For the first time in its 64-year existence, there will be no one with the Bell surname at the helm of the Richards Bay-based equipment manufacturer and distributor, Bell Equipment. After 34 years of steering the company as CEO, Bell retired at the end of May 2018, taking over the position of nonexecutive chairperson. COO Leon Goosen, who has been with the company since 2007 and has been the COO of the company that is recoginised by its yellow livery equipment, has taken over as CEO from Bell.
Bell joined the JSE listed company in 1970 as an apprentice and then completed a diploma in mechanical engineering at Durban Technikon before returning to work full time at the company. In April 1984 Bell was appointed CEO of the company established by his father Irvine Bell, in 1954. The company operated mainly as an engineering job shop before developing and manufacturing a tri-wheeler loading machine for the sugar cane industry.
By this stage the three Bell brothers Gary, Paul and Peter, as well as two cousins, Mike and Dave Campbell were working for the company and it was their vision to change the company into a manufacturing business focused on heavy equipment, which it is today.
Manufacturing wish list – a steel plant, a tyre manufacturing plant and a modern foundry
In one of his last interviews as CEO Bell was asked if he could open three new plants in South Africa, what would they be?
“It would be a modern steel mill, an earthmoving tyre manufacturing plant and a modern foundry,” Bell answered.
“A modern steel mill does not require the investment seen 30 years ago. We need competitive, good-quality product here. We definitely should make steel, but only if we can make it competitively. We can’t produce quality products from an old and obsolete plant.”
Leon Goosen with Gary Bell
In a previous interview Bell said: “South African manufacturers are paying 22% too much for their steel; Whether you are manufacturing lamp posts or electrical cabinets, you are not going to pay what you would pay on the global market.”
Bell says the group has to pay a 10% import duty on steel, with another 12% safeguard duty added to protect the local steel industry.
Bell Equipment uses South African steel, made by ArcelorMittal, for some parts. However, the company imports high-performance steel that ensures the highest structural strength with the lowest possible weight, which is a key attribute of a vehicle’s competitiveness, explains Bell.
“I’m not sure we are going about things the right way. The duty on steel is not good for manufacturers in South Africa. It is good for one steel producer, and that’s it. I think government needs to look at what they need to do to make manufacturing competitive and sustainable in South Africa.”
“A 22% duty on steel imports protects one industry and penalises all the other thousands of manufacturers that use that steel as their primary input – and then our competitors’ goods come in duty-free. Our authorities need to be responsive. To react and to react quicker. To understand and support. A lot of things can be made easier for manufacturers in South Africa.”
“Tyres are the most expensive components on a Bell machine. On our articulated dump trucks there are six tyres. Combined they are the most expensive part of the truck – more so than the Mercedes-Benz engine. We pay import duties on these tyres in order to protect the tyre industry in South Africa, which predominantly makes car tyres. But the reality is that no company in Africa manufactures the tyres we need.”
“When other capital equipment brands in South Africa import product with the tyres already on the machine, they pay no duties,” he says.
Bell’s call for a foundry is based on the premise that there has been “no investment in foundries in South Africa in a long time, with the quality of what is produced no longer acceptable in terms of what is available globally for our business.”
AI, 3D printing and the Fourth Industrial Revolution
“I think it is absolutely essential that we embrace this revolution. This is the future. South Africa can’t stay in the dark ages,” says Bell.
“It will more than likely lead to massive job losses for certain types of work,” he acknowledges.
“But a lot of people don’t understand the concept of productivity. In mechanisation of this nature, one shouldn’t approach it on the basis of reducing jobs, but on the basis of reducing costs.”
“As a nation, we can become more cost effective in what we produce for our domestic and export markets. And, in doing that we can then create jobs. We have to embrace new technologies. It is the only way in which we are going to pull ourselves out from where we are. New technologies provide us with the opportunity to industrialise further.”
Bell says 3D printing is, for example, changing a lot of decisions traditionally made around whether “something is available locally, or not.”
“If it is not available in South Africa, can it not be produced locally using 3D printing?”
“The playing field has changed over the past 15 years in terms of what we can make and what we can’t make. Manufacturing systems are so much more flexible. Previously, you required huge investment and huge volumes, whereas now a 3D printer can print one or 10, or 200.”
Bell says he remains positive about South Africa. “We’ll certainly do what we can to create jobs in the country. Government needs to play its part in dealing with the backlog in education and encouraging Team South Africa to work together a lot better than we have done in the past.”