Van Belkum Is On Board

May 29, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Todd Van Belkum’s claim to fame is in always being ahead of the game.

Before most people even heard of the sport called snowboarding, Van Belkum had achieved No. 3 world ranking on the World Cup snowboarding circuit.

And he was already “well connected” and on top of computer technology way before many realized that the Internet could be a useful business tool.

Today, as president of Van Belkum Companies, he oversees and plots the future course of three related but distinct companies under that umbrella: Van Belkum Voice & Data Services, BizGroup and Van Belkum Transcription Services.

Headquartered in Grand Rapids, the family of companies provides telecom and IT solutions for small- to mid-sized businesses across a spectrum of industries that includes health care, education, manufacturing, distribution, service, retail and dot-coms.

About 40 percent of the company’s voice and data business comes from customers in the health care field. Van Belkum Companies has satellite offices in Kalamazoo and Saginaw and primarily serves the West Michigan market.

Van Belkum’s father, Nick Van Belkum, founded the business in 1959 as a dictation service company. Growing up, Todd had access to the latest dictation equipment and plenty of opportunity to tinker with it as the technology advanced.

“I was fortunate enough that being part of the company I could go to industry trade shows and events and learn about what was happening,” Van Belkum recalled. “That’s what really got me into this early on.”

But he never imagined himself getting into the family business.

“I didn’t really want any part of that. I wanted to do it on my own,” Van Belkum recalled.

He got “the feel for running a business” in a venture with the Burton Snowboard Company.

While majoring in biochemistry at Calvin College, he took up snowboarding. After a mere 20 goes on the slopes, he competed at the U.S Open in Vermont, taking ninth place in downhill and 10th place in slalom. That was when the owner of Burton Snowboard offered to be his sponsor.

Van Belkum began competing professionally throughout North America in 1984 and then graduated to the international competition circuit. He’d spend summers in Michigan selling Ameritech voice and data products and from fall to spring in Oregon training for the World Cup snowboarding circuit.

In 1986, Burton offered him a job in its home office in Burlington, Vt. Since he had a background in computers, he managed the company’s computer network as well. Later that year, he was promoted to national sales manager in charge of all the company’s West Coast accounts.

During that time, Van Belkum competed in the All-Japan National Championships while promoting the sport on behalf of Burton’s Japanese distributorship. He subsequently spent two years promoting the sport on behalf of Burton Snowboarding while continuing competition on the World Cup circuit. He earned No. 3 World Cup ranking in 1988, and continued to compete at that level through 1989.

He returned to Michigan shortly thereafter and went to work for his father’s company while juggling a Burton distributorship for five states. About 10 years ago he turned his attention fulltime to the family business.

As an Ameritech distributor, his company helped customers get connected to phone networks, and there was a growing interest in connecting multiple-site businesses. At that time, the top quality, reliable connections that small businesses needed tended to be too costly for their budgets.

“We thought we would kind of ‘co-op’ or ‘time share’ to help our customers, so we decided to make an investment into some of the technology to get our customers connected,” he recalled.

So in 1995, the company added another division, BizGroup, an Internet service provider that also offers design and consulting services.

BizGroup subsequently developed the capabilities to transmit “voice” from one location to another so it could be transcribed and securely transmitted back in a text format. That led to the founding of Van Belkum Transcription Services, a digital voice-to-text dictation and transcription service. Today, it also provides the equipment and recording service for call centers and public safety agencies, such as police and fire departments.

The inspiration for both BizGroup and Van Belkum Transcription Services came from customers.

“A lot of our business has come from listening to customers who say, ‘We need this service.’ We took what we had learned both from our voice and data company and what we had learned from our BizGroup company and utilized the technology and the intellectual property that we had in those companies to make a better mousetrap for the transcription business,” Van Belkum said.

“We don’t want to be a ‘Me Too’ — we want to try to provide a service that helps our customers. And we continue to evaluate other services and offerings to make ourselves more valuable, just like we’re a part of the customer’s team.”

The dictations/transcription end of the business grew to include call center recording and public safety recording as well. The division serves customers throughout Michigan and just expanded to the Chicago market.

Because of “some unique capabilities” the company has, it is now pursuing some opportunities that will allow it to expand nationally, Van Belkum noted, but that’s all he can say about it right now.

These days, he spends most of his time focusing on new business development and future strategy. That, and trying to stay abreast of the rapid changes in technology.

“I also try to get out and spend time with customers because I think if you’re not listening, then it’s hard to know how to apply the technology.”

He said one of the biggest challenges for telecom and IT customers is finding the right provider — who’s for real and who’s not, and who’s going to be there for the long term.

“That’s a really tough issue for end customers. It’s a cost and a reliability issue. We provide the consulting services to help customers make that choice.”

Van Belkum said his father continues to provide him with a lot of great “been there, done that” insight. He also credits his father with paving the way for him by building solid relationships with customers.

“Being able to go in and say you’re a part of Van Belkum — there’s instant credibility. I want to try to carry that on,” he said.

One of his other goals, of course, is “to spend more time on the slopes.”

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