But it turns out to be so much more complicated. In 1979, the F.T.C., after investigating Amway, a multilevel marketing company with a vast product line, decided that the company’s business model passed muster — even though recruitment was at the heart of it — because it claimed to take certain steps that (among other things) supposedly showed that its recruits were selling the company’s products to real customers, not just to other recruits. Very quickly, other multilevel marketing companies adopted the “Amway rules” to stay on the right side of the F.T.C.
Their vertically integrated supply chain is one of longest in the industry. In addition to running plants, they own organic farms. They have farms in Brazil, Mexico, and the state of Washington where they grow and harvest key botanical ingredients like echinacea, spinach, alfalfa, watercress, and cherries. They then take those products and manufacture intermediates. Cherries, for example, are processed for Vitamin C. These intermediates they both use in their own products and sell to other companies.
Figuring out the arcana of Amway took months. The price list, for instance, is denominated in two artificial Amway currencies called “Point Value” (PV) and “Bonus Volume” (BV), which are listed alongside the U.S. dollar-denominated wholesale (“Distributor Cost”) and “Suggested Retail” prices. But for all the arcana, the system’s core concept was simple.
The centerpiece of any Rally is the life-story told by the guest of honor, emphasizing the depths of his pre-Amway rut and his resurrection through The Business. That evening’s featured guest, Executive Diamond Bill Hawkins, however, was too arrogant even to feign the requisite humility in his testimonial. He had been great all his life: a talented musician in one of Minneapolis’s best bands, a brilliant school teacher, a voracious reader, a charming companion with hundreds of loyal friends, and an unbelievably prodigious drinker of beer (about which he was now “ashamed”). When he saw The Plan and realized that he was much smarter than the guy showing it, he knew that his ship had finally come in: Here, at last, was something that would adequately reward his greatness.
What this simple example tells us is that it is difficult to keep appointing more and more distributors. This is similar to a Ponzi scheme, where for the scheme to keep going more and more newer investors need to keep coming in, so that the older investors whose money is falling due can be paid off. The trouble of course is that that the number of people is not infinite, as the above example shows us.
It was hard enough to get people to sign up for Amway. My parents, in describing their experience, said that most people had heard of the company and believed it was a pyramid scheme. In fact, part of my parents’ strategy for ‘showing The Plan’ was that they didn’t even tell people it was Amway until the very end of their presentation – then they signed them up on the spot. If they couldn’t sign them up right then, they invited them to a meeting. Most of the time, even though they told them not to talk to anybody about Amway before the meeting, the prospect would go to their brother-in-law, who would tell them it was crap. ‘And if they make it to the meeting, this guy’ – the creepy guy in the upline – ‘stands up there and is a complete ass,’ says my dad. ‘And the people that you encouraged and cajoled, they take a look at you and say, ‘What?’ And then they don’t return your phone call.’
In Simply Rich, DeVos describes buying full-page advertisements for Reagan in popular magazines during his presidential runs because ‘we wanted the Amway distributors and their customers to know that we supported Reagan, in the hope that they would support him, too.’ Adding, ‘We also thought the ads might further help Amway distributors recognize the importance of free enterprise to their success.’ This is not the only time Amway has encouraged its sales force to back its political agenda. In 1994, Amway Crown Ambassador and motivational mogul Dexter Yager used Amway’s extensive voice mail system to raise almost half of Amway distributor and ‘strong conservative’ congresswoman Sue Myrick’s campaign funds when she ran for North Carolina’s ninth congressional district. The year Myrick was elected, Amway donated $1.3 million to the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau to pay for Republican ‘infomercials’ airing on televangelist Pat Robertson’s Family Channel during the party’s August convention.
But the problem with “public franchises” like McDonald’s, Scott noted, is that they only allow one person to enjoy this enchanted income. “Private” or “multilevel” franchises, on the other hand, allow people at all levels to duplicate themselves. Everyone begins as a grit-teeth franchise operator, but by “sharing their business with others” they would come into an exponentially expanding avalanche of wealth large enough to outrun the ballooning costs of twentieth-century life.
One Republican who caught the DeVos family’s ire was Paul Muxlow, a realtor and former educator elected to the state house in 2010, representing a mostly rural district in southeast Michigan. Muxlow was a dependable conservative, but disliked the idea of eliminating the cap on the number of charter schools. While he was fine with charter schools in underserved communities, he said he couldn’t support them in rural areas—“It would kill those districts,” he explained to the Detroit Free Press in 2014. When the cap elimination came before the state Legislature in 2011, it passed with Muxlow voting against it. The following year, when he ran for reelection, he faced a blitz of attacks from GLEP, which didn’t even need his district, but spent just under $185,000 to take him out in the primary. Muxlow won by just 132 votes.
