PhillyDeals: Amway chief is Constitution Center's new chair

Doug DeVos, new executive board chairman of the National Constitution Center, is the head of Amway.
Doug DeVos, new executive board chairman of the National Constitution Center, is the head of Amway. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 29, 2012

Doug DeVos, second-generation boss of consumer-marketing giant Amway and newly elected chairman of the National Constitution Center's executive board, sits at the center's Independence Mall headquarters, with its bronzes of the Founding Fathers in lifelike poses, and tells how the message of America's founding document isn't that different from what his company has found in its rapid expansion through Asia:

"Economic freedom leads to personal freedom. If you just have economic freedom, you're missing the point," which is improving life "for people. Not money."

The rule of law - a written law accessible to all - creates "an environment where people can be rewarded for the work they do," DeVos says. "It maybe isn't perfect," though he declined to suggest what might be added or cut to improve it. "It can be made more perfect. I love that part of the premise. We believe in better."

Of all the charities in America, why the Constitution

Center? His father, billionaire Amway cofounder, Christian philanthropist, and Republican donor Richard DeVos, gave $10 million in 2003 when it opened, and told his extended family to show up when President Clinton came to the dedication. Doug showed up. He liked Philadelphia, and the history displayed around Independence Mall. He liked what he heard about the founding document: "Half the countries around the world are now like ours," with written rules. "The beauty of it: you can disagree, and still be a patriot. The Constitution gives you that right."

Amway's sales total about $9 billion a year (twice the size of Dick's Sporting Goods Inc., half the size of J.C. Penney Co. Inc.). The company's members - three million worldwide, DeVos says - market soaps and hundreds of other home products and recruit new salespeople. Detractors have called it a pyramid scheme; the company paid $55 million to settle a lawsuit by disgruntled distributors two years ago. DeVos says Amway continues expanding in the United States, and abroad, where 90 percent of its members now live, in China, Turkey, Indonesia, and other fast-growing markets.

The DeVoses are staunch Republicans, like their old friend and Grand Rapids neighbor, President Gerald Ford. The younger DeVos' foundation gave away $10 million last year: $2.5 million to a family hospital foundation, $2 million to Christian schools in Grand Rapids, $500,000 to the mainstream-conservative American Enterprise Institute, and $500,000 to the Philadelphia-based National Organization for Marriage Education Fund, which opposes same-sex marriage, plus hundreds of smaller grants to schools and charities.

Don't the DeVoses' politics affect their constitutional views? "The work here is above all that," he insisted, smiling.

"We check all that at the door," said Penn professor Richard Beeman, a lonely historian among the lawyers and businesspeople on the center's board. "It's not an advocacy organization. We teach the conflicts."

At board meetings, "almost every view in the United States is represented," said board member Stephen J. Harmelin, a partner at Dilworth Paxson L.L.P. To design the center's future outreach, DeVos works with a marketing committee that includes Hollywood producer Marc Platt, NBCUniversal Inc. executive Jeff Schell, Citizens Bank boss Ellen Alemany, and real estate mogul Joe Duckworth.

What do the DeVoses get from their constitutional commitment? "The payback is hearing the children's voices," he said, pointing to lines of khaki-pants schoolkids lining the three-story lobby.

So how does he know, after 10 years, that the center is reaching Americans? That's still to-do: "We want to measure" its effectiveness, DeVos said.

For the center in the past, promotion has included museum-style shows tied, sometimes tentatively, to the Constitution. A Princess Diana exhibit raised the "what-if" question about America's English-monarchial past, said Harmelin. The Ancient Rome exhibit probed the obvious parallels between republican - and imperial - Rome and the United States, board member William Sasso told me. A coming Bruce Springsteen exhibit, noting the singer's middle-American themes, should play well to his East Coast fans, DeVos said.

The Constitution, to DeVos, ought to relieve any American tendency to split into hostile factions. "It's for all the people," DeVos says. "If we talk long enough, we'll get there."


Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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