When Minor Goes Major
Frank VanderSloot made $2.50 a week selling his cow’s cream as a young boy in Cocolalla, Idaho. Now VanderSloot, CEO of Melaleuca, The Wellness Company (www.melaleuca.com) is the Gem State’s richest resident, according to Forbes (www.forbes.com). But it was never wallet size that motivated him.
“I was afraid of failure, so I became a workaholic,” VanderSloot says. “The fact that we live in a country where we can change our financial status if we want to is a rare thing. We take it for granted, but we ought to be grateful.”
VanderSloot’s father worked for Northern Pacific Railroad. He was only home on weekends, so by age 12, VanderSloot was in charge of the family farm.
“One night I overheard my parents talking because I slept in the attic above their bedroom,” he says. “Dad was crying. He was sorry he’d failed her, and we lived in a shack. I’d never seen it that way, but it scared me to death that he felt like a failure.”
VanderSloot put his work ethic in overdrive, and those weekly collections for cream added up. He saved enough for college tuition, but not for room and board. He slept behind the dryers at a laundromat and mopped its floor for rent. Although he knew how to work hard, growing up in a shack without TV or telephone meant he still had a lot to learn.
“I dated a girl in college, and I went to her parents’ house,” he says. “Her mom said it was chilly and adjusted a knob on the wall. My date told me it was a thermostat. I’d never heard of such a thing, but I feared if I was ever to marry, my wife would want a knob on the wall.”
As Melaleuca’s CEO, VanderSloot is responsible for a lot more than knobs. The Wellness Company, near Idaho Falls, Idaho, is the livelihood of thousands of employees worldwide. It started in 1985 with a handful of people making a handful of environmentally friendly cleaning products and selling them directly to customers. Avoiding the mass-market distribution route kept prices down, and the concept grew into a company with half of its 4,400 employees still living close to headquarters.
“I’d never move the company out from under them,” VanderSloot says. “We started in Idaho. We’re going to stay in Idaho. It would leave such a big gap in this community if we moved out. We’re committed to being here.”
VanderSloot is committed to family too, but worries he’s sold them short on time. He’s about to fix that. He and his wife, Belinda, have 14 children and 49 grandchildren and he wants to concentrate more on them rather than the office. So at 69, the workaholic isn’t retiring, but promises to play more.
“I feel like I’ve neglected family,” VanderSloot says. “The balance of all the people tugging on me is big, but I’m going to take all my vacation time from now on, and that’s four weeks a year.”
He’ll spend some of that time going back to his roots. He owns his father’s old place in northern Idaho.
“I have more experience than I did when I was chopping wood for my mom’s stove, but I’m still the same person,” he says. “Prosperity can test us more than poverty ever will as far as character. Of all the things I would not want to fail in, it would be that.”
Photo courtesy of Frank VanderSloot