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Young DeVos stays father's course at Amway

Dick DeVos was 23 when his father Richard _ co-founder and then-president of Amway Corp. _ spotted a storm from their racing sailboat and directed him to head right into it.

Powerful winds ahead of the tempest propelled the boat and put it in direct line with the next racing mark. The rest of the Great Lakes fleet, playing it safe and avoiding the storm, lagged behind by tacking.

The DeVos boat sailed swiftly to the finish line of the 1979 Chicago to Mackinac Island race and took home the victory cup.

Now Dick, 37, has taken his father's place at Amway. He is expected to possess the same vision and move forward aggressively to keep the global direct sales company ahead of the competition.

So far it's smooth sailing for the company that sold $3.9-billion worth of detergent, vitamins, dog food, perfume and other home-care products through its network of 2-million distributors last year.

That was nearly double 1990 sales. So far this year, sales are 20 percent higher than the same time last year.

"We've got boat speed now, we're just looking for about 2 degrees up," said the younger DeVos, his dark tan and athletic physique betraying his weekend passion.

DeVos took over Amway in December from his father, a multibillionaire who retired at 66 after a heart attack.

He also is president of the Orlando Magic NBA basketball team, owned by the DeVos family.

"If you take over IBM right now, you've got to do some things to change the direction," he said. "When you take over an Amway right now, the direction is pretty good. . . . You want to enhance and improve."

Amway was started in 1959 by Richard DeVos and Jay VanAndel, who sold a household cleaning product out of their basements.

Over three decades, they built the company into a multibillion-dollar international corporation based in Ada, a suburb of Grand Rapids, Mich.

One-third of its business is in North America, and one-third is in the Pacific Rim. Most recently, Amway has expanded into Hungary, Poland and Argentina.

VanAndel remains chairman at age 69. But the reigns of the company are clearly being handed over to the second generation.

Last June, the four DeVos children and the four VanAndel children, ranging in age from 28 to 39, formed a policy board with their fathers to make major company decisions. Six months later, Dick, the eldest of the DeVos siblings, was tapped to replace his father as president. The appointment came while Dick was in the midst of a three-year hiatus from the family business.

After 15 years with his father's company _ the last six as head of international operations when sales tripled _ he left in 1989 to start an investment firm called The Windquest Group.

"It was a flattening of the learning curve that challenged me to go out and try small business _ try to learn that perspective, dealing with banks when you've got nothing to show them," he said. "You learn creativity."

When he left Amway, he didn't know if he would ever go back. "Like a lot of things, if your father calls you and asks you to do something, some of us are taught you don't ask why. You respond," he said.

DeVos is a lot like his father in strong Christian values and Republican Party activism.

Like his father, he is dedicated to community projects and investing in philanthropic activities in countries where Amway does business. The company has built a foster home in Malaysia, raised $11-million for the Easter Seal Society and "adopted" a Grand Rapids inner-city school providing programs and role models for disadvantaged youths.

The company has gone through some rocky periods. In the 1970s, Amway was accused and later cleared of allegations that it operated a "pyramid buying" scheme in which distributors made money by selling other distributorships.

In the 1980s, the Amway co-founders pleaded guilty to defrauding the Canadian government of $22-million in customs duties and agreed to pay a $20-million fine.

DeVos, soft-spoken and modest, is "very competitive in a quiet and intense type of way," said his brother Doug, 28. "He is very focused on what we're trying to do _ on the boat or whatever he's trying to accomplish. Luckily, he does loosen up on occasion."

The entire DeVos family, including Rich DeVos, will take to the Great Lakes again this summer on their new 70-foot custom designed sailboat christened Windquest.

Although Dick "may be the skipper, Dad's the admiral," Doug said. "That's the way it is."