Grand Rapids Press Interviews Rich DeVos, who Generally Proves that he is an Anti-Gay Jerk

051909-rich_devos.jpg

As part of its three days of coverage on Amway and its 50th anniversary, the Grand Rapids Press published an interview today with co-founder Richard DeVos (he co-founded the company with Jay Van Andel. Here at MediaMouse.org, we’ve long been critical of Richard DeVos, looking at his political activism, his “charitable” contributions, and his role in funding the religious right.

In the interview, DeVos basically proved everything that we have been saying all along. His comments are awful–he basically says he is right to be against gay marriage (although he claims to have gay friends, so that must mean it’s OK) and that he can do whatever the heck he wants with his money.

Usually I try to shy away from just quoting extensively from The Grand Rapids Press, but there really isn’t much to be said. DeVos proves himself to be a completely awful human being.

Here’s his thoughts on gay marriage:

Q: You gave $100,000 to the effort to defeat the recognition of gay marriage in Florida. Why did you choose to put money behind that cause?

A: Because I believe in it. That’s just a sacred issue of respecting marriage. It was not an anti-gay thing.

I have been hung in effigy by the gay community for a long time, from when I was on President Reagan’s first AIDS commission.

Q: How does that tie in with the gay marriage issue?

A: From that point on, that’s when they were hanging me in effigy because I wasn’t sympathetic to all of their requests for special treatment. Because at that time it was always somebody else’s fault. And I said, “You are responsible for your actions, too, you know. Conduct yourself properly,” which is a pretty solid Christian principle. You’ve got to take responsibility for your actions. It went from there to a series of requests for special treatment.

I would say, “I understand who you are. I accept who you are. Live your life. I will respect you. But don’t keep asking for favors.” Don’t ask for a concession on the marriage issue, which is not vital to them, in my opinion. They’ve made it a vital issue because they want to.

Q: Is there a solution? A compromise you would support?

A: Call it something else. Call it anything you want to. But marriage is a sacred document, OK? A sacred sacrament in the church and in the world. Don’t mess with it.

Go do something else. I deal with a lot of wonderful gay people. I hire a lot of them. I use a lot of them. I respect them. They’re terrific. I am good friends with them. But you live your life the way you want to live and I’ll live mine and I won’t stick my nose in yours. But don’t keep trying to change things. That’s all.

Q: Do you think it’s a winnable fight, long term?

A: For them? They’ve won a lot of fights. They’re a tough bunch. They keep asking for concessions all their lives. I don’t put anything past their ability to adjust things to their way on some equality basis. That’s all fine until you start dealing with sacred issues.

And on his wealth:

Q: There were a lot of people who thought: “Well, here’s a billionaire and he went over to England and bought a heart.” The average person who is in his 70s would not be able to afford to do that and may not have been able to have that same opportunity.

A: That’s true.

Q: How do you respond to those people? How does that make you feel?

A: I guess my quick reaction, my cute reaction, is: “That’s the benefit of making money, isn’t it? That’s the benefit of being industrious.”

I look at that as the hand of God. What happened in my case, there’s no other explanation for it. There are too many little things that occurred.

I’ve always been greedy. But never to the point where I corrupted the system. The normal desire to make money is always there. But it was never so powerful in the building of the business that it overcame those things.

Unfortunately, this really only touches the surface. DeVos has been a huge benefactor to the religious right and many of its key institutions over the years. He was instrumental in developing the modern conservative infrastructure and has given considerable money to Republican candidates and the party as a whole.

He isn’t simply a guy who “made it” and is spreading his money around–he’s actively pursuing a specific ideological agenda. Sure, he might give some money that benefits some in this community, but even those contributions have ideological underpinnings (for example, contributions to Christian schools).

Advertisements

Local and Michigan Headlines: Amway 50th Anniversary; Michigan Politicians on Twitter

Here are what we think are some of the more important stories to come out of Grand Rapids and Michigan in the past 24 hours:

