The buses began arriving at 9 a.m., disgorging hundreds of faceless conventioneers with shiny, blue and white namebadges. Badges on polyester pinstripes, flowered muu-muus and Sassoon tee-shirts floated in two and threes up the steps of Constitution Hall, past the giant Shaklee Corporation banner and down the auditorium's long plush aisles. There they met the others, from small-town and large-town America, many holding Instamatics, all there because, as the program said, "Shaklee Shows The Way."
They find seats and the pre-recorded orchestrated disco music begins to fade. Spotlight, stage right. A radio announcer voice badge booms: "Good morning!"
"Gooooood Mooooorrrning!!!," scream 1,300 excited people behind the badges. The curtains rise, a nine-piece orchestra strikes up. "God Bless America" lifts the crowd. While they sing, the words to the song are projected in startling six-foot letters on a 30-foot screen.
"Who's gonna Show the Way?" the announcer voice calls.
They turn to the rear, lift their arms: "Look out America. Here Comes Shaklee!!!" Cheers, whistles, thunderous applause.
Welcome to the Shaklee Shows the Way, 1980 Future Coordinators Convention where 1,300 gathered here last week to learn the way of independent ownership, bonus cars, free trips to conventions in Hawaii, Acapulco, London and Vienna and fat, fat bonus checks.
The company has seen phenomenal growth in the 1970s, using a legal tier or pyramid system of sales commissions.
With $12.50 for a starter kit, someone can sell either the products natural vitamins, cleaning and health care items or other franchises to friends, coworkers and neighbors. When they sign someone up, they get 5 percent of the new person's sales not directly from him or her, but from the company in the form of bonuses. If these new people in turn recruit others, the originals also get 2 percent of those sales as bonuses, and if those people in turn recruit more, the originals get 1 percent of sales.
For his $12.50 investment, for example, one policeman from San Diego made $400,000 last year from his own sales force recruited directly or indirectly.
Sales credits earn the benefits.About 53 percent of the company's overall sales income goes back to the distributers in the form of incentives and bonuses. Critics have called Shaklee a pyramid or a chain-letter-type operation, but company officials say it is all legal, that Shaklee offers a life support system that fortifies bank balances and self confidence in the spirit of free enterprise and the American Way.
Says company president Gary Shansby, a trim, gray-templed former top consultant for Booze, Allen and Hamilton who jogs several miles each morning: "Shaklee people believe in the philosophy. It has become a movement. It's real."
Many Shaklee people say their friends laugh when they tell of their devotion, and to the uninitiated, Shaklee distributorship conjures images of door-to-door Fuller Brush sales.
But, for those who came here last week to practice, en masse, what more than one bemused insider has called "Shakleeism," Shaklee is a religion for the 1980s, a kind of corporate big brotherism offering economic hope and driveable, edible, spendable salvation in our recession-wracked times.
It is the California-based corporation and its independent distributors who are having the last laugh:
In 1970, sales of Shaklee products totalled $20 million.By 1979, the company was grossing $318 million, earning a place in Fortune magazine's second 500, above such well known operations as Snap-on Tools, Maytag and Playboy. 5
Today, Shaklee is averaging sales of $100 million each three-month period and has been named by Financial World magazine as having the second highest sales growth potential on the New York Stock Exchange. There are over 1 million Shaklee distributers, and about 50,000 are added each month in all 50 states, Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Selling whole natural based products from their new Meadow Blend soap-free cleansing bar to Instant Protein, vitamins and energy bars produced in their $45 million plant in Norman, Okla., Shaklee trades on the back-to-basics/jogging/health craze that has swept America over the last several years.
Shaklee people say, a family can save $300 to $500 a month by stocking their home with Shaklee Dishwashing Concentrate, Shaklee Rainsilk Proteinized Shampoo and Shaklee Desert Wind Roll-on Deodorant.
Last week's convention: A mixture of southern evangelism and Yankee ingenity, four days of glittering, show-biz-polished workshops, lectures, films and a musical play in seven acts, put on by Shaklee's own Shaklee Players, nine former Broadway preformers, who specialize now in "industrials," shows with kicklines, goose pimple-drama and a corporate meaning.
Adapting the Shaklee message to Broadway tunes like "For One in a Lifetime," "Mame," and "Steppin' Out," actors and speakers told the wide-eyed salesmen about having a "game plan of life,' how "you're never going to score the winning touchdown if you always punt on fourth down," and the about the Shaklee Tradition. Hints were given on "time management," "prospecting," "recognition/motivation," "building in depth," and 'mass communications."
"And remember," cautioned sales star Mary Joe Ewing, tossing her long frosted hair back triumphantly during a speech, "never suffer verbal constipation for lack of motivation."
The four-day gathering, head-quartered at the Hyatt Regency Hotel here on Capitol Hill, cost $1 million. Two recent eight-day Shaklee conventions in Acapulco for a total of 2,200 people cost almost $3 million.
Air fare, room and board all were paid by Shaklee. Those attending had to sell big, at least $3,000 a month.
About 900 conventions brought local Washington business $300 million last year. But the Shaklee conventioneers are "different," said Hytt manager Brian Riley.
