Amway Co-Founder Jay Van Andel Dies

Jay Van Andel (search), the billionaire co-founder of Amway Corp. who championed conservatism and capitalism and was one of Michigan's leading philanthropists, has died, Greg McNeilly, executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, said Tuesday.

Van Andel, 80, had Parkinson's disease (search), a disorder of the central nervous system that involves a degeneration of nerve cells in parts of the brain. The cause of his death was not immediately known.

"We're deeply saddened by the loss of a man of great integrity who has been a strong Republican supporter for a number of years," said McNeilly, speaking on behalf of state GOP Chairwoman Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is married to Dick DeVos, a former Amway (search) official whose father, Richard DeVos, co-founded Amway with Van Andel.

The Van Andel and DeVos families gave a combined $95 million between 1990 and 1998 alone.

Much of Van Andel's giving went toward Christian causes, including a creation research station in rural Arizona that sought to prove the world was made in a week.

Van Andel also reshaped his hometown of Grand Rapids over the years.

In 1978, Amway bought the 65-year-old Pantlind Hotel (search), restored it, added a 29-story tower and reopened it in 1981 as the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. A downtown arena that opened in 1996 was named for Van Andel after his foundation donated $11.5 million toward its $75 million cost.

The Van Andel Museum Center was added later.

Forbes magazine this year estimated Van Andel's fortune at $2.3 billion, 231st on its list of the nation's wealthiest people.

The multibillion-dollar enterprise called Amway grew out of Van Andel's early knack for salesmanship.

The 15-year-old Van Andel offered classmate DeVos a daily ride to Grand Rapids Christian High School in his Model A Ford in exchange for 25 cents a week in gas money.

Returning to Grand Rapids after World War II, Van Andel and DeVos tried their hands at several businesses.

The first was a flying school that had one airplane, a Piper Cub fitted with pontoons to use the Grand River for takeoffs and landings while the runways at the airfield they were building were under construction. They later opened Grand Rapids' first drive-in restaurant.

Van Andel and DeVos ventured into person-to-person sales in 1949, forming the Ja-Ri Corp. and selling vitamins and food supplements. They founded Amway in 1959, operating out of the basements of their neighboring homes and selling a single product, a biodegradable household cleaner called L.O.C.

Van Andel and DeVos were preparing to turn over control of Amway to their children when DeVos suffered a heart attack in December 1992.

DeVos resigned as president shortly after undergoing triple bypass surgery and was succeeded by his son, Dick. Van Andel resigned as chairman in 1995 and was succeeded in that post by his son, Steve. The founders' sons shared the newly created office of chief executive of Amway.

Amway now operates in more than 80 countries and territories around the world, with 13,000 employees and millions of distributors. Privately held by the Van Andel and DeVos families, Alticor Inc. — formed as Amway's parent company in a 2000 reorganization — reported sales of $4.1 billion the following year.

Alticor had worldwide sales of $6.2 billion for the year ending Aug. 31, 2004, $1.3 billion more than in 2003, the largest increase year-to-year in the direct-selling company's history. The company said Asia — and China in particular — continued to be its primary market and the top region for sales growth.

Van Andel was born June 3, 1924, in Grand Rapids and graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High. He attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, Pratt Business School in Pratt, Kan., and Yale University Aviation Cadet School in New Haven, Conn.

He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1942 to 1945 and as a Reserve Officer from 1945 to 1950. In 1952, Van Andel married the former Betty Hoekstra of Grand Rapids. They had four children, all of whom held executive positions with Amway — as did DeVos' four children.

If Amway was co-founded in Van Andel's basement, it was nurtured upstairs.

"Sometimes the dining room took on the character of an MBA. classroom," he wrote in his autobiography. "As I would reflect on the day's activities, I would present the family with a business problem and start a discussion of the various solutions.

"Then I'd tell everyone what I actually did in that situation, and why. Those discussions made for a much easier transition when my children and Rich's children began taking on leadership roles in Amway. ...

"My son Dave told me not long ago that he learned more about business around the dinner table than from any other source — college business classes and personal involvement in the business included."

Van Andel's resume reflected his conservative business and social philosophies. He chaired the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and was a trustee of the Heritage Foundation, Hudson Institute, Hillsdale College and the Advisory Council for American Private Education.

The Family Owned Business Institute, on Grand Valley State University's downtown Grand Rapids campus, was founded in part with $301,000 raised in a 1999 tribute to Van Andel and DeVos.

A member of MENSA (search), Van Andel founded the nonprofit Van Andel Institute, comprising two facilities dedicated to medical research and the educational process. He spent $60 million to build its headquarters in Grand Rapids, covered its annual budget and planned to pledge most of his taxable estate to it.

He also was chairman of the Amway Environmental Foundation.

Van Andel's honors included selection to the Direct Selling Association Hall of Fame, Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame and the Adam Smith Free Enterprise Award from the American Legislative Exchange Council. He received the United Nations Environment Programme Achievement Award, recipient on behalf of Amway in 1989.