The Van Andel Institute, also known in the more insipid P.R. circles as "Hope on the Hill", is passing the hat to endow a $3 million project to research Parkinson's disease. The VAI is the creation of the late Jay Van Andel, business partner of the still-breathing Rich DeVos with whom he founded Amway Corporation, the granddaddy of all multi-level marketing schemes. Upon his death last December, Van Andel left according to Forbes Magazine a fortune of nearly three billion dollars. In the past Van Andel had pledged this fortune to the VAI.
So why is the VAI now soliciting three million bucks, a mere one-tenth of one percent of Van Andel's estate, for a research project? Have the Van Andel heirs left the "Hope on the Hill" high and dry?
Well, we do know Jay's kids yanked from the VAI the support it was receiving from their father's private foundation. In January the foundation reportedly had $150 million in cash, which Jay's kids said they were going to re-organize into a new foundation. Thus, less than ten years after its founding in 1996 by Van Andel, the Van Andel Institute is bereft of Van Andel family funding. Nevertheless, one of the kids, David Van Andel, remains in control of the institute as chairman and chief executive officer. Indeed, along with the young Van Andel, the usual suspects populate the VAI's small board of trustees, including the pyramid builders' colleague Peter Cook and Autodie demolition expert John Kennedy.
Sure, David Van Andel and his wife pledged a few bucks for the Parkinson's research project, along with several others for a whopping grand total of half million dollars so far. But this is chicken feed compared to the three billion dollars the Van Andel estate is supposedly worth. If the Van Andels will not support their father's namesake institute with the tiniest fraction of that fortune, why should anyone else?
Then again, maybe we must support the VAI because Jay's kids cannot. What if the billionaire image the Amway founders played was just another part of the sales pitch to flog their distributorships? We now know that before its reorganization Amway had overstated its profits for twenty-five years by an estimated 25%, which makes all the difference between a net worth numbering in the billions and one hanging around zero for the families of the two pyramid builders. That might explain why Jay's partner Rich sold off Plaza Towers in downtown Grand Rapids and has been rattling the tin cup for public subsidies for other business ventures like the new Marriot hotel also downtown and a new arena for his Orlando Magic. That might also explain why the Amway heirs are selling Hyundais, managing minor league sports teams, making dresses, and manufacturing metal shelving instead of boosting the core business to a new level of success.
Then again, maybe Jay's kids do have the billions and don't think the VAI's mission is worth even a small chunk of that change.