Jay Van Andel belongs to one of America’s smallest fraternities: conservative billionaires. Anyone who’s ever accumulated a billion dollars is almost by definition a beneficiary of the free market, yet it’s all too common for super-plutocrats—read Ted Turner and George Soros—to embrace left-wing causes once their net worth reaches ten figures. But Van Andel, co-founder of the Amway Corporation, and the author of An Enterprising Life, will have none of this. His inspirational autobiography is a paean to the values and ideas that he holds dear to his heart: faith, family, and the free market.
Van Andel makes clear in the book’s introduction that he hasn’t written a get-rich-quick book. “If you are looking for a magic bullet—a surefire gimmick that will make you a millionaire overnight—you’re looking in the wrong place.” Yes, Van Andel could probably write such a book, but that would not reflect his values. For what he seeks to convey, he writes, are “the principles that allow entrepreneurial endeavors like Amway to flourish. If all you get from this book are the events of my life and the history of Amway, you will have missed the point. It is less important to me that you know what I did than why I did it.” To that end, Van Andel, a trustee of the Heritage Foundation, devotes almost as much space to public-policy concerns such as taxes and regulation as he does to his tremendous success with Amway.
Van Andel’s modesty is not surprising considering his upbringing. He was born in 1924 to Dutch Calvinist parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and spent much of his youth learning the lessons of the Christian Reformed Church and dealing with the economically tumultuous times (his grandfather lost his construction business and his home during the Great Depression). Van Andel tells the story of driving, at the age of 16, with a friend to Bozeman, Montana to deliver two used pickup trucks to a customer of his father’s. Money was tight, so he and his friend, a Grand Rapids boy named Richard DeVos—who would later join him in founding Amway—avoided motels and slept in their trucks. The truer test of their thrift came one day when they pulled into a service station with three punctured tires between them. For while they succeeded in patching the tires themselves, the station owner wanted to charge them five cents to use the
station’s air pump. In a decision unthinkable today, the two teenagers balked at handing over a nickel and instead spent the next hour filling the tires with air via their own hand pump.
Simple, uplifting stories like these are scattered throughout An Enterprising Life, and their apparent purpose is to underscore a message Van Andel says he learned during one of his first entrepreneurial ventures: “If you’re looking for ‘Insider information’ on how we became successful, you could start with two words: persistence and enthusiasm.”
A lot of ground is covered in “An Enterprising Life,” as Van Andel has led a remarkable life. He is animated when reflecting on his struggles with America’s Federal Trade Commission and Canada’s tax collectors, both of which sought to impose stiff penalties on Amway. He also serves up illuminating political insights gleaned from his activity on the national and international stage. He was, for example, instrumental in bringing Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands to America in 1982, and he also served as an occasional adviser to Ronald Reagan during his presidency.
Among the more enlightening sections of An Enterprising Life are Van Andel’s thoughts on philanthropy. He is an ardent proponent of private charity—he cites Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion favorably—and a fierce critic of government handouts to the poor, which he describes as “a Robin Hood-like system of regular theft,” a “national embarrassment,” and a “colossal failure.”
He is also a tireless cheerleader for what he calls a “free-enterprise approach to urban renewal,” which has been utilized with considerable success in Grand Rapids over the past 20 years. Van Andel, working with DeVos and others, has succeeded in bringing a convention center, a world-class hotel, a two-thousand seat concert hall, an art museum, a presidential museum (for native son Gerald Ford), a sports arena, and a world-class medical research center to the once-provincial town of 200,000. Van Andel is mostly quiet about the financial burdens associated with these projects—one assumes they weren’t cheap—but he only has good things to say about them:
I’m thrilled to be a part of such a successful series of projects that have added so much to my hometown and its people. But in a sense, I had to do it. If I truly believe all that I have preached about free enterprise and business, I couldn’t stand by and let the government do it. All of these projects prove that what works best is when the private sector partners with government to turn a city into a beautiful, functional place to live, work, and play.
Yet Van Andel also allows that he is not an unabashed supporter of the traditional philanthropy associated with handing one’s wealth over to individuals, organizations, or communities. Such giving might be thought of as giving a man a fish, while Van Andel’s preference—investing the wealth in a business—is the equivalent of teaching the man to fish. Using language that must be music to the ears of the world’s underappreciated entrepreneurs, he writes that:
Building a successful business creates wealth. Wealth creation benefits customers, employees, and business owners. Amway writes fourteen thousand paychecks every week, making fourteen thousand individuals and their families better off.
Because of his readiness to express bedrock conservative values, and because he’s never going to give tens of millions of dollars to the United Nations or causes like medical marijuana, Jay Van Andel will never win much acclaim from America’s national media outlets. This probably doesn’t bother him in the least. He understands as well as anyone the importance of companies like Amway, which make it possible for tens of thousands of people around the world to support their families. Not many people think of this too as a form of philanthropy. An Enterprising Life shows why they should.
Matthew Rees is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard in Washington.