R&L: Do you see a potential contradiction between being a successful entrepreneur and a Christian believer?
DeVos: Being a capitalist is actually fulfilling the will of God in my life. Prayerfully, I trust that this is my calling. So I don’t see any contradiction. The alternative view is that, as a believer, I should be poor, a business failure. I do not accept that. God has given us talents. Either we use them in business or we all should become priests and ministers, or devote ourselves to social work. That is not a framework to provide meaningful employment or opportunities for everyone.
But certainly there are greedy and improper capitalists, just as in every other profession. That is because we are all sinners. So I don’t think businessmen are any worse than anyone else.
R&L: What has been the greatest moral or spiritual challenge in the midst of your success?
DeVos: It would be when we had a big argument with the Canadian government over a tax matter. We were doing everything that we, our lawyers, and our accountants thought was correct, and the government charged us with fraud. Yet we had been doing it that way for 17 years. I think the episode was politically motivated. But from a moral standpoint, I think it caused much soul-searching as to whether we had done anything wrong; were we out to defraud and cheat them, and in so doing violate our own vows of honesty and integrity? We searched our souls pretty hard. I concluded Amway was innocent of the charge. But for various technical reasons, we pleaded guilty. That was another moral dilemma: Is it right to say you are wrong when you believe you are right? We prayed a lot also, and I lost a lot of sleep over it. I think that was the greatest dilemma in my business career.
R&L: How about a spiritual dilemma related to an abundance of material wealth?
DeVos: I guess Helen and I finally resolved that question in our own minds with some of our theological friends. It first came up when we were donating money toward what is now DeVos Hall, a concert hall in Grand Rapids, and wondering if we should name it that. Would it be vain? Was it ego satisfaction? We finally concluded that it was O.K.
A good friend encouraged us to do so. His rationale was that if I put my name on the building, it would encourage others to give likewise. And therefore, instead of it being an ego trip for me, it would say “Hey, there are important people who make major contributions. We want to honor those people.” He felt it would encourage others to give. Afterwards, I found people asking me about my giving habits. That gave me opportunities to talk about tithing.
R&L: So you give 10% strictly to religious purposes in addition to community needs?
DeVos: Yes. We often debate what is religious and what is secular giving. For example, is giving to a hospital religious giving? Sometimes it is obvious. Social welfare programs are fine, but they are not necessarily religious and do not have any direct religious impact. We maintain a separation between secular and religious giving in our foundation. Secular programs have a place. But we really have to make sure we support the church and its work.
It’s easy for us to tithe because we never felt the money was ours. This was true because we set money aside for God in an organized way. If you put it in your wallet, you will say, “Oh, I have to dig out this money.” But don’t put it there. Put it in God’s wallet. When we started, Helen would take that $15.00 every week (I made $150.00 weekly) and put it in the envelope and that envelope grew as the years went by. I felt I never gave anything because it wasn’t mine, so I never gave sacrificially.
R&L: We hear the word “compassion” used in political discussion, especially when it is a justification for expansive welfare programs and the welfare state. Talk about compassion and what you call “compassionate capitalism.”
DeVos: One approach is to give money away to help people because they are hungry. This, in some cases, is necessary. There are people who can’t do much about their condition. However, many people who are in need of social aid have failed to exercise personal responsibility. Therefore, if I am really compassionate to them, I can not just give them handouts. The most compassionate thing I can do is to help them help themselves. I can help them to become self-sufficient, so they don’t require assistance from everybody else. I think that is the ultimate form of compassion.
I believe that most government programs are really not compassionate at all, because they instill very bad habits. Whether they are giving away drugs or enable people to buy booze, that is certainly not an act of compassion. That is really giving people the means for self-destruction. It is contrary to compassion. But that’s not what the politician would generally call it.
R&L: How can an entrepreneur foster virtue within the workplace while still making a profit?
