NEWS: Amway: Help Comes at a Price
Motivation leaders thrive selling the American Dream

Advocate staff writer

Second in a series

If Amway distributors often seem to approach their business with a near missionary zeal, there is a reason. Their enthusiasm is inspired by large motivational systems that are set up to recruit, sponsor and train distributors of Amway's household products.

The leaders of those systems teach distributors that they are involved in more than just a business, that they really are helping themselves and others they sponsor to become free.

As Bill Britt, a mega-distributor from Durham, N.C., who heads one of the largest motivational systems, tells distributors at Amway rallies: The business isn't just about making a lot of money.

It is about bringing women home from the workplace to raise their children and about allowing fathers to spend more time with their families.

And it is about getting out of debt, shedding the drudgery and uncertainty of a "J.O.B." and fully realizing the American Dream.

Britt's comments are from tapes of his speeches at motivational rallies, which are also sold to distributors in his system. He did not respond to The Advocate's interview requests.

As Britt told distributors at one such rally, "We want you to make it to freedom, to happiness, to where you look in the mirror and you like what you are.

"We're not going to do it for you, it's not welfare, but we've got plenty of people that are willing to help you and guide you."

The help comes at a price.

Following Britt's system means spending hundreds of dollars a year on motivational tapes and on tickets to attend rallies and other functions. Distributors are told spending money to do those things is the key to building a large, successful Amway business.

The motivational systems run by big distributors like Britt and Dexter Yager of Charlotte, N.C., are separate entities from Amway Corp., the Ada, Michigan-based company that makes soap and other household products.

Amway benefits from such systems because the systems bring in distributors who buy the company's products and who also sponsor others to become distributors.

But the motivators' methods of recruiting and training distributors have been a source of controversy within Amway.

The issue is whether the systems are in business primarily to sell Amway products, or rather to peddle tapes and tickets to motivational rallies and similar functions.

It was a subject that drew Amway co-founder Rich DeVos's attention after a spate of bad, national publicity, including a "60 Minutes" expose, rocked the company in the early 1980s.

DeVos made two "Directly Speaking" tapes for higher-level distributors in 1983 that tore into what DeVos then saw as abuses by those promoting the motivational "tools" businesses.

"Some of you have got to ask yourself whether you're really in the Amway business or whether you're in the tape business," DeVos scolded.

"You've got to ask yourself whether you're really in the rally business or in the Amway business. You must ask yourself if everything you're doing is to support your Amway business or is it really for a secondary motive."

DeVos stressed that distributors in leadership roles need to deal in an honest, straightforward manner with the people they sponsor as Amway distributors.

"You present wonderful numbers on the blackboard about all the money they can make," DeVos said. "Maybe you ought to tell them about all you're going to take from them before they make any. Maybe that would be the rest of the story."

DeVos was so dismayed he even suggested Amway itself would take over handling motivational "tools" so that business could be kept in reasonable check.

But that never happened.

"Unfortunately, things are worse now than ever before," Jeff Probandt, an Emerald Amway distributor from Dallas, Texas, writes on his Internet website. "Amway never `cleaned house.' "

Probandt and his wife, Joanie, have posted a website that calls for many of the same kinds of reforms DeVos proposed in 1983, including having Amway itself handle the tools business.

Why didn't Amway co-founders DeVos and Jay Van Andel take those steps in the early 1980s?

Jeff Probandt theorizes they feared that taking control of the profitable tools businesses would drive away big distributors who might take much of Amway's sales force and customer base with them.

"Maybe it was because cleaning house would have meant starting over after 20 years, and they weren't willing to take that risk," Probandt writes.

"Maybe it was because enough top distributors got together and decided not to approve the change. We'll probably never know."

Mark Dean, an Emerald distributor from Prairieville, said he thinks DeVos simply came to understand the real importance of the motivational systems.

"They recognized the fact that the only way to build a large business is with a system such as Britt's or Yager's," Dean said. "That's why they now promote it today."

He added, "The Britt system and the Amway Corp. is a wonderful marriage today _ a prosperous, very healthy relationship."

Amway officials said in a written statement that they are "working with the Probandts to address their concerns," but declined to comment on the couple's website.

The Probandts said the purpose of their website is to reveal the "secrets" of the tools systems and hopefully encourage reforms.

Most distributors don't know the specifics of the profits made from the motivational side of the business until they reach the level of Amway direct distributor or above, the Probandts noted. That is when they begin to share in those profits.

The Probandts' website includes copies of checks to them, as Emeralds, for their share of motivational tool profits, as well as details of speaking fees paid to high-level distributors and similar materials.