"They aren't like organizations like the Moose. We had them here in August. The Moose came in with cart-loads of booze and were drunk and obnoxious all the time. These people are very nice. They go to all the workshops. They aren't demanding and they rarely drink or stay up late. They just seem so happy all the time," Riley said.
Why? You don't really have to ask. You hear it all over. The testimonials:
"At first," says Tressie Goetz, from Fairfield, Ind., whose husband was a bricklayer before they got into Shaklee 17 years ago, "all we wanted to make was $20 a week. Now we make thousands. We have five acres, a 9,000-square-foot house (they all know how many square feet they have), a six-foot round marble bathtub, a Lincoln Continental and a maid."
"We used to be driving somewhere in our 14-year-old car and we'd look up at the big airplanes flying over and we never dreamed we'd be in one. Now we've been on hundreds of flights," she says.
"This is America. You don't have to have the smallest car or the smallest house."
Or open-eyed and earnest Pat Ewing ("no relation to J. R.," she chuckles). When this 52-year-old mother of five from Newport Beach Calif., first started dealing 17 years ago, she says, "I had a nervous problem and a twitch. I went on the Shaklee nutritient program and it went away."
Which prompted her to get into the sales stream. She now lives in a home valued at $1 million (Is it a ranch house, she's asked? "No, no," she says, "it's a formal house, with paneling in some of the rooms.") From their 144 supervisors and countless distributors all over the United States and Canada, she and her husband Bob reap $12,000 to $15,000 a month.
"This one fella said to me as he was leaving my office," Ewing said, "Lady, I think it's great that you have a big Lincoln and a tennis court, but even more you enjoy what you do.' It's really true. You go home from working and you've got such a natural high -- it's great to share experiences and dreams with Shaklee people. Shaklee, in essence is life. A better life."
Jim and Mary Joe Roddie live on a 150-acre ranch in the Texas hill country known as Wimberley, 60 miles southwest of Austin, "out there with the deer, prairie dogs and road runners."
Mary Joe, who says she is "30-and-holding," said that before she started taking Shaklee nutrients about three years ago "I was allergic to the whole world, was in the hospital two or three times a year and had ulcers, kidney stones you name it."
Now, she says, "my stamina is constant. In fact, three months after I started to take the nutrients, Jim threatened to take me off."
Jim, 61 who is a retired insurance and real estate man, says a lot of their work is done in the Christian Community. "Go in any church," he said, "and you'll hear prayers for two things, money and health. Shaklee gives both. We even have a couple of ministers we've sponsored . . . Most people think of God first, family second, and Shaklee third.
"Most businesses are selfish . . . but here, everyone wants to help and share their ideas. In other businesses, if you train someone, they want your job within a year. In this business, you want people you sponsor to do better than you," he says.
For Howard and Clarenita Hamilton of Jackson, Tenn., the Washington conference was their first. Not only were they called on stage during the proceedings in recognition of their placement in the company's 1 percent club, and honor Howard, 29, said "made it all worthwhile," they also got to sample their first Perrier.
The Hamiltons say they love this business because they can work together. They met on a blind date at a Tennessee walking horse show. Said Clarenita, her sugary magnolia voice aflutter: "My friend told me his name was Howard and I was skeptical because I thought only old men were named Howard. But then this handsome guy in a black riding suit appeared and well, he won all the events that day and my heart too."
Right now, after 15 months, they said, they are making about $4,000 a month with Shaklee. "Let me tell you, I'm real happy now," said Howard, slapping a thigh. Before Shaklee, the Hamiltons invested $15,000 in a fast food chain franchise only to lose it when the chain folded before they had even built their restaurant. After that he tried vending machines for $12,000 and then an energy conservation company, which he is still struggling along with, for $25,000.
"This is great," said Howard. "Just like Col. Sanders did with his chicken, I can just sit back and collect the royalties if I want . . . I said to Clarenite, I said, 'man, we're having fun, going to conventions, staying in the Hyatt' -- and this ain't no Days Inn neither; this old country boy here is tired of that country life. Now I got freedom."
Jack Wilder, 37, the company's vice president for sales, 6-foot-6 with Pat Boone cleanliness about him, once was IBM's top salesman, says Shaklee has only scratched the surface.
"One of the biggest drawbacks in the country today is that people don't really believe in anything," he said. Like all Shaklee people, his words rip out at high velocity. He says he speaks "350 words a minute with gusts of up to 700."
This is different. This is rare. How often do you see in a recession time when people are losing their jobs, that people are willing to share their jobs with you. There is a strong feeling among these people that what they are doing is right," Wilder said.
"Shaklee is not just a business. The group purpose at Shaklee is a better quality of life and when you share something good it makes it even better. Our founding fathers came here for liberty and security, and that's what we're offering. The American Way."
Shaklee, said president Shansby, "is a prototype for the future. Corporations have got to begin to realize that they are successful because of the public. They have to give back some of what they get to the people."
"There is a common denominator among us," booms Mary Jo Ewing from the podium, "we are all dreamers."
Shaklee Shows the Way.