Equipment

Earth moving masters

Bell_PreIM_E-series_Large-1.jpg

Bell Equipment was initially founded in 1954 by Irvine Bell as a repair workshop for agricultural machinery. But Irvine was not simply a skilled repairman, but also an inventor. Earlier in his engineering career, he designed a homemade water-boring machine. Soon afterwards he developed a self-loading sugarcane trailer, which included an overhead transfer crane.

In1964 Irvine Bell presented a rugged, hydrostatically-driven three-wheeled loader which still today enjoys great popularity in many African countries.

In the mid-1970s his sons Gary and Peter joined the company, which became increasingly more involved in earthmoving. With self-developed wheel loaders and tractors began a rapid increase in production, and in 1984 the Richards Bay factory was opened, which is the central production facility of the company today.

Currently, Bell Equipment has production facilities in Africa and Europe and is well represented on these continents as well as in Australia, the USA and Russia. To find out more about this homegrown powerhouse Mining Prospectus editor, Gregory Simpson, sat down with Bell Equipment director Terry Gillham in Cape Town, after some trying times with strikes and energy outages affecting operations recently.

What is the key differentiator between Bell Equipment and the competition in a tight ADT segment?

We are a proudly South African company. Our roots are here, we understand what it takes to build equipment for Africa. African conditions, traditionally, are pretty hard and with our roots firmly entrenched here we understand what it is to build that equipment. We’re passionate about what we do; we’ve got good people and fundamentally compete in a very tough market against all the major global players. We have to be as good, if not better. We can’t simply be expecting business because we want loyal South Africans to support us. We’ve actually got to compete on the world stage for things like safety, environmental issues, productivity and food efficiency. For us to compete with the big brand names all over the world – which we do in Europe, America and Asia – we’ve got to have the full package.

Can you talk about some of the R&D that goes into your products?

We spend probably 4% of our revenue on R&D. It’s a huge part of our business and we’re forever launching new machines into the market. As we speak we’ve got the Bell B60, which is the world’s largest articulated dump truck, and it’s under prototype testing right now. It’s a very interesting concept and we aim to bring that truck to the market this time next year.

Articulation has always been the cornerstone of your business.

Yes, that’s what put us on the map. Our core product is still the articulated dump truck. We’ve now got the world’s largest range – from an 18-ton currently up to a 50, but with the advent of the B60 we’ll be going into the 60-ton market. We have strong alliances with some major players – John Deere, Liebherr, Finlay crushing and screening equipment out of Ireland and our other alliance, which has been wonderful, is Bomag out of Germany, which is the compaction range of equipment.

Can you talk a bit more about your Richards Bay facility and what that produces?

Yes, Richards Bay is the main manufacturing plant and they produce fundamentally all the articulated dump trucks. The tractor loader gets manufactured in Richards Bay and a lot of the forestry and sugar products – the tractors and three wheeled products - are also still manufactured in large numbers in Richards Bay. All the R&D takes place in Richards Bay and then, over and above that, quite a lot of the components manufactured in Richards Bay are shipped across to our assembly plant in Eisenach, Germany, where the trucks for the northern hemisphere are assembled. [O2] 

Presumably the trucks will have different specs for the UK and the African market?

No, we build the truck to one spec because by doing so we make it pretty well interchangeable.

Absolutely, and you’ve also got your new Middleburg facility?

Middleburg is a wonderful new facility. We've also recently opened up Rustenburg so we’ve opened up new branches in the two sweet areas where mining is usually very bullish in South Africa. Sadly, with the commodity prices where they are, we have seen a tremendous drop off in the coal market so that’s hurting our new Middleburg facility. Similarly, in Rustenburg with the platinum strike and the issues around platinum, the area has taken some heat but we built these facilities for the long haul. These facilities will see us through for the next 30 or 40 years, as they’re state of the art facilities. Earlier last year we opened a new facility in Nelspruit and in January this year we opened up a facility in Kitwe, Zambia and they’re all built on the same scale.

Plans for sub-Saharan Africa?

We’re very active in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and the DRC. The further north we go, we make use of dealers, so in East and West Africa typically we’ve got dealers who represent our product. However, in southern Africa and sub-Saharan South Africa we have Bell-owned operations – for example Bell Mozambique, Bell Zambia and Bell Zimbabwe are fully owned.

How badly was Bell affected by the strike in Richards Bay?

The NUMSA strike had a pretty crippling affect on this economy generally and it certainly hurt us. Our Richards Bay manufacturing facility basically came to a halt last July, as did our Johannesburg facility in Jet Park. We were under siege there and it hurt. It was a crippling strike and the effects of that strike are still being felt.

Where do you see the key growth areas, over the next 12 to 24 months?

Right now, as we speak, the mining industry is definitely feeling the heat. Commodity prices particularly, things like coal, iron ore and copper are hurting. We also have the Eskom power issue, which has put a bit of a damper on things. There are a couple of key issues that we need to deal with in this country, in terms of mining, to get it up and running at full speed again.

How much of your product do you export?

South Africa is still our major market, but having said that if you look at the group revenue, total revenue for last year for example: South Africa represented about 45% of group revenue and 55% would be for the rest of the world. South Africa is still a hugely important market but, yes, exports are critical for us and we export all over the world.

And looking back over the rich history of Bell, what would you highlight as the major cherry on the top of the cake?

For me being with an organisation that started off as a very humble little family business 60 years ago to come to a point where we are regarded as a global player right across the world stage – I’ve been very privileged to be part of that for 25 years. I’ve seen enormous growth. It’s been an incredible journey. Today we’re a pretty decent-sized player so the overall growth we’ve achieved, the alliance partners we’ve been able to secure and the footprint we’ve made, particularly on the African continent, is probably the highlight for me.

And the relationship with John Deere finally, it must be give and take. You must learn a lot from each other?

Oh yes, John Deere is a world-class massive organisation; it’s an icon American company and we have learned a lot from them. They’ve learnt from us as well but they have wonderful systems. They’ve got some wonderful products and they’ve been a very good partner for us. I think we came on board in 1996 so it’s nearly 20 years that we’ve had that partnership. They are still a major shareholder in the organisation and we’ve grown and learnt a lot from John Deere – our partnership is going to go from strength to strength.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Gregory Simpson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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