The Probandts verified that they put the information on the Internet and said they stand by its accuracy and by the statements they make on their website.

The Probandts said speaking fees in Yager's system are $6,000 for "Diamond" level distributors _ per speaking engagement _ on up to $20,000 for the highest rank, which is "Crown Ambassador."

Yager has a small contingent of Amway distributors in Louisiana. Britt has a much larger Amway distributor group in the state. The two run separate but similar motivational systems.

Dean, the Prairieville distributor, said speaking fees are more generous in Britt's system, and more of the tools profits are shared at lower-level rankings than is the case in Yager's system.

Top-level Amway executives defended the motivational systems in interviews at the company's headquarters in Ada.

"We want them out motivating people," said Rob Davidson, Amway's director of worldwide business conduct and rules.

Events like Britt's March 20-22 Knoxville "Spring Leadership" rally can be important in building an Amway business, Davidson said.

"I don't have a problem with them going to functions. That's what gets these people going every day ... to go sponsor and go sell products."

Ken McDonald, vice president of Amway's North American sales and marketing division, also noted the  motivational systems have changed the way they do business since the early 1980s, when DeVos made the "Directly Speaking" tapes.

Amway and the Amway Distributor Association's board have instituted consumer protection measures within the systems that did not exist then, McDonald said.

For example, he said, those who are sponsored as new Amway distributors are now informed that buying the motivational tools is optional.

They also are told that some distributors make money by selling tools and from the speeches they give at motivational rallies, McDonald said.

But critics like Jeff Probandt say those changes have had little practical impact.

Probandt doesn't call for doing away with motivational tools altogether. He notes on his website that they can be very important in building an Amway business.

But Probandt said Amway could go a long way in improving the business opportunity for everyone by making a few basic changes.

Those changes include letting Amway handle the tools, selling them at more reasonable prices and sharing tools profits more fairly among all distributors, he said.

The debate over reforms aside, the motivational systems are seen as a highly effective means of building an Amway distributor network.

"Time has proven you can't build it (a large Amway business) without a system, period," said Dean.

The role of such systems is to motivate people to get in and stay in the Amway business, to buy Amway products for their own use and to teach them how to sponsor other distributors to do the same.

Top leaders like Britt have proven adept at recruiting others to be Amway distributors by tapping into deep and powerful longings.

Their message of God, free enterprise, family, patriotism, freedom, wealth and boundless opportunity attracts a large, loyal and enthusiastic following, particularly among conservative Christians in the United States.

As Britt put it in a talk to one large Amway gathering attending a 1989 rally: "Most of us in this business are known as conservatives, whatever that means, which means we believe that what God said is true."

Britt makes no apologies for using God to promote the business.

"I've had people to say I can't believe you use God to build your business, and I say back to them I can't believe you'll build your's without Him."

Britt even suggested his system for sponsoring Amway distributors follows a model set by Jesus.

"There was a man that sponsored twelve 2,000 years ago, and I'm in his group," Britt said.

"Because he sponsored twelve and he taught us sponsoring, he now has one-and-a-half billion people in his organization. So I think we have pretty good precedent of what sponsoring is all about."

But the main message conveyed by "Diamond" distributors who speak at Britt functions, and on tapes, deals with hope rather than religion.

They talk about their opulent lifestyles now, and tell those still struggling to build their Amway businesses that they can have the same thing, too, if they just work hard enough.

A good example is Larry Winters, a former car wash manager from North Carolina who has climbed his way to "Diamond" status in the Britt system.

On tapes and in meetings, Winters tells of living "paycheck-to-paycheck" in a 900-square-foot house and of his wife, Pam, having to borrow clothes from her sister because she couldn't afford to buy new ones.

Today, their lives together are much different as Diamond distributors, he says.

"We had a closet built on to our house that's about 200 or 300 square feet," Winters says. "She (Pam) has over 300 pair of shoes in there."

"There's a whole row of evening gowns _ $1,500, $1,800, $2,100, $2,700 _ cramfull, dress after dress after dress. She wears them one time, in front of one crowd."

Winters says he doesn't worry about the costs.

"You know, sometimes what I do is, I say, `Pam, that is gorgeous. Motivate me. What did that cost me?' ... I have told her to take stuff back before because it wasn't expensive enough."

But Winters says their success only came because they were willing to keep plugging away even when it seemed as if their business was going nowhere.

Winters says he scraped up enough money to keep buying tapes and going to motivational rallies even if it meant picking up aluminum cans behind taverns, running out of fuel oil for heat some months or having to set up yard sales.

