There were two new faces at April’s Athena Society dinner, the annual Vero Beach Museum of Art affair where $5,000 donors vote on art acquisitions for the museum’s permanent collection. Dick and Betsy DeVos, residents of Windsor, enjoyed a festive dinner with some 75 other supporters who all had the chance to gaze at the options up close, banter with neighbors about the picks and root for the winner in the end.
While the DeVos’s may be new to the Athena Society, they are far from new to the art world. While he claims not to come from “artsy” family, he certainly comes from one wealthy enough to keep an awful lot of artists happy. Dick DeVos is the son of Richard DeVos Sr., the billionaire co-founder of Amway and owner of the Orlando Magic basketball team and now a resident of Windsor himself.
For 25 years, Dick served as the global multi-level marketing giant’s president. In 2006, he ran – unsuccessfully – for governor of Michigan. His and his wife’s foundation supports a huge citywide juried art show, ArtPrize, that for two weeks consumes Grand Rapids, MI, their home town. The ArtPrize festival culminates in an award billed as the world’s largest art prize: $200,000.
The DeVos’s are hardly new to Vero, where they spend the coldest weeks of the Michigan winter in one of three homes they own in Windsor. Dick and Betsy DeVos first bought there 15 years ago.
Today, their extended family, including son Rick, 32, the founder of ArtPrize, is so large it has to use Windsor’s guest quarters when they all come to visit.
Recently the DeVos Family Council held its annual meeting at Windsor, an event typically attended by Dick DeVos’s three siblings, their spouses, their kids and their kids’ kids, who pile into town to go over the business of the “family office,” a construct devised so that wealthy families can meet and discuss how to manage their money in investments and philanthropy. The DeVos family office takes a staff of 20 to run.
Windsor’s clubhouse helped with space issues and a room was set up for a family dinner.
“Giving away money isn’t easy,” says Dick DeVos. “For lack of a better term: You now have a pile of money. What are going to do with it? We’ve had a family office 23 years and in the last five years we’ve overlaid that and said we want to be very intentional as a family about building and maintaining relationships within the family.
“If you look at wealthy families, wealth is not a predictor of family closeness. Money is oftentimes very divisive,” says DeVos. “We’d like to model a different way.”
Amway is still a privately held business, he points out, and the family shares many more business interests besides. “But how do we transmit values and prepare the next generation to be wise decision-makers in their lives, as well as in the lives of the family? We’ve formed a family council, which makes the decisions within the family assembly. This year the family assembly meeting was here at Windsor, with all families, four generations.”
Not that the meeting is all business. This year, the guest speaker at the meeting was Bear Grylls, host of Discovery Channel’s “Man vs. Wild.”
The DeVos choice of speaker reflects a family adventurousness going all the way back to the patriarch: Richard DeVos Sr. This year, conveniently, he had only to make it across the street to get to the family assembly meeting. He and his wife Helen now live in an oceanfront Windsor home. But his gumption hasn’t paled.
DeVos, 88, made his decision to buy a house in Vero with the same unbridled optimism that fueled most of his life decisions. Forbes lists his net worth at $7 billion. The team he bought in 1991 for $85 million is now worth $470 million. Most of his wealth is from Amway; he is listed at 65th richest man in America.
Tooling around Windsor in a golf cart, a couple of years ago, DeVos Sr. off-handedly asked his daughter-in-law, Betsy: “Any of these places on the market?”
As a matter of fact, the very house they were looking at was. Betsy and Dick had considered buying it years earlier. She knew its current owner had had it outfitted with an elevator, an essential feature for the senior DeVos whose mobility is limited of late.
“He asked if we could see the place,” recalls Dick Jr. “He and my mom took a look around, they went home to Manalapan, and two days later, said, ‘We’ll take it.’“
The older DeVos’s just wrapped up their second season in Vero. The move up from Palm Beach was a great decision, says Dick Jr.
It gives the younger couple a chance to host their parents at some of the many gatherings they have here. In their time at Windsor, the gregarious Dick DeVos, who in 2006 likely got a lifetime’s worth of glad-handing under his belt in an unsuccessful bid for governor of Michigan, has made so many friends that as he has his morning coffee with the Wall Street Journal at Windsor’s outdoor café, he can hardly finish a thought before yet another passer-by tosses out a greeting or invitation.
The DeVos family is an integral part of Windsor, buying here soon after its inception. They spend their six- to eight-week visit mostly on premises, though venturing out for dinner – Betsy DeVos, a one-time interior design student known for her impeccable taste, drew stares of admiration standing outside of Citrus Grillhouse in a gossamer watercolor-print shift.
