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Amway Gets Museum Exhibit

Exhibit recounts how Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel peppered the marketplace with a wide range of products before launching the direct sales giant in 1959.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) -- Grand Rapids is the home of Amway Corp.

But what is Amway?

Sure, Amway today is a household name around the world for health, beauty and home care products.

But 50 years ago, it was just another of two local men's efforts to realize the American way of free enterprise.

A new Grand Rapids Public Museum exhibit recounts how Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel peppered the marketplace with a wide range of products and services before launching the Ada-based direct sales giant in 1959.

"It's this entrepreneurial story about trying and succeeding," said Chris Carron, museum director of education, interpretation and research. "They tried and they failed. They tried and they failed. They were constantly looking for that formula that would succeed.

"Not succeeding in the end was never really an option. That's a great lesson."

The 2,400-square-foot exhibit, titled "Amway: 50 Years of Helping People Live Better Lives," matches the size of the company's first operating space. There are more than 600 artifacts and images on loan from Amway and its founding families.

Some of the items, including a bomb shelter and home-weather center, display the product diversity DeVos and Van Andel hawked even within the Amway fold. Other items, like a duct-taped chair and a map of a Caribbean sailing voyage that ended in shipwreck, give insights into the founders' personalities.

The exhibit, to be open for a year in honor of Amway's 50th anniversary, is included with the museum's general admission, which is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $3 for ages 3 to 17 and free for ages 2 and younger.

"Everybody who lives in West Michigan knows about Amway. Everybody knows the DeVos name and the Van Andel name because it's on the buildings you go into," Carron said. "But there's a lot of the story that people don't know. It's this sort of metaphorical journey that the two of them were taking together.

"It was about friendship, business and risk taking all rolled into one. It'll be a great nostalgia trip for a lot of people coming through."

The exhibit brings back memories for David Van Andel, who was born the same year his father co-founded Amway.

"Walking through here is like walking through my childhood," David Van Andel said.

He stopped by the display of the company's short-lived bomb shelter product line.

Many Americans built the underground refuges in their backyards in the 1960s during the height of the Cold War and fear Communist governments were poised to drop an atomic bomb on the U.S.

"We still have one of these things at my parent's house in the back," David Van Andel said. "It's in an area that has never been disturbed, and I guess they never saw a reason to take it out."

One of the exhibit's last displays touches on the company's low points. The worse, David Van Andel says was a 1969 fire that leveled the company's Ada plant and seriously injured a couple of employees. Another was a dispute with the Canadian government in the 1980s that resulted in Amway paying a multimillion dollar settlement.

"We have attracted our fair share of critics and our fair share of challenges," said David Van Andel, adding those difficult periods were important to telling the Amway story.

"We aren't trying to hide anything."

The exhibit also explores Amway's method of distribution through independent business owners, and includes a lab showcasing the future of the company's innovation.

One display identifies Grand Rapids buildings bearing the DeVos or Van Andel names, and ponders what the city's economic and cultural life might be like had the two men not succeeded.

The exhibit's depiction of the entrepreneurial spirit of Amway's founders can be an inspiration in today's economy, said Robin Horder-Koop, Amway vice president of corporate relations.

"It's a message that never loses its value: You are an owner of your own destiny," she said. "If you continue to operate with integrity, I don't care who you are, you can make it happen.

"We live with that every day here."