  • And, things wrap themselves up in a neat little package – Michigan Liberal has perhaps the last word on the controversy surrounding Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and his canceled speech in Grand Rapids. When the Kent County GOP canceled it over Huntsman’s stance in support of civil unions, the DeVos family stepped in. It turns out that there may have been a practical reason for that–Huntsman was being consider to be Ambassador to China, a country where Amway has aggressively expanded in recent years.
  • Rep. Scripps and House Dems Introduce Health Care Package – The Michigan House Democratic Caucus has introduced a health care reform package that allegedly will guarantee access to health care by requiring insurance companies to insure people with pre-existing conditions, reign in costs, ban unfair market practices, and insurance every child in Michigan by expanding the MiChild program. I’m not sure that this will do all that much to help cover all of the uninsured people in Michigan, but we’ll have to see.
  • Spurning Coal, Manistee Rides the Windspire – After rejecting a coal plant five years ago, Manistee is now a part of Michigan’s renewable energy future. Mariah Power is manufacturing its Windspire home wind turbine in the city.
  • Detroit juries losing color – In Wayne County, African-Americans are 42% of the population, yet they made up only 27% of the jury pool in 2004–that number has since fallen. Michigan Citizen has a great exploration of the issue.
  • Appeals court to hear Pinkney defense – This Michigan Citizen article is a good summary of the case of Reverend Edward Pinkney. Pinkney is a Benton Harbor community organizer who was convicted in 2007 on trumped-up charges of voter fraud. Pinkney has an upcoming court day here in Grand Rapids and supporters are invited to attend.
  • Hoekstra co-sponsors “Christian heritage” resolution – Representative Pete Hoekstra has taken a break from supporting torture in order to co-sponsor a resolution celebrating the United States’ so-called “Christian heritage” in Congress. It’s hardly a pressing issue and numerous historians have shown the resolution to be severely flawed.
  • Stabenow parties like it’s 1989 – Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow has joined with conservative Republican Senators to sponsor a resolution that seeks a federal amendment to ban flag burning. This has come up numerous times since the Supreme Court overturned state-level bans on the practice in 1989.
  • Amway celebrates golden anniversary with deep local roots and a global reach – This is the start of the Grand Rapids Press’ coverage of Amway’s 50th anniversary. As expected, this series will be full of a lot of hype with three days of major stories on the company. Surprisingly, this first article does focus a lot of attention on various lawsuits that the company has been a part of over the years–although the overall tone is positive. There was nothing in the article on how the fortunes made by Amway founders Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos have been used to support conservative politics or how they have sought to use their money to influence public policy.
  • Twitter takes flight with lawmakers – The Detroit Free Press looks at politicians in Michigan who are using Twitter and how they use it. I suppose this is a good time to plug the MediaMouse.org Twitter account @mediamouse.

If we missed anything, let us know in the comments.

Bling H2O: Making Unsustainable Water a Fashion Statement

050109-bling_h2o.jpg

Yesterday, I wrote about a new bottled water company out of Grand Rapids called Boxed Water Is Better that claims to offer a more “sustainable” alternative to bottled water.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is another packaged water product that is available in Grand Rapids, Bling H2O. While not made here, it’s worth noting because it’s so horribly offensive.

It’s sold at the 1913 Room located in the Amway Grand Plaza downtown and goes for a whopping $64 dollars per 750ml bottle. It’s sold as a pure status symbol to appeal to the “super-luxury market.” Its website says:

It’s couture water that makes an announcement like a Rolls Royce Phantom… the “Cristal” of bottled water.

The water comes packaged in a frosted glass bottle that is “exquisitely handcrafted with Swarovski crystals.” The 60 crystals spell out the word “bling.” At the Amway Grand Plaza:

The restaurant serves Bling H2O with tulip-shaped flutes atop sterling silver wine coasters.

A rose is placed into every empty bottle to dress up what Chad LeRoux, director of marketing for the hotel, calls “a novelty item that you can take away with you as a memory of the 1913 Room.”

Unlike Boxed Water Is Better, Bling H2O makes no claims of sustainability. Instead, it says only that its water comes from an undisclosed source in Dandridge, Tennessee. The company says it goes through a nine-step purification process, but with no universal standards for bottled water, it’s impossible to know if it is really any “better” than other water. From there, the water is shipped to high-end hotels and restaurants around the world, a process that results in an untold number of CO2 emissions. The only real mention of the environment comes in the claim that the bottles are “reusable.”

050109-bling_ad.jpg

As if the price, packaging, and environmental aspects weren’t offensive enough, the company’s website throws in a healthy dose of sexism as well. The homepage features a woman that appears to be wearing nothing but a strand of pearls with the bottle of water propped between her heel and buttocks. The water itself is also sexualized, with the company repeatedly describing the different aspects as “pretty.”

While it might seem to be a relic of the pre-economic crisis times, Bling H2O is still alive and kicking. It just released a bargain version that goes for just $20 in plastic bottles. Of course, you’ll have to do without the crystals.

Jay and Betty Van Andel Foundation Transfers Assets

As part of our ongoing work maintaining our Far Right in West Michigan database, Mediamouse.org has learned that the Jay and Betty Van Andel Foundation has transferred a substantial portion of its assets to a variety of other foundations. The Jay and Betty Van Andel Foundation had long funded a variety of entities connected to the religious right.

When adding information from the most recent IRS filings obtainable by Mediamouse.org, it was discovered that $72 million in cash and assets were transferred to other foundations including the Dave and Carol Van Andel Foundation, Silverwing Foundation, Richard and Barbara Gaby Foundation, and the Steve and Cindy Van Andel Foundation.

The Jay and Betty Van Andel Foundation was formed to support the interests of Amway co-founder Jay Van Andel. Over the years, the foundation dispersed millions of dollars to entities favored by the Van Andels. Jay Van Andel died in 2004.