"The reason I picked up aluminum cans, the reason I had yard sales, the reason I did whatever it took was to feed the baby," Winters says. "The baby was my Amway business."

Winters says he grew discouraged at times, as many distributors do, because he couldn't convince people to come to meetings to see the Amway plan.

"My brother didn't come. My sister didn't come. My mom and dad didn't come. My softball buddies didn't come. My employees at the car wash didn't come _ week after week after week, month after month after month."

After four-and-a-half years, Winters says, he still only had a small distributor group.

"I wanted to quit this thing every stinkin' day," Winters says. "I wanted to quit every week. I wanted to quit every time it hurt, every time I got rejected, laughed at, ridiculed."

But Winters says things he heard Britt say at rallies, and stories he heard on motivational tapes about the Diamond lifestyle, kept him from giving up.

Britt teaches distributors to "dream build" _ to decide what they want, such as a bigger house or a luxury car, and to keep those dreams in their minds as they build their Amway businesses.

He also warns them to be wary of "dream stealers" from outside the world of Amway who might discourage them.

"The dream stealers are all around," Britt told one Amway rally in 1989. "The question is, will you let someone steal your dream?"

The dream stealers, Britt says, include "broke-losers" with jobs who reject a distributor's efforts to sponsor them as Amway distributors.

They are also the "wimps and weenies" who gave up on their Amway business and quit, as well as neighbors, relatives, co-workers or others who plant doubts in a distributor`s mind about his efforts.

"You cannot afford to listen to the naysayers," Britt says.

"You send them to me and I'll kick their butts ... they need a kick, cause they're destroying one of the greatest God-pleasing businesses in the history of the universe."

Calling people "losers" and continuously stressing the lavish lifestyles of Amway "Diamonds" at one time prompted a stern rebuke from Amway co-founder DeVos.

DeVos commented on that kind of rhetoric in his 1983 "Directly Speaking" tapes. He did not mention Britt or any other motivational system leader by name.

DeVos said then it is insulting to label someone a "loser" simply because he chooses not to sign up as an Amway distributor.

"They're not losers," DeVos said. "They may have a richer, fuller life than those of you who have got fancy cars and new clothes or big rings."

DeVos added, "Life is not geared by materialism. You do not decide who's a winner or a loser. Life's too complicated for that."

DeVos also called on speakers in the motivational systems to use tact in describing their lavish lifestyles.

"I don't mind your making money," DeVos said. "I don't mind your enjoying the things that money will buy. But I do have a problem with presenting an image of an organization that has nothing in it but greed, that has no concern for the poor or the hungry or for what's going on in their community."

But despite DeVos's earlier complaints, the motivational systems still focus heavily on promoting lavish lifestyles and on lambasting "broke losers" and  "dream stealers."

The sale of tapes of speeches, and other motivational materials, apparently accounts for a big portion of the Amway-related income of Britt, Yager and other high-level distributors within their systems.

They mass-produce cassette tapes, normally of "big pins" speaking at major functions, that are then sold to tens of thousands of downline distributors.

They also sell tickets to the motivational rallies that attract enough people to fill sizeable stadiums and produce tidy profits from ticket sales.

A glimpse of how much money the "big pins" can make from motivational tapes and rallies was provided in a 1997 lawsuit filed in Florida by Brig Hart, a "Double Diamond" distributor from Florida, which was later settled out of court.

Hart sued his upline, Dexter Yager, in a dispute over the way the "motivational tools" business was being handled in his group.

"For some distributors, including Plaintiffs, the sale of business support materials produces revenues far exceeding the revenues generated from the sale of Amway's consumer goods," the lawsuit states.
The suit claims that more than 70 percent of Yager's own Amway-related income is derived from the sale of business support materials, "constituting $40 million per year in gross income."

Britt, a Crown Ambassador in Amway, the highest pin level in the company, did not respond to interview requests seeking information on how he handles his motivational business.

The Advocate got differing accounts from people within the Britt organization on the issue.

Steve Ridley, a Diamond in the Britt organization from New Orleans, indicated the profits he makes from motivational "tools" are insignificant.

"I don't even know what I make on books and tapes," Ridley said. "It barely covers the cost of my secretary."

Ray Youngblood, a Diamond distributor from Slidell, said the Britt group tries to stick to a 60-40 split _ with 60 percent of the income derived from Amway product sales and 40 percent from the motivational side.

Paul Miller, a Crown distributor at the very top level of Britt's organization, said the split runs about 50-50.