal growth and continued learning, which, as Rich DeVos teaches, is crucial to achieving success in every area of life.”
Chuck & Jean Strehli
“Over the fifty years we have been Independent Business Owners with the company, we found our favorite Rich DeVos quotes:
The only real security comes from within.
Life is for the living.
“Rich’s answer to the question: ‘How do you motivate others?’
I don’t know and I don’t really believe any other person does... It is up to each person to identify the things that tend to keep him motivated, do them, and in so doing, maybe help others motivate themselves.
“Rich’s influence in our lives and families and organization through the years cannot be measured. We are very grateful.”
“Rich DeVos is a true believer in the power that people have to make a difference in the lives of others around the world. He has been the example and the champion of free enterprise for so many of us. He serves as a lighthouse for those who want to do better everyday using this marvelous business as a vehicle. My family and my life have been blessed by this man. Thank you, Rich DeVos!”
Garrett & Sylvia McGrath
President and Director of the Board,
Association of Network Marketing Professionals (ANMP)
“The culture of education, personal responsibility, perseverance, entrepreneurial values, and leadership that Rich’s company fosters to this day around the world has undoubtedly been one of the biggest impacts on our entire profession. Many top leaders in network marketing can trace the start of their success—either directly or indirectly—through what they learned as a part of that organization.
“Although Sylvia and I have never been distributors in Rich’s company, we have purchased and listened to hundreds of hours of training (on cassette tapes!) from his leaders. What we gained from these tapes at that point in our lives became a tremendous game-changer, enriching both our business and personal lives.ont-family:Georgia, 'Times New Roman', Times, serif; font-size:16px; text-align:right;">“Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel with their leaders were truly the pioneers of our profession. We so enjoyed reading Simply Rich. Through the enduring partnerships, training and culture, we believe everyone in network marketing stands on the shoulders of these giants.”