DeVos finds own path to contribute to downtown, aiport and education

Billionaire Dick DeVos doesn’t live in anyone shadow. The heir to his father Richard DeVos’ company Amway, the younger DeVos did start down the path to become the company’s chief operating officer.


Then, his destiny took him down a different path that involved building construction, airplanes, charter schools and Washington, D.C.


It was 1991 when DeVos heard about a plan in Grand Rapids to build a convention center and sports facility outside of Grand Rapids. The plan to put the buildings north of the city bothered the businessman. He had seen this done before and the results weren’t good for downtown Detroit.


He began a coalition of other prominent business people. They formed the group Grand Action to take the city council in a new direction that would bring more people downtown. The result was a number of buildings, including a convention center, an area, a performance hall, a city market and a medical school being constructed downtown.


DeVos was tasked to rescue the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. It needed more flights and more people. His mission was to lure Southwest Airlines. DeVos was rejected by Southwest, so he called the head of Air Tran.


Air Trans added more flights to the airport. DeVos had a chance to circle around again when Southwest bought Air Tran. While Southwest officials wanted to reduce the number of flights to Grand Rapids, DeVos sold them on adding more direct flights to places like St. Louis and Orlando.


An avid pilot, DeVos and wife, Betsy, who happens to be the U.S. Secretary of Education, founded a charter school serving students of western Michigan. The non-profit school, West Michigan Aviation, is public because it is free to students. Costs are paid for by the state, just like other public schools, and the DeVos’ donated more than $7 million to the school through 2014.


The school grew from 80 students to serving more than 600. Public buses bring them in from seven counties and the school has its own building at the airport now.


DeVos was one of seven appointed last year to the Federal Aviation Administration Management Advisory Council. The advisory council informs FAA’s senior management on issues like long-range planning, regulations, policy, spending and long-range planning.


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