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February 16, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Dick Van Belzen identifies himself as a guy who is deeply interested in gaining traction — but only incidentally with respect to winter driving.

The traction to which he refers concerns follow-through on long-term strategies that he and his firm develop for businesses.

Van Belzen, a native of Grand Rapids, is a 1978 Grand Valley State University marketing graduate who established a business-consulting firm in upstate New York. Now that the company — Northpoint Advisors — is a decade old, he has opened a Midwest branch of the company on East Paris Avenue SE in Grand Rapids.

Like the owner-operator of any firm, Van Belzen claims his company is unique in several respects.

He told the Business Journal that Northpoint specializes in helping companies substitute good data for guesswork. Van Belzen compares himself to a radiologist, saying: "I collect a lot of data, then I look at it in a different way. It provides a perspective most of my clients have never considered, and they find it fascinating and instructive."

And the companies he works with, he said, often are at a crossroads.

"It's the kind of a situation where a company may get into a comfort zone," he said. "That doesn't mean you don't have goals, but what often happens is that the president or somebody on the board is asking, 'Are we doing all we can do? Are we getting all the traction we can get?'

"You know, a Rich DeVos has played that thing out pretty far. A Bissell has played that out very far. Or Meijer's — they have taken that and literally pushed it out all the way.

"So you're a business and you're saying, 'How can we leverage what we have? Let's leverage all our talent. Let's do more with it because we can.'"

Van Belzen said that when CEOs or boards are asking themselves such questions and are looking for some help, that's where Northpoint shines.

"We can come in and help them cross the chasm from being a good, successful, solid company to getting to the next level. Or if it's a successful company that — because of some change in market condition — has lost its luster, we can help.

"We had one client," he added, "with 80 percent of its business in one market and that one market collapsed. So we came in to answer the question, 'How do we regenerate business?'"

Often, he said, firms seeking such help have limited cash and limited time.

"So we've got to do it right the first time. And the question is, 'Do you want to bet the farm on your own insider view? Would you go to somebody who has done two or three surgeries — or to someone who has done 80 or 100?'"

He said that as of last autumn, Northpoint had done 138 "surgeries."

"Most clients will tell me the information is very valuable and helpful," he said, "and in all cases I believe what we've put together worked well."

And traction, he said, is the reason it has worked.

"Our major differentiator," he said, "is that we put about 20 to 25 percent emphasis on the get-to-market strategy, and we put 80 percent emphasis on making it an executable strategy."

The key question, he said, is whether a proposed strategy will fit into the corporation's culture and whether it will be executable along a rapid time line.

"You know, if it can't get through the filter," he said, "the best idea just may not be the best idea. A great idea for McKesson may not work for a company in Grand Rapids or Holland.

"It's got to fit the culture. It's got to have what I call a high executable quotient. If it doesn't pass that test, then you've got a problem."

The other differentiator that gives Northpoint a high rate of success, he said, is that the company follows through.

"Look, it's like going to training," he said. "You go through the training, and then you come back to the office and apply it for a day or two — and go back to doing it the old way.

"Well, if I want repeat business," he said, "I can't let that happen.

"Frankly, we're all very busy. So just because some consultant walks into my office and convinces me to follow his suggestions, this doesn't mean I have the bandwidth to change."

Northpoint, he said, considers itself as having a vested interest in a strategy and the ability to carry it forth, and it serves the client in just that way until it can make sure that the strategy gets traction.

Van Belzen, who says he is blessed both by schooling and parentage with an analytic mind, developed his consulting methodology after serving Xerox as an internal consultant who helped set up its business services division.

He explained that in the '80s Xerox was concerned that it was dependent entirely upon an urban direct sales force. Studying the problem as a regional sales manager, he helped to devise and launch a network of 1,000 agents covering the rural 84 percent of the nation.

The new business channel bolstered sales dramatically. After that, he said, he helped Xerox add a new business dimension. "We stopped just selling boxes and technology and started selling the solution to the problem: 'How do you improve your document flow?'"

He said the new division grew about 40 percent a year from $300 million to between $4 billion and $4.5 billion.

In 1993, he founded Northpoint in Rochester, N.Y.

He has returned to Grand Rapids not just because he likes it or because it's like Rochester — "We get the same weather you do, only a day later," he joked — but because it's the size city in which he believes his firm can thrive. "As a middle-market city, Grand Rapids scored very, very well. I'm very bullish about Grand Rapids."

He opened the local office in June and now is trying to intercept the financial and analytical talent that he needs for Northpoint here.

Meanwhile, he invites local firms debating a product or service launch to try the ProductReady Scan on Northpoint Advisors' Web site, www.go2npa.com.

"It's a sanity check — a pretty low-cost tool with 60 questions, each with four dimensions," Van Belzen said. He said the tool — one of four proprietary products that Northpoint employs in its work — is based on experience.

"How many products does one businessman launch in his lifetime? A dozen or two dozen? Well, we've seen hundreds and hundreds — so we've learned what are the good questions to ask.

"You get back a score that will give you a red light, a green light or yellow."    

Briefly

Name: Dick Van Belzen
Organization: Northpoint Advisors
Title: Founder and managing director
Age: 51
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Rochester, N.Y.
Family: Wife, Gail, and son, Case
Business Organizations: Institute for the Study of Business Marketing, Rochester Chamber of Commerce, Rochester High-Tech Business Council, Silicon Valley Churchill Club
Biggest Career Break: Being appointed in 1989 to an 11-member internal task force to double Xerox's market share.

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