A week before Georgia Lee Pfeffer married Ron Puryear at the Grangeville Community Church, her mother made an awful wager.
Marry him, and the two of you will amount to nothing, Mrs. Pfeffer warned. Then, she offered $100 to back her prediction.
Puryear was fresh from the Army and painfully shy. He planned to work in the town mill like his father, and would slump home each day, sweaty, defeated and caked with sawdust.
The Pfeffers weren’t wealthy, but they did own a sporting goods store in the Idaho town of 3,600. Georgia Lee Pfeffer, 19 years old and a former cheerleader, had trained to be a doctor’s assistant, a field that would provide the opportunity to meet men of money and stature.
But her parents didn’t forbid the marriage, and when the Rev. William Strance gave the nod on a cloudy November day in 1963, the bride happily said “I do.” She and her new husband moved into a trailer in a dusty field.
Each day, he went to the mill and she went to the community hospital. Each night they dreamed of bigger things.
“I was determined that somehow, some way, we would prove her wrong,” Georgia Lee Puryear said in 1991.
Twenty-three years later, the Puryears are wealthy beyond anything her late mother could have imagined. His private jet waits in a hangar. Her closet is stocked with furs.
Boaters gawk at the vacation home the couple are building along the Spokane River. Two years into construction with two more to go, the 26,000-square-foot palace is Post Falls’ own San Simeon. Like William Randolph Hearst’s mansion, it is dedicated to its owners’ elaborate whims of style and entertainment, with little regard to cost.
From his headquarters in the Spokane Valley, Puryear, 56, directs an army of perhaps 500,000 Amway distributors in more than 30 countries. About 6,500 came to Spokane from as far away as Asia this weekend to be inspired by him.
The half-million distributors in World Wide Dream Builders, Puryear’s umbrella company, represent one of every five people selling Amway worldwide. Trace their business lineage far enough back - 10, 20, perhaps 100 people removed - and the line leads to one of the 40 people Ron Puryear recruited into the business.
If they are average Amway distributors, the army sold and bought more than $1 billion worth of the company’s products last year. By comparison, Nordstrom did $3.8 billion in all its stores combined.
The Puryears, whose pay is based on their underlings’ sales, won’t say how much they earn. Told that some less-successful distributors speculate it’s at least $1 million a month, they laugh. It’s not clear whether they find the number ridiculously low or high.
The couple has remained out of the public eye since the day their oldest son was kidnapped in 1983. The death of their second son from heart problems last year drove them further from the limelight.
“We’re not publicity-seeking people. We’re not trying to flaunt our success,” Georgia Lee Puryear, 52, said recently in a rare interview. “In fact, we’re trying to avoid it.”
Yet the Puryears openly openly display their wealth and discuss their most private pains to hundreds of thousands of people whose only link is the $130 they paid to become Amway distributors.
Amway, after all, is family. The world outside is filled with “dream stealers.”
‘Prison of debt’
If his life had followed the expected script, James Ronald Puryear would be nearing the age of retirement without a job. The last mill in Grangeville closed in 1994.
But Puryear fell 15 feet off the mill’s loading dock less than a year after he was married and ruptured four discs in his back. He was told he could never do hard labor again.
With limited options, Puryear enrolled in Spokane’s Kinman Business University. He had noticed that the mill’s accountant lived in a big house on a hill.
Besides, he reasoned, accountants dealt with numbers, not people.
Puryear completed the 18-month program in nine months and became assistant internal auditor at Lincoln First Federal Savings and Loan in Spokane.
In 1967, the couple moved to the Tri-Cities, where he worked for a Hanford subcontractor.
Jim Jr. was born that year, and Brian the year after.
The couple bought a house, a boat and a used Rambler. By 1970, when Puryear was laid off from Hanford, they had built what Georgia Lee called “a prison of debt.”
‘We’re not doing Amway’
What happened next is told by the Puryears at motivational rallies and on cassette tapes that recruits play for inspiration.
Puryear became a bookkeeper at the Franklin County Public Utility District, taking a substantial pay cut. Georgia Lee waited tables at Denny’s.
He worked days, she worked nights and weekends, and “our life became a 16-hour-a-day divorce,” she told followers.
In 1971, friends the Puryears had not seen in five years called from Seattle and asked if they could visit, to renew the friendship and share a business opportunity.
The friends drove over Snoqualamie Pass in a blinding snowstorm, then refused to show Puryear “the plan” until Georgia Lee Puryear got home from work at midnight. Tired and angry, she left the room abruptly when the couple mentioned Amway.
Embarrassed, Ron Puryear acted interested to make up for his wife’s rudeness. He still was asking questions at daylight when she stomped out of the house for her morning shift at Denny’s.
“When she came home that night, the first words out of her mouth (were), ‘We’re not doing Amway,”’ Puryear said.
He had already signed up.
Growing the business
Like all Amway distributors, Puryear started by showing the plan to friends and relatives. The first 19 rejected the business but bought some products.
The 20th prospect was the state auditor who came to check the PUD’s books. Ken Kuklinski still is a distributor, making a tidy second income.
Within six months, Georgia Lee Puryear was able to quit her job. Convinced that Puryear Enterprises could work out, she started helping with the paperwork, recruiting and selling.
Still struggling financially, the couple sometimes packed bologna sandwiches and left the boys with relatives so they could attend rallies in California.
After one such weekend, the boys said their grandparents had bad-mouthed Amway. For the first time, Georgia Lee Puryear showed her anger to her parents.
