Amway co-founder Rich DeVos addressed the Grand Rapids Economic Club on Monday and said, "If it's free, it's not worth much." That quip was in reference to the Kalamazoo Promise, a charitable program bankrolled by an anonymous benefactor providing college scholarships to graduates of Kalamazoo public schools. Since the advent of that remarkable program, there has been a great deal of curiosity as to why our local tycoons, namely the DeVos and Van Andel families of Amway fame, aren't doing something similar.
After all, if Forbes Magazine estimated correctly just DeVos's fortune, he is netting $8 million a week. That's a heckuva lot of dough, folks. With just one week's cash, DeVos could put 200 kids through college. A couple of months' cash takes care of all the seniors in the G.R. public school system, still leaving DeVos about $300 million in new cash to roll around in every year. Of course, the real question is whether that Amway fortune is a growing pile of cash or the smoke-and-mirrors of P.R. flacks. If it's the latter, then we know why the DeVoses and the Van Andels will never sponsor a Grand Rapids Promise. They can't.
But, of course, the success of the Amway (now Quixtar) scheme is the illusion of great riches that can be had by selling their soap and vitamins and other stuff. That illusion isn't going to be too convincing if the owners of Amway do not appear to be fabulously wealthy themselves. The DeVoses and the Van Andels have put on a good show in that regard, until it comes to the point of "show me the money!" Where is it?
What happened the Van Andel Foundation that supported the Van Andel Institute? Where is the commitment from the Van Andel children to replace the missing foundation funds with the purported fortune they inherited from their father? Why do the Amway billionaires need taxpayer subsidies for their business ventures? Why does DeVos have his share the Orlando Magic in hock to the banks for a quarter billion dollars? Why did he have to sell the debt-encumbered Plaza Towers building for chump change? Why does every public project the DeVoses and Van Andels donate money to end up streaming out cash back them?
And, of course, why does DeVos tell the Economic Club that the Kalamazoo Promise is a worthless program? Why does he make the sour joke that kids trapped in wretched urban school districts can earn millions by skipping college and playing NBA basketball? All of these things point to the conclusion that the DeVoses and the Van Andels only pretend to be billionaires, because that hype is critical to sustaining the Amway/Quixtar deception that selling their soap is the path to fame and fortune. Actually, the real Amway Promise is that they'll suck you dry while they dazzle you with the illusion of wealth.
Having run out of marks in the private sector, the Amway clans are having success in re-jiggering their formula to extract cash from taxpayers and charitable donors. It's you, folks, who need to pony up to them. It you who must provide the tax subsidies (new hotel downtown, medical complex on Michigan Street), business franchises (the Van Andel Arena, the DeVos Convention Center), the higher rates for health care (so Spectrum can do its part in subsidizing DeVos's new medical complex), and donations (to pay for the Van Andel Institute now starved of Van Andel family financial support). So forget that nonsense about the DeVoses and Van Andels funding a Grand Rapids Promise. You people just don't understand which direction the cash is supposed to flow in.
[NOTE: I should make clear that I believe no businessman like DeVos is obligated to turn over one dime he earns to charity. He owes you and me, as members of the public, nothing. However, he and his Amway cohorts have opened the door to this scrutiny by putting themselves out as great public benefactors, while in fact reaping substantial benefits from the public. I find dishonesty in this, and that is why I bring attention to these matters. Click here for links to related articles.]