Dick DeVos also mentions that they go to functions at Riverside Theatre, and adds he’d like to go more often. As with the museum, they would have a lot to offer Riverside. From 2004 to 2010, Betsy DeVos served on the board of the Kennedy Center in Washington.
The couple donated $22.5 million to the Kennedy Center’s Arts Management Institute, founded by Kennedy Center director Michael Kaiser in 2001. The DeVos gift allowed the institute to expand into a $6 million-a-year nonprofit consulting business, whose international roster of clients has included the Miami City Ballet.
The DeVos Institute of Arts Management recently moved, along with Kaiser, to the University of Maryland, where it is part of a strong arts management program.
The new institute’s goal is “to train top-flight managers of arts-related organizations,” says DeVos, adding that arts group continue to “face a lot of pressure” financially.
“That big slice of government funding is no longer available,” he says. “The arts have to really evolve and improve substantially.”
Beyond the Kennedy Center and the arts management institute, their cultural beneficence has thus far extended mostly to Grand Rapids, near their home town of Ada. The grand family tradition is to raise the profile of Grand Rapids and improve its quality of life.
Now in its sixth year, ArtPrize boasts not only the largest single cash prize in the art world, but another $100,000 worth of prizes as well. And as DeVos points out, there’s another kind of bonus: the ripple effect of thousands of artists connecting with art-lovers and art investors.
“Many people will walk away with having sold their work. Others will walk away with commissions. Others will have formed relationships and potential relationships with collectors and galleries and other artists,” he says.
Dick describes his dad as “thrilled” by grandson Rick’s effort. He takes a tour of the art by car; his bad joints have limited his mobility.
Dick DeVos’s earliest introduction to the arts wasn’t fine art, it was music. His mom, Helen DeVos, Richard’s wife, was a great supporter of the symphony, and at home, she played classical piano in the evenings, a vivid memory for Dick DeVos.
“My room was in the basement. Her piano was right over my head.”
The DeVos’s name is on so many buildings in Grand Rapids that their kids are beginning to be embarrassed, one family member joked to the local press. Dick DeVos can take large credit for a new theater, art museum and sculpture gardens – along with a Marriott Hotel and a biomedical research center, all part of an initiative called Grand Action that transformed downtown Grand Rapids in the 1990s, with the help of a consortium of 50 civic and business leaders.
He was only following in Rich DeVos’s footsteps. “He and his partner and another guy named Dick Gillette invested in a hotel in downtown Grand Rapids which is now the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. That kicked off a real wave of redevelopment. Twenty years ago, I came in with a group of guys and formed Grand Action. We led the next phase of renaissance. Now (son) Rick is doing the same thing with ArtPrize.”
Dick and Betsy DeVos have created a number of scholarships as well as an aviation charter high school – DeVos is an avid pilot; Betsy DeVos is a national leader in the school choice movement. It is just one in a number of socially conservative causes the DeVos’s back, at one point donating substantially to the presidential campaign of Rick Santorum. Betsy DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, was a hugely successful industrialist; her brother Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, was the founder and head of the government security contractor Blackwater USA.
Dick DeVos, 58, led Amway through critical years, taking over from his dad when he retired in 1993. With his brother Doug, he is credited with taking the company global, and by the time he retired in 2002 from the newly restructured parent company, Alticor, it had expanded to 50 countries, with $4.5 billion in sales and a part-time sales force of 3.5 million.
His recent unsuccessful run for governor of Michigan was the most expensive in the state’s history. He reportedly spent $35 million of his own money, but lost to Jennifer Granholm, who received significant support from a different sort of billionaire, Jon Stryker, the gay rights advocate and protector of Great Apes. A resident of Palm Beach, Stryker’s funding built Fort Pierce’s Save the Chimps sanctuary.
Then again, Dick DeVos is the first to say “follow your dreams.”
At the recent family assembly at Windsor, the children were asked – as they always are – to stand up and talk about what’s happening in their lives. If they are coming up on graduation or another life-changing moment, the family wants to know, hear about plans and possibly offer advice.
“If someone in our family wanted to be a musician, the response would be, ‘Good for you. Do it well.’ But for our kids, even if they want to be teachers or preachers, they’re still going to have business in their lives. Good businesses require good owners. We want our kids to make good decisions and be responsible owners and good community citizens.”
Which explains why his own good citizenship prevails, even when the scale is as small a community as Windsor. Sitting on the terrace of the Windsor café, he was approached, albeit apologetically, by a neighbor, Canadian sculptor Pixie Shaw. Intending to enter one of her works in ArtPrize this year, she wanted DeVos’s advice on the most advantageous spot to exhibit.
“I’m probably not the best person to ask,” was DeVos’s politic reply.