An Enterprising Life

AN ENTERPRISING LIFE, Jay Van Andel. Zondervan Publishing (Harperbusiness), 1998, $24 USA, $32 Canada, 234 pages. Reviewed by John H. Piersma.



Readers of The Outlook must wonder why a book of this kind is reviewed in a “journal devoted to the exposition and defense of the Reformed Faith.” Still worse, how come a preacher who wouldn’t know a balance sheet from a pumpkin, offers his opinions on the life of a man who has devoted his life to being a business man?

It was my suggestion to the editors that we pay attention to this autobiography because the person authoring it has his roots in the same soil out of which The Outlook was born. In addition, the incredible success which crowns his efforts as co-owner of Amway Corporation (7 billion annual sales, 3 million (plus) representatives all over the world!) is not only significant by itself; it also represents a big change in the place and prominence of a segment of the Dutch immigrant group which formed the Christian Reformed Church of North America, 150 years ago.

This has not gone unrecognized. “If I listed the top ten inspiring men I’ve known in my life — and presidents would be included in that number — Jay Van Andel’s name would be there with the greatest men of our century,” said Robert H. Schuller of Crystal Cathedral fame. Speaking similarly, although not quite so exuberantly, are Edwin J. Feuler, president of the prestigious Heritage Society, ex-president Gerald R. Ford, and conservative Dr. D. James Kennedy, pastor of the very large Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (PCA) in southern Florida.

This kind of praise, plus the fact that I too, am a son of the twentieth century, an era not known for great appreciation of free-enterprise capitalism, provoked within me a fair amount of suspicion and preiudice as I began to read the story of the life of a person so close to me in one respect, so far removed from me in others. Let me add quickly, that I, as a Christian reviewer, found this book not only interesting, but also very inspiring. If you read biographical books you come away liking or disliking the central figure. I came away with sincere admiration and appreciation for the author.

His story reveals four basic qualities important to a Christian business person: wisdom, tenacity (toughness), insight and spirituality.

Someone has said that wisdom is the ability to see things in long-range perspective while taking good care of the things immediately at hand. Born in Christian Reformed center, Grand Rapids, Michigan, jay Van Andel was raised in what would now be described as a very strict religious environment. Home, school (a private, parent-owned Christian school) and church laid on him the need to fear God. This was expressed in terms of high respect for father and mother (whose godliness I can affirm, having been privileged to serve them as pastor for several years), for teacher and preacher -all of whom were “on the same page” Biblically, doctrinally and morally. The Calvinist emphasis on the priority and sovereignty and reality of God was drilled into him.

Can this kind of faith survive in the life of one whose financial suc~ cess in the marketplaces of the world is more than people like me can begin to comprehend? The Dutch have a saying which trans~ lates to something like this: “It takes very strong legs to stand up under prosperity. A lot of people in our prosperous times have cap~ sized under its burden.” With this book, Van Andel wants us to know that by the grace of God, he isn’t one of them.

The larger part of this book is devoted to an account of the several business ventures of a pair of highschool friends, jay Van Andel and Richard De Vos, Sr. They early on decided that they wanted to be business people, which led them into a number of things before the development of Amway. Included were an aircraft service, a hamburg stand, and a food supplement business (Nutrilite vitamins). Interspersed was the purchase of a seagoing sailboat which they intended to use on a trip around South America. They didn’t make it. It crashed somewhere off the northeastern coast of South America.

Successful, but not auspicious, was their development of a sales organization for the sale of Nutrilite vitamins. From this two things were gained, both very precious: jay Van Andel met his wife (Betty Hoekstra) while making a sales call in her home, and Amway learned a system of sales operation which they applied with such success as to be able to purchase the entire Nutrilite company later.

My point here is to say that Van Andel takes care to explain that their success came slowly and with much effort. This required wisdom as they kept their eyes fixed on their personal goals as Christian businessmen; but it demanded a second quality as well. I call it tenacity, or to use a less attractive word, toughness — the ability to fight through difficult times.

You need to be tough if the US Federal Trade Commission, the State of Wisconsin, the Detroit Free Press (Michigan’s largest, most influential newspaper), the highly popular Phil Donahue talk show and the Canadian government accuse you of misrepresentation, fraud, and unfair business practices. Some of this reflects that we live in an anti-business environment. That means that if you get to be big enough, the darts may begin to fly. You will have to be strong~ willed, tough-minded and tenacious to survive.

A third quality revealed in this book is the need for insight or intel~ Iigence which translates into competence. One can hardly imagine how many decisions, how many projections, how many crucial situations are faced daily by people who run enormous business enterprises. You need the kind of intelligence that the more privileged get at Harvard Business School, and others develop in the “school of hard experience.”

But you need more, this book indicates, than merely technical knowledge of how to run a business. You need philosophical understanding of the place business occupies in our society. Here I may mention jay Van Andel’s description of Kuyperian “sphere-sovereignty” (pp. 140–144). My elation at this point is not to endorse everything Kuyper said on such subjects, but to say that I didn’t think one would find anyone like Jay Van Andel who would still remember things that used to be very important for some of us, but now have fallen into the sea of indifference.

Most important for the Christian businessman is, I think, a vital spirituality. As a pastor I was most impressed by Jay Van Andel’s response to and evaluation of personal affliction. I don’t know him or his wife  personally, and so it was news to me that both are suffering from long-term degenerative diseases (Parkinsons, Altzheimers). Their public response is the creation of a world-class medical center in Grand Rapids especially designed for study and research “on the problem of heart disease, cancer, cognitive and nervous system diseases.”

Long-term illness is hard on the soul as well as the body. For me, therefore, a most touching paragraph is the following: “My religious life has been my most trusted anchor. It has been my mainstay and comfort throughout my life. In the tradition of my church ancestors, there can be no substitute for a deep-felt reliance upon God for help and sustenance. Armed with the faith my parents taught me, I always had a bright star to guide, and the kind, loving hand of the Lord to hold me. His strength inspired and consoled me in the darkest hours. I have never been alone in my life, for He has been with me.”

This is well-said!