Amway/Alticor Allegedly Edit Wikipedia to Remove Criticism

Last week, the Center for Media and Democracy, an organization that monitors and challenges the public relations industry, launched a new project aimed at exposing how corporations and PR firms edit Wikipedia to remove critical information. In the first week of the project, researchers working on the project found that Grand Rapids area corporation Amway/Alticor edited Amway’s wikipedia page to remove information critical of Amway’s attempt to silence criticism of the company on the Internet. According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch page on Alticor, on July 26, 2005 someone using a computer at an Internet address tracing back to Amway/Quixtar “removed references to their company’s practice of “Google bombing,” which is an attempt to drown out sites reporting deceptive practices and negative opinions.”

Since the start of the project, there have been a series of edits uncovered including Chevron deleting an article from Wikipedia on “biodiesel,” military contractor Raytheon removing information about their spying on competitors, electronic voting machine company Diebold removing information critical of their voting machines, and the PR firm Hill & Knowlton removing information critical of their clients.

Local group tries to expose past and current crimes of Henry Kissinger

On Tuesday, a small group of protestors from the Grand Rapids-based group ACTIVATE held a protest outside the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel to highlight the war crimes of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was speaking at the Amway as part of the Gerald R. Ford Museum’s 30th anniversary festivities.

On Tuesday, October 24 about 15 people with the group ACTIVATE came to the Amway Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids to use a variety of tactics in the hopes of raising awareness about the war crimes of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Some people handed out brochures with information on Kissinger’s war crimes and financial connections, while most people marched around the hotel with signs, drums, and chanting. The group kept these activities up for about an hour at about the time the lecture was to begin.

Police presence was much larger than had previously been experienced for such a demonstration. While people began to gather at Rosa Parks Circle police cruisers and officers on bikes began to monitor the protests even before an action was taken. While people marched around the hotel there were at least 6 different police vehicles, bike cops, and several police on foot, with a one-to-one ratio of police to protestors. Several police vehicles were unmarked and they kept reminding people that if they stopped moving on the sidewalk that they were in violation of city ordinance. At one point several of the protestors attempted to enter the building, but were confronted by confronted by hotel security who quickly called upon an officer nearby.

Local news outlets were more visible than they have been at previous demonstrations in Grand Rapids. The news outlets who talk the most with demonstrators were college papers (GVSU and GRCC) and the weekly paper known as the Advance. In addition, WXMI 17 and WZZM 13 both interviewed spokespersons for the group. What the major daily news outlets ran unfortunately, did not reflect the intentions of the group, despite all of them receiving a 2-page media release the day before. The Grand Rapids Press only sent out a photographer, which resulted in only a photo of the protestors, but no mention in the article. Instead the Press focused on Kissinger’s comments with no verification of his claims about past policies and his comments on the current US occupation of Iraq. WZZM 13 ran a short announcement about Kissinger’s talk at the 6pm newscast with a longer piece at 11. The 11pm story ran several comments from Kissinger and even referred to him as someone who brought piece to Vietnam. Kissinger is quoted talking about the importance on not leaving Iraq and then the newsreader mentions that “Activate was outside to protest Kissinger for what they called his war crimes both during and after Vietnam.”

WXMI 17 also reported on the event with emphasis on both Kissinger’s position on the US occupation of Iraq and his personal relationship to former President Ford. Channel 17 also referred to the protest as “a small liberal group outside protesting his involvement with foreign policy issues from the war in Vietnam to his current talks with President Bush on how to succeed in Iraq.” The WXMI story is the only one to cite a member of ACTIVATE who said “he’s telling the Bush administration, he’s giving them advice on how to better kill 100,000’s or 10,000’s of people just like he did when he was Secretary of State.” The Advance, GRCC, and GVSU papers plan on running articles in the next issue.

Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Dick DeVos Releases some Financial Information

Last week Friday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos, released a statement of his financial interests in lieu of his tax returns. The nine-page document outlines DeVos’ financial holdings and his “charitable” contributions. While the document withholds dollar amounts and DeVos’ net worth, it provides clear proof that DeVos is among the wealthiest people in the Grand Rapids area and has used his money to support his conservative political ideologies.

On Friday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos released a summary of financial information in an effort to head off calls for DeVos to publicly release his income tax returns. For the past few months, DeVos has refused to release his income tax returns in a break from precedent in previous Michigan gubernatorial races. While there is no law requiring candidates to release their income tax information, candidates have traditionally done so in order for journalists and the public to understand where any conflicts of interest may lie. DeVos has refused to release his tax returns and has withheld information stating his net worth while Democratic candidate Jennifer Granholm has stated that she will release her tax returns after April 17.

