Jay Van Andel, 80, the zealous entrepreneur who became a billionaire when he co-founded Amway, the direct-selling business that told millions of Americans they could be apostles of free enterprise, died Dec. 7 at his home in Ada, Mich. He had Parkinson's disease.
Inspired by free-market principles as a young man, Mr. Van Andel teamed with his childhood friend Richard DeVos on many early ventures. They ran an air charter service, a hamburger stand and a sailing business whose idea sank when their boat did, off Cuba.
Jay Van Andel steered his company through allegations of fraud and deceptive sales practices.
(AP File Photo)
They also became door-to-door vitamin salesmen, distributing the nutritional supplement Nutrilite and creating the model on which they would run Amway.
Amway -- an abbreviation of American Way -- was born in 1959 and relied on a network of individual distributors who sold soap, shaving cream, furniture polish, detergent, cookware and cosmetics, among other goods. Those distributors, in turn, enlisted others to sell products and received a percentage of their recruits' orders.
The motto was: "You can do it, too."
Few other American companies of universal name recognition were shrouded in such cultlike secrecy as the privately held Amway, part of a pervasive legend of the business despite occasional efforts to make its activities more transparent.
Amway's founders navigated the company through government investigations and allegations of fraud and deceptive sales practices, as well as books critical of the company's methods.
Its founders' proximity to power -- their former congressman, Gerald R. Ford, became president -- assured them political consideration as problems arose with government regulators.
They also created widespread interest by promoting the news that singer Pat Boone, former football coach Tom Landry and a slew of senators had once been Amway salesmen.
Mr. Van Andel, the son of Dutch immigrants, was born June 3, 1924, in Grand Rapids, Mich., where his father ran an automobile agency. He was raised in the strict Christian Reform Church, and his parents embraced its values in memorable ways. He once said that as a child, he had found a dime in an alley, and his mother forced him to take it from house to house before she would allow him to claim it.
After serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II, Mr. Van Andel literally flew into business.
He had owned a Piper Cub airplane for years and started a charter business and flight school. DeVos joined him. During downtime, they took turns cooking and serving hamburgers for airfield personnel.
After their boating operation in the Caribbean folded in 1949, they became importers and formed Ja-Ri Corp. They focused on Nutrilite and eventually developed the idea of selling the product to customers in their homes and offices. They culled a large network of distributors, and after an argument with Nutrilite's founder, the two young men went out on their own -- taking along their system of distributors.
They formed Amway to sell new products, most notably a biodegradable soap called Frisk that proved so popular that Mr. Van Andel and DeVos started their own soap manufacturing plant.
The 1960s were boom years for the business as it continued to add product lines through licensing agreements. It also created subsidiaries in Canada, Asia, Europe and Australia.
A lingo developed inside the company, with those known as "Black Hats" making up to $300,000 annually. As interest in the company grew, it was posited that some of the biggest distributors were making profits at the expense of recruits by strong-arming them to buy far more Amway goods than they could sell. Plus, they were pushing the company's own self-improvement publications on the fledglings at a cost of several hundred dollars.
The Federal Trade Commission spent years investigating the company in the 1970s on the grounds that it was a pyramid scheme, but the investigation went nowhere. Other FTC charges stuck, included a ruling that Amway improperly fixed prices.
In the early 1980s, the Canadian government filed a fraud lawsuit against the company for having understated the value of goods Amway had imported into Canada. Amway eventually paid $58 million to Canada to settle the charges.
Books with such titles as "Fake It Till You Make It," written by a former distributor, and "Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise," became bestsellers and contributed to the company's sales hemorrhages in the 1980s.
To recuperate, the business focused on Asian sales in the following decade, creating immense revenues in a corner of the globe eager to engage in the company's heralding of free enterprise.
Mr. Van Andel's son Steve succeeded him as Amway's chairman in 1995. The Ada-based company has 13,000 employees and millions of distributors worldwide, operating in more than 80 countries and territories around the world. Its parent company, the privately held Alticor Inc., had worldwide sales of $6.2 billion for the year ending Aug. 31. Asia -- and China in particular -- is now its primary market.
Mr. Van Andel and DeVos were among the biggest philanthropists in the country, including gifts for civic restoration projects in Grand Rapids and the creation of a foundation to support charities, hospitals and schools. They also once underwrote the National Symphony Orchestra on a $250,000 European tour and lavished money on conservative Republican causes.
Mr. Van Andel was chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1979 and 1980. In the late 1970s, Amway bought the Mutual Broadcasting System, with its 950 affiliated radio stations, to provide what he called a "balanced" political viewpoint. The radio system was sold in 1985.
Mr. Van Andel, who saw himself as a clean-living, Christian fundamentalist, also gave more than $500,000 to an eponymous creationist scientific institute in the desert of northern Arizona. One scientist there was trying to prove that God created the world in six days.
"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 autobiography, "An Enterprising Life" (1998). "The task of every person on earth is to use everything he's given to the ultimate glory of God."
Mr. Van Andel's company speeches were similarly filled with exhortations to God and country. In his private life, he often spoke of Scripture around the dinner table and taught his children, all of whom entered the business, about valuable lessons he had learned on the job.
"Sometimes the dining room took on the character of an M.B.A. classroom," he wrote in his memoir.
A silver-haired and sturdy man -- the very model of the assured businessman -- he also shared in that book more piquant tales of his family life, such as the time the outhouse exploded at his family retreat in northern Michigan. He had tried to fix the gas-fired disposal system just before his speaking engagement at a Chamber of Commerce function. He was dressed all in white, from shirt to shoes.
"Most of our summers were not marked by exploding outhouses, however, and we enjoyed wonderful times together as a family," he added.
His wife of 52 years, Betty Hoekstra Van Andel, died this year at their home in the British Virgin Islands.
Survivors include two sons; two daughters; and 10 grandchildren.