Inside Track: Business runs in the family
CEO of MessageWrap begins his own entrepreneurial journey after learning from family of business owners.
Nathan Vanderploeg comes from a family that is deep-seated in business.
One of his great-grandfathers started Grand Rapids-based Stevens Advertising, which is now under different ownership.
One of his grandfathers was the head of an engineering company that made parts for airplanes and jet turbines in Muskegon.
His great-uncle was a part of the growth of Import Motors and led Mazda Great Lakes, which was the first to import Volkswagens from Germany after World War II and Mazdas from Japan, in turn, growing dealership networks in the Midwest.
His mother is the founder of MessageWrap, a printed, antimicrobial conveyor belt cover that rides on top of rotating black belts at checkouts in stores.
So, it wasn’t a surprise when Vanderploeg continued the longstanding tradition when he joined his mother in becoming the CEO of the business. He joined MessageWrap after gaining a wealth of business experience in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
He has helped his mother sustain and grow the business by raising capital, finding new clients, partners and advisers who invested in MessageWrap.
Their first supporter of the business was Mol Belting, a manufacturing company in Grand Rapids that makes black conveyor belts for most businesses in the country. His mother, after leaving an executive role at Meijer, worked at Mol Belting before she went on to start her own business.
“We developed a great brand,” Vanderploeg said. “We did some early tests with some retailers and started to refine our product and our operation. We knew we would need a good group of advisers and investors … to really drive growth into our marketplace. We raised two rounds of funding; we raised $1.5 million in total. I led the capital raise, largely, through the relationships that I developed in D.C., at the University of Michigan, in Chicago and across the country — finding people that added more value than just cutting a check. We took on the former president of Campbell’s Soup. We took on the former senior vice president of marketing at Walmart. We took on the former president of client services at Acosta Sales and Marketing as investors and advisers. I realized to be successful at a young age, we had to align ourselves with a lot of people who are older, further down the path and who are successful.”
As a result of those partnerships, MessageWrap has grown into stores such as Target, Walmart, Costco Wholesale, Giant Eagle, Coborn’s, Kroger, Ahold Delhaize and Albertsons. Retailers have used MessageWrap to advertise their in-store pharmacies, discounts and brand, among other things, as their consumers are in the checkout line.
The Vanderploeg family has a patent for MessageWrap not only in the U.S. but also in Canada, and they are working on a patent in other countries.
Although Vanderploeg was born into a business-minded family, he said he had to work hard to create his own success story.
He was born and raised in East Grand Rapids and played football, basketball and tennis. During his time in high school, Vanderploeg won state championships in football and tennis.
“I was one of those kids who learned more by playing sports than I did in school,” he said. “I always learned better by doing than I did by studying. I learned better by playing.”
Between playing three sports and going to high school, Vanderploeg started a car detailing shop at his home. He and a few of his friends started cleaning the insides and outsides of cars.
“We would be cleaning Q-tips in corners with wax on it and shampooing the carpets,” he said. “We would pick up the cars and drop them off. I had some high school friends that I was working with, and I got all my little brother’s friends to work for me. So, I had an assembly line of cars going in my parents’ driveway. It was a good business. One of my greatest regrets as a businessperson was that I didn’t turn that business into a sustainable and continuing business. I just stopped doing it when I started college.”
He continued his family tradition and attended the University of Michigan, where his grandparents, father and uncles went.
He studied economics and business. Just like high school, Vanderploeg said his biggest growth in learning came from the internships and jobs he had.
At 19 years old, after his freshman year, he took on a summer job in Manhattan, New York, where he worked at Rockwell Group.
“I was pretty young for it,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I am not sure what value I had at the time, to be honest. They did entertainment architecture and design. They designed restaurants, Broadway sets, professional sports stadiums, including (Detroit) Tiger Stadium. It was a pretty cool job and experience.”
After his sophomore year at Michigan, Vanderploeg scored an internship in Washington, D.C., working at the Republican Governors Association, which helps to elect Republicans to governorships in the country. Vanderploeg worked for former Gov. Mitt Romney in 2006.
“I met a lot of people that summer, and I got familiar with Washington,” he said. “I was just so lucky to have different people come into my life who I would go on to work for or do business with or just be great friends with.”
After his junior year, Vanderploeg landed an internship in Chicago to work at a management consulting firm that specialized in strategic planning, business transformation and turnarounds.
“I got those internships through connections and relationships,” he said. “I believe in contributing at our highest potential and adding the most value. My dad taught me that if our relationships and connections can help us add more value, then we are morally obligated to use them. I had some relationships that opened doors, but relationships can only go so far. The doors might be opened, but you have to run through them and prove yourself because there is a lot to be done after the doors swing open.”
Vanderploeg merged the experiences he gained from the internships and began working as a management consultant in D.C. after he graduated from U-M during the recession.
As a management consultant, Vanderploeg worked with different businesses and government agencies to help with strategic planning, write business plans, analyze businesses in different business units and put together growth plans and turnaround plans for underperforming organizations.
During his time in Washington, the dynamic of his career and personal life monumentally changed when his father suddenly passed away.
“By far the biggest influence in my life was my dad,” Vanderploeg said. “He was just an awesome dad. He passed away in 2012 from an unexpected heart attack. He was very healthy, vibrant, full of life and just one day, I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, I got a call from my brother saying, ‘Dad had a heart attack.’ It was one of those days when you remember where you were and everything changes. I was 26 years old and I am just grateful that I had 26 great years with him, but everything changed at that point. You grow up a lot faster when you go through a period of great loss. Something that he taught me was that at times of great adversity, if we go through them with the help of God, family and friends, it can make us better people.”
With the tragic loss of his dad, Vanderploeg decided he needed to move to the Midwest to be closer to his family. After six years in Washington, he moved to Chicago to help his mother with MessageWrap.
“I was building my career as an entrepreneur and as a person who can start and grow businesses in a venture capital and private equity space,” he said. “I benefited from a lot of the relationships that I have built and the access to the business community and investor community in Chicago.”
Vanderploeg split his time in Chicago and Grand Rapids before he permanently moved back home in 2017.
MessageWrap recently made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies in America for 2019, at No. 904.