However, the financial release does make it abundantly clear that DeVos is incredibly wealthy and has little in common with many in Michigan. The Lansing State Journal described DeVos as the wealthiest gubernatorial candidate in Michigan’s history and other media reports accurately placed DeVos within the top income tax bracket. DeVos and his wife, Betsy DeVos, paid an average federal income tax of 17% on dividends and long-term capital gains and 37% on ordinary income and short-term income taxes from 1997 to 2004, placing them in a tax bracket occupied by the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers. Similarly, the couple paid state income taxes of 3.95% to 4.4% over the same period. According to the information released by DeVos, 64% of his income comes from dividends and compensation from Alticor (formerly Amway Corporation) and 36% from other investments. DeVos was president of Alticor from 1993 to 2002 but has, according to information from his campaign, received no money from the corporation since 2004 although he and his wife retain significant financial interests in the company.

DeVos, who owns homes in Ada, Michigan, Holland, Michigan, Harbor Springs, Michigan, Vero Beach, Florida, and “partial interest” in a home in Snowmass, Colorado, also has significant interest in real estate development projects including the Cherry Street Landing and Michigan Street Development LLC (the Michigan Street hospital corridor) as well as various commercial real estate holdings in Ada Holdings LLC, RDV Corporation (downtown office building), Lakeshore Dunes LLC (land in Arcadia and Laketown Township), and Fox Property Holdings LLC/GR Group LP/RDV Cape Eleuthera Ltd (resort property in the Bahamas). DeVos and his wife also hold controlling interests in a variety of companies including MVP Sportsplex-GR LLC (health club facilities in Grand Rapids), Orlando Magic Ltd. (NBA franchise), Orlando Sportsplex Ltd. (multi-use health club and office facility), RDV Corp. (DeVos family investment management and family office in Grand Rapids), Spout LLC (online DVD sales and marketing company in Grand Rapids), Windquest Companies Inc. (manufacturer of organization and storage systems in Holland), and Windquest Group Inc. (investment holding company in Grand Rapids). DeVos and his family also have “significant but less than controlling interest” in Alticor Global Holdings Inc. (Ada-based parent company of Amway Corp., Quixtar and Access Business Group), Activa Holdings LLC (Grand Rapids-based owner of West Michigan area real estate), and Activa Management LLC (Grand Rapids-based operator of travel service, third party benefits provider, and a downtown Grand Rapids hotel franchise). Additionally, DeVos has a variety of investments in privately held corporations including American Medical Instruments Holdings, CorePharama LLC (makers of generic drugs), and West Michigan Baseball Ltd Partnership (West Michigan Whitecaps), and publicly held corporations including Apple Computer, Centennial Bancorp, and Fifth Third Bancorp.

While the information gives a good idea of the wealth and scope of DeVos’ investments, it does not list the dollar amounts nor does it draw any connections between his investments, charitable contributions, and lobbying efforts. The document lists his holdings in Alticor and Activa Management LLC as being his only potential conflict of interest as those hotel companies occasionally provide conference facilities on a rental basis. Similarly, in reporting on DeVos’ finances there is no discussion of how his financial contributions act to facilitate continued profits or how his “charitable” contributions act to advance his conservative views. According to the document, DeVos and his wife donated to 449 organizations from 1997 to 2004 including conservative organizations promoting “free market ideologies” and conservative religious causes including the American Enterprise Institute, the Acton Institute, Americans United for Life, Baptists for Life, Focus on the Family, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Heritage Foundation, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michigan Family Forum, Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, Right to Life Michigan, the Ronald Regan Presidential Foundation, and Young Life. Moreover, donations to political candidates and committees are excluded from the list, despite the fact that the DeVos family role has taken an active role in promoting conservative ideologies through the financing of electoral efforts. In 2004, DeVos and his family contributed $199,825 to Republican candidates and organizations including President George W. Bush, Representative Vern Ehlers, Republican parties and committees across the country, and various conservative groups such as Right to Life. DeVos’ wife, Betsy, gave $19,306 in 2000 and $6,000 in 2004 while serving as chair of the state Republican Party. Already in the 2006 election cycle, DeVos’ family has made significant contributions ($97,200 as of press time) to Republicans and Republican candidates including the Kent County Republican Committee and Representative Vern Ehlers.

DeVos and Secchia to Receive Awards from Wilson Center

According to laudatory articles in the local corporate media from WOOD TV 8 and the Grand Rapids Press, Richard DeVos and Peter Secchia will receive what are being described in the media as “prestigious” awards from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Richard DeVos, founder of Amway Corporation (now Alticor) will get the Wilson Center’s award for corporate citizenship while Peter Secchia, former CEO of Universal Forest Products and former ambassador to Italy will receive the award for Public Service. Secchia is known in West Michigan for his closeness to the Bush administration and funding of Republican politicians and causes, while DeVos’ and Amway’s questionable business activities, place DeVos in the company of previous award winners including CEO Lee R. Raymond of Exxon-Mobil and CEO Joseph Neubauer of Aramark; companies that have been criticized for their environmental record and their labor record, respectively. DeVos and his family have also donated thousands of dollars to Republican causes.

The Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars was established in 1968 by Congress as a part of the Smithsonian Institute. The Center’s mission is “to commemorate the ideals and concerns of Woodrow Wilson by: providing a link between the world of ideas and the world of policy; and fostering research, study, discussion, and collaboration among a full spectrum of individuals concerned with policy and scholarship in national and world affairs,” a mission that it attains by sponsoring debate and scholarship. It obtains a third of its funding from the government, with the remainder coming from corporations and foundations including the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation. The Wilson’s Center governing board is a mix of government officials, university presidents, and representatives from corporations such as Pinnacle Financial Group and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Good people, greed, and the corporate cult(ure): An insider’s view of Amway

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (February 1998)

FUN co-editor Richa interviewed former Amway employee Amy Schatner. Amy’s sibling, Sharon Schatner, who was there listening to Amy’s complaints during Amy’s years at Amway, also contributed. The interview was reviewed by Amy and edited. The book reference is to Stephen Butterfield’s 1985 book, “Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise.”

Amy: My aunt worked there and told me about a job opening. I went in and interviewed for this job — I was right out of college — they told me they had something more in line with my career. I got all excited. It turned out to be something where the distributors call in to get their items replaced when they’re defective.

So, I got in that way. I stayed there for six months, moved to another department for six months, then another department for about five years, then another. I was there a total of about seven and a half years.

Richa: Did you know anything about Amway when you went to apply there?

Amy: I knew it was a big company out there in the country where my aunt worked, and my brother. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about “corporate America,” I just wanted to get a job.

For the most part I pretty much did the same kind of work. I worked directly with the distributors on the phone. I moved up and I moved on. Each promotion gave me more responsibility and was more challenging.

I’ll tell about the good things first. They gave me opportunities to learn computer skills that I didn’t have before… [long pause] I can’t think of anything else!

Sharon: Well, the thing about Amway is, you get in there, they pay so well, they give good benefits, you have such security. I worked there for just a short time, but what I’m saying, once you’re in there, it’s kind of like a little trap.

Amy: The golden handcuffs. That’s a good point, because that is part of why I stayed there. The important thing to note is that I realized, probably in year two, that I wasn’t happy, this wasn’t where I wanted to be, I didn’t see it as my career, I didn’t identify myself with my work, and I always knew… I’m out of here any minute now, just any minute now. I never bought into it like all the other people I worked with, I never had the loyalty, the enthusiasm for the company. But, yet, I stayed there seven and a half years.

There were a lot of personal things that kept me there. Fear of failure, fear of success, not really knowing what I wanted to do. I decided at one point I wanted to go to graduate school and get a degree in psychology. So I went through that process, tried hard, and thought I had a strong application. I did not get in. A that point I was miserable enough, backed in a corner enough, so that I was just going to do whatever I had to do to get out of there.

That’s how I finally was able to get out of there, and became more blessed than I ever deserved, because I got a job that I love with all my heart. I mean, it’s very emotionally taxing and a very hard job, but I love this job.

But anyway, at Amway, there are things that would happen that I would talk about with my coworkers, and they would say, “Just don’t think about it.” For some people it is the only opportunity they have. People that live way out, they haven’t had educational opportunities…

Richa: Did Amway do things to cultivate or reinforce that attitude, that things should just be accepted without question?

Amy: Yes. Amway does an excellent job of building company loyalty. This is going to sound cynical, but I honestly believe it is not because they really, truly want their people to be happy, but because they know the value – the monetary value – of having a workforce that loves the company they work for.

I always felt like I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. That’s kind of how I felt; that that wasn’t “the way to be” – so blindly loyal and blindly accepting of everything.

Just to give you kind of a funny story, they have these monthly employee meetings where virtually every employee of the entire corporation is invited…

Sharon: It’s mandatory.

Amy: No, it’s not.

Sharon: Oh? I was never told I had an option.

Amy: Anyway, the president of the company, or the vice-president, addresses everyone on how business is, and people can ask questions. Most often I’d go to these meetings – most people in my division did — because it was an opportunity to get away from the drone of work. It was near the holidays, and I came in and all the chairs had this blue sheet. It was a poem about Amway: “I go in every day, this is the way I like to earn my pay…” You know, just the hokiest, “Rich and Jay, hooray! Hooray!” I mean, just like that. I wish I could remember the lyrics. I thought, “What is this?”

Well, it was a song. And they got a piano out, and everybody was asked to sing this song. And I’ll be damned if everybody didn’t sing this song. I mean, everybody sang it! And they were happy to sing it, and they enjoyed singing it, and I just wanted to disappear! It was just the most bizarre thing. I felt like it was the Third Reich.

Sharon: The crowd behavior thing.

Amy: Yeah. It just didn’t seem like there was one person that thought, “This is weird,” or even, “This is silly,” or something.

Richa: I would think it would have been hard to tell.

Amy: Yeah. But I’m too rebellious, or maybe I’m stupid, but I didn’t sing it, and I looked around and it was like, these people are like sheep.