DeVos: I think they go together. In the early days of Amway, there were monthly meetings with my employees, which I maintained for almost 30 years. Our son, Dick, who is the current president of Amway, does that now. But at least at the Ada plant, which employs 5,000 people, we hold monthly meetings. We discuss business conditions and the benefits we will or will not give and why. We talk about safety. In December, I have a Christmas program in which we read from the Bible, without apology.
Finally, you promote virtue by treating your employees well. We have never had a strike or interruption of any kind in all 33 years. While unions bargain for contracts, we automatically adjust pay every year based on how well the company is doing. It is merely a matter of trust, honor and respect for the individual.
R&L: Amway has promoted the idea of working for oneself. Is it better to work for yourself or to work for someone else?
DeVos: Amway promotes the idea of an independent distributor. It also employs 12,000 people. So, I have to support both. It is my feeling that certain people have a spirit of entrepreneurship and really want their own business. Most people, however, need the organized routine of being an employee. That doesn’t mean they are less worthy. They simply like to work in that mode. They may complain about it, but in truth, they do not have the personal discipline or aggressiveness necessary to work on their own. It takes a certain amount of aggressiveness to build an Amway distributorship. You have to be willing to be laughed at and turned down. It takes a certain amount of resilience, too. It is not the way most people have been trained or brought up. They were told that, if they worked faithfully for a good company, they would be there for life.
R&L: Is there not a sense in which even the entrepreneur works for the consumer? Is there not a sense in which you worked for many years for the people who bought your goods?
DeVos: I really work for our distributors. They are my bosses. They were my consumers, too–they bought from me. They, in turn, would sell to others. In the corporate world, the management evaluates the employees. We do that twice a year. Eventually, everyone is evaluated by someone. We are all evaluated by the distributor who is evaluated by the customer. So, we are judged by our performance and we can measure that in numbers.
R&L: Is there a reciprocal relationship between freedom and economic growth?
DeVos: My experience has been that there is nothing like the ownership of your own business and the gift of being free to do what you want to bring out energy and talent. Somehow it unleashes it.
I often compare it to owning your own home. A guy owns his own home, and because it is his, he suddenly becomes a little bit of a plumber and a carpenter. He does things that he would not do if he was a tenant. A free person becomes a creative person because he is resourceful and always looking to improve his own condition. That’s the freedom he has in business ownership.
R&L: Did you have that insight from the outset? Or did you acquire that, or at least sharpen it, over the years?
DeVos: I sharpened it. Jay Van Andel (co-founder of Amway) and I knew it because we started our own distributorship. We gradually had this feeling of freedom, of owning our own business and being responsible for its success. When I think of all the things we did to survive in our businesses–the nights we spent and the hours we put in–we never would have done that if we worked for someone else. Our experience confirmed what we believed. As we watched it function over the years, we realized that there is something powerful in the freedom of ownership.
Though I speak of entrepreneurship as business-related, entrepreneurs are also people in the work that Fr. Sirico and many others are doing in caring for the needs of others–those who have pioneered those fields, not because they owned it but because they felt called. There are wonderfully creative teachers who feel like they own their own classrooms even if they don’t.
R&L: You have had some health problems over the last year or so. What has that brush with mortality taught you? What are your reflections about your life and success?
DeVos: I always thought I had a strong faith and belief in God. I have lived my life the best I could, never doubting those things. But when I came nose to nose with serious health problems, I got rather comfortable with it. When I went for another bypass surgery, the anesthesiologist pulled up his stool by my head to administer the anesthesia, and he asked if we could pray together. I never got over that. He obviously knew I was a Christian. What a wonderful witness for him to talk to me that way.
When I had further surgeries, I found myself at ease, and I would ask myself why. I decided that I was ready to die. I have lived a full life. There was nothing I had not done that I wanted to do. My family is in great shape and blessed abundantly. If it is time, it is O.K.
R&L: So, what would be your last words to our readers?
DeVos: I guess my words would be very positive: “Believe in God and obey Him and He’ll take care of you. Do the best you can with what you’ve got. Don’t sweat the little stuff.” It’s pretty simple. That’s what I would say.