More than six decades of excellence bear testimony to Bell Equipment’s ability to adapt, respond and grow within its expanding South African and international customer base. IMIESA speaks to John Fleetwood, managing director of Bell Equipment Sales South Africa (BESSA), about his earlier career, current role and vision for the business.
What drew you to the capital equipment sector?JF I developed a passion for all things mechanical from an early age largely thanks to my parents, who both worked for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). From there, it was a logical progression and, after completing my studies at college, I signed up for a diesel earthmoving mechanic apprenticeship programme with a leading OEM. As they say, the rest is history.
How did your initial foundation as an artisan shape your future career path?The grounding proved invaluable. It’s always important to have a solid foundation. From working as a workshop mechanic and progressing to field service, parts and then sales gave me a full overview of the workings of the business, plus a detailed understanding of the markets we operate in. As an interesting aside, the late Irvine Bell, founder of Bell Equipment, also started his working life as an apprentice, qualifying as a fitter and turner. He went on to refine his mechanical engineering skills with the development of the legendary Bell tri-wheeler. This innovation served as the catalyst for further innovations, like our articulated dump truck (ADT) series. What are some of your key development milestones at Bell Equipment? When I joined Bell Equipment, I was in the technical field, specialising on ADTs and based at our Richards Bay factory. From there, I was transferred to the regional office in Jet Park, Gauteng, where I gained in-depth exposure to the commercial and marketing sides of the business. I also subsequently gained first-hand exposure to Bell Equipment’s international dealer network roll-out, as well as the establishment of our ADT and allied fabrication facility in Germany. The latter serves the European, UK and North American markets. These and other experiences prepared me for my first major leadership role as managing director of Bell Equipment’s operations in Zambia. Those three years from 2014 to 2017 formed a very exciting part of my career. At the time, I was responsible for managing an approximately US$20 million (R302 million) turnover business, four branches and some 100 personnel. From there, I moved back to South Africa as the general manager for BESSA’s Central Region, with responsibility for a R2 billion turnover business. Then, in November 2021, I was appointed as managing director for BESSA in its entirety.
How would you describe your management style?My passion for the business lends itself towards a hands-on and participative style of leadership that empowers people to make the right decisions. Happy staff translate into loyal customers.
As the new MD of BESSA, what are your plans and objectives?Profitability and sustainability are a given. Alongside our own Bell OEM products, we have an equal focus on growing the market share for our Alliance Partners (JCB, Finlay and Kobelco) in the regions where we operate. From a Bell perspective, one of my key goals is to grow our ADT market share. Globally, Bell is ranked within the top three manufacturers, based on our international market penetration to date. Longer term, our goal is to be number one.
Has going the Alliance Partner route been a successful model?
Definitely. We currently have three Alliance Partners, namely Finlay (mobile crushing and screening), JCB (earthmoving and construction equipment) and Kobelco (hydraulic excavators). They are all market leaders globally and recognise Bell Equipment as a highly respected OEM and innovator. Bringing the four brands together offers our customers a full line of solutions under the comprehensive support of Bell South Africa. JCB is our newest partner, joining us in mid-2021 – a development that has been well supported by our customer base.Bell Equipment South Africa is proud to say that we offer the best product lines available in their respective machine classes, with the best after-market support in place. These machines are sold and supported locally by our 23 branches spread throughout South Africa.
What separates the best from the rest?Training, training, and then more training. Our biggest advantage against the competition is that we have an exceptional pool of talent at all levels within the organisation. All our technical teams are fully accredited by our Alliance Partners. We also currently have 116 apprentices in training throughout South Africa. We know that customers buy based on reliability. That’s why we make sure we’re always accessible, 24/7 and 365 days a year. Bell Equipment’s international expansion is another key success factor. It’s enabled us to research and benchmark our service capabilities based on customer expectations globally. As in South Africa, their feedback constantly refines and improves our service models, as well as future product developments. Thanks to this customer interaction, we believe our ADTs are among the most evolved on the market in terms of their onboard self-diagnostic functionality, ergonomics, ease of operation, safety features and maintenance. Our research and development (R&D) programmes are always running in the background. We also have an Application Equipment Department at our Richards Bay factory that specialises in designing and building custom solutions that include specialist trailers and adaptations based on our ADT platforms. Latter examples include water tankers, fuel bowsers and firefighting trucks. We constantly respond and realign to remain relevant. At present, our R&D team is working on various new model developments with anticipated launches in the next two to three years.
How do you see the construction and quarrying market evolving this year?The last two years were certainly turbulent ones and put us to the ultimate test. We’ve come through the other side stronger and more resilient, and we have our customers and staff to thank for this. Our mining and quarrying business has performed exceptionally during this period. However, as for the industry in general, sales in the construction market remained relatively flat. The upside is that we expect the South African construction sector to rebound during 2022 and we’re ready to support it with a comprehensive machine line-up.
How can Bell Equipment make the difference?Class leadership is earned and requires winning through teamwork. We understand that the tough trading conditions in recent times have made customers far more price sensitive. That’s why we’ve focused on reinforcing the value of our solutions to help build and sustain our customers’ businesses. We structure tailored sales and service packages, provide competitive financing and expert advice on optimum machine selection and utilisation. Above all, we commit to establishing long-lasting, trusted partnerships. Bell Equipment’s slogan is ‘Strong Reliable Machines, Strong Reliable Support’. For me, that says everything about our business.