But I worked with some wonderful people, and some friends that I will always have. I just feel at the time they were all mindless, even though I know that’s not the case.

I could ramble on for hours, but the bottom line for me, my leaving Amway, feeling it was not a place where I belong, was greed. I worked on the phones with Amway distributors every day, all day. That was the bulk of my work for many years. Near the end of my tenure there, maybe the last two or three years — every once in a while we’d get to travel on these weekend “expos” where distributors would get together and rent this hall and they’d have speakers and they’d have expos of products. Quite a lot of contact with distributors. Greed, and all the ugliness that greed brings. That’s what I saw a lot of. That’s really what kicked my butt out the door.

Richa: Can you describe specific ways that the greed came through?

Amy: Boy, every subtle and not-so-subtle way. Distributors on the phone would be willing to be just a little dishonest, or just cheat a little bit in order to get more money. Lie to you to try to get from you, as if you had the secret of how to get more money. The distributor functions were… a lot of gold and diamonds. I mean, huge diamonds. In the Amway hierarchy they reach different levels of achievement, and they’re all represented by different gems. The highest one is diamond. “Go diamond!” is the battle call. “Go diamond!” everywhere you hear. And diamonds is one of the things people spend their money on.

There’s a monthly magazine they have called “The Amagram,” and they would always feature a “star” couple. They would be depicted in rolling his with their mansions. The pervading message was “You gotta have more! You gotta have more!”

I’ve go to say, the two founding fathers, Rich and Jay, I truly believe that they were, and they are, good men with the best of intentions and the highest integrity. The second generation, the very kids, I don’t feel that way about. And I don’t know if it’s because it’s just so big now that they can’t keep their hands on everything…

Another story: Remember, during the elections, when Amway purchased TV time for the Republican convention for the sole purpose of being able to air the convention? You know, they’re a privately held company; they can do that. That’s the way our system works in this country; they have that power. But what bothered me was I went to one of those employee meetings, and Dick DeVos stood up there and said they did that — a private donation that they never planned on being publicized — for the sole purpose of wanting to expose more Americans to the democratic process. And I though, “Why can’t you just say you’re Republicans and you want Republicans to win?” That just really bothered me. And I thought, this guy, he spins things so much as he goes along, that I don’t know if he really believes that, or if you spin things for so long you lose any objective perspective.

Sharon: Remember you told me about the meeting where they talked about something with capitalism, where they were trying to win everybody over to their way of thinking?

Amy: Rich wrote this book called “Compassionate Capitalism,” which had these different points, and they would do this thing during those meetings where they would show Rich talking about each point, a different one each time. He would talk about what each meant.

Richa: Did people pretty much buy that?

Amy: Oh, yeah, because there’s a certain ring of truth in that. I mean, there has to be, otherwise nobody would buy it at all. There’s nothing wrong with personal responsibility; it depends on the spin you put on it.

Sharon: It sucks people in with beliefs they’ve been taught all their lives, and it makes it seem like you’re just confirming what everyone knows.

Richa: I remember some of that from the book. It came very much out of a Cold War type of thinking from the 1950s, even though the Soviet Union no longer existed by the time it was published. But did those talks focus more on the personal?

Amy: No, it’s definitely economic theory, financial theory.

They are into making money, and they make no bones about that.

This is something that started happening just before I left. You’d hear a lot about “corporate culture”; how very important that was, the corporate culture you were working with, and how we should all “be on the same page.”

They have this little thing called “Culture Seminar” where you spend half a day eating doughnuts and drinking coffee and watching videos and doing exercises, about trying to identify with an Amway distributor and who would like to be an Amway distributor. Part of that is watching the video that shows a typical distributor: They’re trying to work a full-time job, and take care of kids, and build their business in their spare time. So all their evenings and all their weekends are spent at Amway functions. That’s no kidding: I mean all of them. And their kids — I couldn’t believe this: The video would show, “Mom, dad, come and toss the ball with me.” And mom and dad would sit down and explain that they’re building their future, blah, blah, and the son was just kind of, “Whatever.” And the weekend comes and they drag him out of town again for this distributor function yet again, and there’s the whole problem of the babysitter. The kids are tired, the parents are tired, the babysitter goes home. The kid never did get to toss that ball, but “you’ve reached a different level, and I understand how great that is, and I’m so proud of you” and we’re all just a great big happy family. Then they turn the video off, and I’m thinking to myself, did anybody see how sick and wrong this is? That these kids have no parents? Then I though, okay, maybe I’m the only one that sees it that way; maybe I’m nuts. But somebody did say something; somebody did say, “Boy, I don’t know about those kids?”

Richa: I should think it would be hard in that corporate culture to say anything at all critical or questioning.

Amy: Right. It is.