I like most of Amway's products. Their cleaning products are really good. I have purchased many things from Amway. Many good products at a reasonable price. I have shopped with them for many years. In fact years ago when I was much younger I worked for Amway. Their sales persons are very nice and courteous and well mannered. Pleasant to do business with. Their representatives are of good character, always arrive on the appointed time and it is a pleasant sight to see them coming to my door to show what they have on sale.
Ultimately, however, he dealt with his catch-22 through simple fantasies of escape. He was adamant that someday he’d be a millionaire, his current predicament no more than a bad memory. His hand would describe a hyperbola as he explained that The Business was hard at first, but if you’d just stick in there, you’d soon enjoy exponential success. This would happen so soon that he wouldn’t have to prospect long enough even to get particularly good at it. “The point is not to get good,” he insisted, “It’s to get done!”
In this, Dick and Betsy DeVos’ familial roots serve as an object example. Dick is the eldest son of Richard DeVos, who co-founded Amway in 1959, and grew it from a meager soap factory into a multinational colossus with $9.5 billion in annual sales, enlisting his children to manage and expand the company. Betsy hails from a dynasty of her own. In 1965, her father, Edgar Prince, founded a small manufacturing company that came to be worth more than $1 billion on the strength of Prince’s automotive innovations, which include the pull-down sun visor with a built-in light-up vanity mirror.
The problem for Amway distributors (or any other genuine MLM company) entering the game late is that it is difficult for them to sponsor new distributors. It is also difficult for them to sell Amway products given that there are so many distributors already operating in the market and they have selling relationships in place. Also, products sold by MLM companies typically tend to be more expensive than similar products being sold in the open market, making it more difficult to get customers willing to buy.
USA Today and ESPN also publish a top 25 college baseball poll for NCAA Division I baseball, known as the USA Today/ESPN Top 25 coaches' baseball poll. The poll began in 1992. The poll appears in the preseason, then begins weekly after week 2 of the season through the end of conference tournaments. A final poll is released after the conclusion of the College World Series.
Fittingly, my encounter with Amway began during a long-term temp assignment at Andersen Consulting’s ENTERPRISE 2020 project, an ongoing exhibit to which consultants would bring potential clients to scare them about the future. The main attraction was a battery of “industry experts” who produced customized nightmare scenarios to help manufacturing executives from across the globe see the Third Wave coming at them. The experts would discourse gravely about globalization, accelerating technology, managed chaos, self-organizing supply chains, flex-this, flex-that, and nano-everything, eventually arriving at the message of this elaborate sideshow: The future is not to be faced without an Andersen consultant on retainer.
The prospect is alarming enough that Charles Paul Conn, in Promises to Keep, works hard to prove it’ll never happen. “The reality,” he tells us, “is entirely different from what might be predicted by a statistician with a slide rule.” He points to the millions of likely untapped prospects—youths, retirees, downsized professionals, foreigners—although he fails to acknowledge that recruiting them would only make the Business hungrier. More plausibly, he adds that Amway is a small part of the population and will stay that way. The Business’s high dropout rate, he explains, though “often cited as a negative factor, actually serves to keep the pool of potential distributors large.” In other words, Amway’s salvation is its high rate of failure.
Rallies begin with a ritual called “crossing the stage,” in which distributors who have attained a new bonus level go up to receive their commemorative pin and shake hands with a Diamond. From the crowd of about five hundred, two couples “crossed” at the 1,000 PV level (the lowest warranting a pin) and received a standing ovation from the audience. From the stage, the host then called out all the levels from 1,500 PV to 7,500 PV. Nobody emerged from the audience—which, nonetheless, remained on its feet applauding. The host kept cajoling, “C’mon, there’s plenty of room up here,” as if it were shyness that was keeping people away. It was the archetypal Amway moment: a crowd giving a standing ovation to nobody.
The family is also heavily invested in right-wing politics, earning comparisons to the Kochs for the enthusiasm with which they back Republican candidates like Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, and their sizable donations to ultraconservative organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, both of which promote Christian value-based public policy such as anti-abortion legislation and bans on same-sex marriage. In 2014, the DeVoses donated in the six figures to Michigan-based conservative think tanks including the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, which promotes free market economics within a Christian framework, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, also a supporter of free market economics. Elsewhere, conservative organizations that received DeVos funding of over a million dollars each include the American Enterprise Institute, another free market think tank; the Alliance Defending Freedom, the right’s preeminent legal defense fund; and the Heritage Foundation, which promotes free market economics and ‘traditional American values.’
The houses in Carlton Estates were a magnitude above those in our old neighborhood, where all of the concrete homes followed more or less the same design. These sat on larger lots and had deeper lawns, and each was entirely unique. There were second and third stories, and sloping, multilevel roofs. There were bamboo thickets obscuring homes from the street. Stone and wood exteriors. Stained glass windows. No sidewalks. No streetlights.