“She just flat told them, ‘If you’re going to make fun of what Ron and I have chosen to do with the rest of our life, then we can’t afford to be around you,”’ Ron Puryear said during a 1991 conference.
The Pfeffers apologized, and never again questioned the business. In later years, they went so far as to switch banks when a manager made an unflattering comment about Amway.
The scare of their lives
In 1974, Puryear quit his job. In 1979, the family returned to Spokane.
With each success, Puryear grew more confident. His shyness either evaporated or is well-hidden today, although his manner still is more subdued than the typical Amway millionaire.
In recorded speeches made at conventions, Bill Britt, Dave Severn and other big names in Amway chastise and ridicule underlings like abusive fathers. Puryear’s tone is that of a favorite uncle.
According to news accounts, Puryear was one of the nation’s top 100 distributors by 1983 when Jim Jr., then 16, was the target of an attempted kidnapping.
A man who said his car was out of gas flagged down the teen and asked for a ride. Once inside the Trans Am, the stranger flashed a gun.
Jim Puryear jumped from the car at the next stop sign.
The gunman was captured that day. He and his partner told police they had heard about Puryear’s wealth and planned to ask for $50,000 ransom.
After that, Spokane heard little about the family or their rapidly growing business.
Puryear Enterprises spawned Worldwide Productions, which makes motivational tapes that distributors are encouraged to buy. Another spin-off organizes some 80 Amway conventions a month. Yet another helps distributors with tax forms.
Puryear started World Wide Dream Builders to provide training in the U.S. and abroad. The organization is led by the 20 top distributors in the Puryear line.
It is all run from World Wide Plaza, a red-brick office at 717 S. Pines in the Spokane Valley. County building permits show Puryear is spending at least $1.5 million to triple the size of the building. He and his captains meet in a basement boardroom sheathed in maple.
The guidance of the Lord
Four times a year, Amway distributors come to Spokane for weekend conventions. Each time, on Sunday, the Puryears hold a church service that nearly all attend.
Preaching in the Spokane Arena last April, Puryear told some 4,000 distributors that the business led him to God, and that God blesses his business. He said Puryear Enterprises would collapse if he stopped giving his time to newcomers.
Distributors say his concern is genuine.
“He could sit back and not do another thing - could have done it 10 years ago,” said Leron Wagner of Kalispell, Mont. “But he’s not thinking of himself. He’s thinking of others.”
Wagner said Puryear helped him build his distributorship even though “we’re so far down the line he doesn’t hardly earn a penny.”
Puryear also gives a share of his money to Christian causes.
At the April meeting, when donations were collected for Gospel Films Inc., a mission supported almost entirely by Amway distributors, conference workers announced that Puryear had dropped $10,000 into the collection plate.
The couple’s most lavish offer was $350,000 to help Grace Harvest Fellowship build an amphitheater in the Valley. The independent Pentecostal church, which advertised “Success Begins on Sunday,” was run by Puryear’s close friend, the Rev. Tim Olp.
Olp divorced his wife and resigned shortly after planning started for the amphitheater. The new pastor dropped the plans.
The Puryears’ faith was tested last December when their son, Brian, died at age 27. County records list arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat, as the cause of death.
“I don’t know how people without the Lord in their lives make it through,” Georgia Lee Puryear said at the April church service.
‘Foo-foo and fluff’
The Puryears’ motivational tapes don’t reveal when Georgia Lee Puryear got her first fur coat. Her husband gave her a third one on their 17th wedding anniversary.
She needed it, she quipped to young distributors, “like another fur coat.”
When the Puryears go camping, it’s in a motor home larger than the trailer where they started their marriage. When they play on Lake Coeur d’Alene, it’s aboard the 33-foot Georgia Lee, the 19-foot Georgia Lee II or any of six Jet-skis.
When they travel, it’s in a twin-engine jet that was the executive aircraft for four Florida governors.
The couple helped both sons buy dream houses, and bought their own on the MeadowWood Golf Course at Liberty Lake. They saw it late one evening during the 1991 Home Show, and by noon the next day paid the contractor in cash.
But their most extravagant display of wealth is the four-acre “family compound” along the Spokane River. Ron Puryear doesn’t know what the four-story mansion will cost, but said he won’t go into debt to build it.
The Puryears will use the mansion for holidays and family gatherings. Georgia Lee Puryear’s sister will be the caretaker, and will live in a smaller house attached to the estate’s 10-car garage.
The mansion will have more than 30 rooms, including one for virtual golf and an 11-seat theater. The grandchildren can skate in the downstairs “rumpus room,” play video games in the arcade or sit spellbound by the 10-by-20-foot saltwater aquarium.
Outside, there’ll be a swimming pool with a water slide built into an artificial mountain, a golf green and a racket court that can be flooded for ice skating.
The hillside is stabilized by 40,000 keystone blocks - so many that the president of the company that makes them flew to Idaho for a look. The blocks cost $4 to $6 each at building-supply stores.
Landscapers planted more than 1,000 shrubs and aspen trees, each with its own drip irrigation.
Material possessions are “the foo-foo and the fluff that just makes life a lot of fun,” Georgia Lee Puryear told an Amway crowd in 1991.
She said she was uncomfortable talking about her wealth, but did so to inspire others.
“To be able to drive the luxury cars of our choice, to have the nice clothes and the furs and the jewelry is a blessing,” she said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (1 Color)