One more story. My department purchased a type of technology that cost almost a million dollars. I don’t want to say just what it is or what department because there are still people there that I really care about, and I don’t want to see them be hurt. Real expensive technology; state of the art. We were the only ones in the company to have this technology at the time. Well, they wanted to be sure the employees were really going to use it and buy into it. It was a way to help them do their jobs more efficiently and easier. You know, people who have been doing the same job for a few years – it’s hard for them to change the way they do things, so it was rather hard to get people to use it.

So they had a meeting to explain this new technology. And during this meeting my boss said, “You have to use this system [X] times a day.” Somebody raised their hand and said, “I don’t need it. I know this stuff.” And she said, “I don’t care, do it anyway. Just use it.” And I said “Why?” (You learn not to ask “why?” because you get slapped in the face; nevertheless I asked, “why?”) And she said, “We have to show that we’re using the system. We have to show the person — you’d know who it was if I said it — we have to prove to them that this is a good investment. We have to show a return on the investment, and we have to do it fast.” And I said, “You want me to lie about how often I use this, and how often I need this?” And the answer was “Yes.” And by that time I had been pushing it, so the answer was, “YES, and PLEASE shut up!”

I’m sure that happens everywhere across America; it’s not unique to Amway.

Richa: That’s the only time such a thing happened?

Amy: That was the only time I was blatantly asked to lie, other than my old supervisor saying, “Tell ‘em I’m not here” kind of thing. And this is from a woman who I respect. She’s a neat lady. I mean, I like her. And I think that it was just another case of, she didn’t just sit down and say, “You know, I’m asking people to lie for me.” She was so intimidated by her manager, and so afraid, that she just did what she though she had to do. And she probably wouldn’t even remember it.

That incident, more than anything else…that was near the end…I though, I can’t do it, I just can’t play the game any more. And there was no way that I could play the game, and sort of melt into the background. They would see it, because the numbers would show that I was not using the system.

Richa: Getting back to the distributors, Butterfield wrote that only 1-2% of distributors ever make, or ever can make, the way Amway’s system is set up, enough money to comfortably support a family. In talking with distributors every day, did they ever indicate that they had an idea of the odds against them? Did they have a sense of the frustration in trying to do that, or the structure that makes it so hard to do that?

Amy: Absolutely. I remember probably four years ago hearing that the average direct distributor earned $30,000 a year. You have to have reached a certain level, and you have to have so many people under you who have reached a certain level, to become a direct distributor. The vast majority of the people I talked to were not direct distributors; were nowhere near being direct distributors. I mean the vast majority.

Every so often you talk to a high roller, but that was unusual.

I always attributed that to the nature of my job. People who need my help may be somebody who is not as experienced.

But I think there are a lot of people out there who get into the business because they think that they’re going to get rich, and they’re going to have a nice annual income with moderate effort. And that’s just not the case. That’s not going to happen. You won’t make real money unless you are like, one of those people who are in the video, who puts that much into it.

The whole nature of that, the whole lifestyle, you have to buy into. They want to make their employees more and more thinking like the way their distributors think. You have to think Amway, and breathe Amway, have Am-friends, and Am-products. It scares me! That kind of lack of creativity. It just makes me very uncomfortable. It brings out the worst in people, and that’s where you see the greed.

Richa: Did you see that being true for the employees as well; the people you worked with?

Amy: No. The people I worked with were pretty much normal people.

I love the paycheck, but you have to sell your soul for that time and a half because you’re smiling and you’re acting like, “This new product is just the living end!”

There’s always this mystery to me about why people are so willing to throw out their feelings about things and just buy into this. It’s not people who just don’t have any other opportunities, or people who aren’t terribly bright.

Sometimes, they’d send us to meetings, and you’d get to fly, and stay in nice hotels. You’d be there with all distributors representing the corporation, and you’d smile and wave, and they would all want to know about what it’s like to work for Amway. On one hand, they think it’s so great, but on the other hand, they just can’t believe, “Boy, I can’t believe, why aren’t you an Amway distributor? We know what this business can do!” These are doctors, a construction worker, an accountant, or something like that… It kind of reminds me of the games with fraternities or sororities, “I’ve got to belong” or something; be part of the group.

Richa: What about these meetings for distributors you mentioned. What would they be telling people?

Amy: People who work at the corporation in a certain department that distributors work with a lot would come on stage, and the distributors would get very excited about these corporate people. If you were a family member — anybody named DeVos or VanAndel — tears would come to their eyes. They were very moved even to be in the same room. They could say or do anything, and [the distributors] were just very thrilled.

I just want to say that all these great and noble reasons for me not working there are not it. I mean, that’s not completely why I am not there. I have to say that the very personal nature of my work was very difficult for me. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like it when people aren’t fair, and aren’t nice and kind. People aren’t going to be fair, whether it had anything to do with me or not. And just by the nature of my work I had to deal with that and I just didn’t like it. I used to be good at it, but I just didn’t like it.

So maybe, if I had a job that was creative, where nobody asked me to lie, where I did work that I could say I was proud of, and that kind of enriched me, after all I just said, I might still be there.

I took a pay cut to leave that job, and I would take a pay cut to do anything that was better than that; better for me, for my soul.

Richa: When you first applied, did you have any knowledge at all of the fraud, forged documents, dummy corporations in Hawaii to cheat on taxes, that sort of thing that had gone on and gotten a lot of publicity in the corporate media? Or did you learn about some of those things while you worked at Amway?

Amy: That all happened before I came there. When I first came there I wasn’t paying attention to that kind of thing. It just kind of had to slap me in the fact before I woke up. I would hear references to it and people would make jokes about it, but I never really got into that whole story.

There was a sense of people around me that we should be grateful to have a job. We should be grateful we were given the opportunity to work.

Sharon: And to have such a good job, because the company is so good to you. And they do things that make you feel you are very lucky to have a job because you’re sitting at a phone or whatever, you’re making nine or ten dollars an hour..

Amy: When I left I was making $15 an hour. Now that’s a lot of money.

Sharon: And all the benefits and bonuses.

Amy: And some people made more money than that, who didn’t have a degree. For them, darn right, they were very grateful.

For me, little things too. Like, I am a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat or fish or poultry. To people I worked with, that was a freaky thing! I mean totally freaky, crazy. They’d tease me constantly. Not in a mean way. Just, they’d never let go of the fact that they really felt that was bizarre.

Richa: Did it seem to you, as Butterfield wrote, that Amway had characteristics of a cult?

Amy: You know, a lot of people refer to Amway as a cult. I don’t think they are a cult in the sense that most cults are, but the distributors (“distributor organization”) use a lot of tactics that are very similar to cults. It is very much a pure world and if you diverge… Anybody who isn’t “with” that is either a “negative person,” or at their most generous, somebody who “just isn’t quite ready yet.

Privileged People Get Together to Talk about Racism

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1998)

From October through December, the Grand Rapids Magazine provided us with a look at how arrogant and candid rich white people can be. Not that this was the intention of the local glossy mag, rather it was the outcome of their organized chat group of privileged people from the area who came to discuss racism in Grand Rapids.

The “dialogue” took place in June and consisted of 5 white folks, 2 black people, 6 men, and one woman. All seven people represent significantly privileged economic sectors of the community: Peter Cook – Chairman of Mazda Great lakes; Stephen Drew – partner with Drew, Cooper & Anding; Tom Regis – Regis Reality; Diana Sieger – President of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation; Dan West – GRPS Board of Education; Casey Wondergem – Amway Senior Public Affairs Counsel; and Bob Woodrick – Chairman of D&W.

It would be relevant to the discussion here to note some of the other connections that members of this dialogue group have in the area. Casey Wondergem is a member of the Downtown Development Authority, the non-elected body of rich, white men, that use tax payers money for “development” projects in downtown Grand Rapids. Peter Cook, according to Russ Bellant’s book The Religious Right in Michigan Politics, is very active in religious right activities. He is part director of Gospel Films Inc. in Muskegon, a media forum that promotes religious intolerance and political theocracy. Cook also is a major donor to TEACH Michigan, an anti-public schools organization, Campus Crusade, Focus on the Family, the right-wing Media Research Center, Michigan Family Forum, and the Acton Institute.

Having said all that it is not my intention to dissect the text of the “racism dialogue,” instead I only wanted to mention some of the things said and encourage our readers to get a copy of the October, November, and December issues of the Grand Rapids Magazine.

All of the white members of the panel, except Bob Woodrick, either down-played racism in Grand Rapids or simply denied that it existed at all. Peter Cook said, “I hate to say this, but most of the racist comments I hear come from the black community against the white community.” Tom Regis scapegoated Sidney Rhoads Jr. (who does a show on GRTV) for creating negativism in the community. Sidney apparently said that blacks feel cheated because they created the wealth in this country that the whites have. It would seem that Mr. Regis doesn’t think that history has anything to do with our present situation.

Casey Wondergem probably topped them all in ridiculousness with a comment that I thought was no longer tolerable in most common sense circles. He said “some of my best friends are African Americans.” After picking myself up off the floor from laughter, I came to my senses and saw that what the whole discussion was revolving around was not really racism, but classism.

While both West and Drew contributed the more intelligible comments, neither of them questioned the economic inequity that exists in our community, nor that most people of color are disproportionately poor in this community. Tom Regis’s idea of the community coming along way was the example of Casey Wondergem arranging a party at the University Club with Dutch and non-Dutch people. Radical indeed.

Reading this discussion made me realize even more how out of touch with reality people in power are. Their words were self-indicting as to their ignorance, indifference, and complicity in creating and maintaining structures that exploit and exclude people in this community.

Everyone needs to read this series of articles. Make copies and pass them on to friends. Let’s start our own discussion groups and submit the results to Grand Rapids Magazine or suggest real people in the trenches to be part of another discussion group for their mag. Maybe FUN will organize one for the next issue. Who do you think should take part.