The Bellco Story
74 Years and Still Growing!
Bell Company, Inc. was established 74 years ago in 1946. Today the company is recognized as a pioneer in the engraving industry. For years, Bell Company has been providing engraving services and supplies locally and around the world. And even after 65 years in the business, the company still has a lot to learn, according to Neil Bell, President Emeritus.
This article will look back on the history of the company, which is a classic example of the all-American success story.
Bell Company’s Beginnings
Horace Bell, a printer in the small town of Trussville, Alabama founded Bell Company in 1946. He had just returned to Alabama after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Horace was motivated to start the business because he was not interested in working for someone else. He was looking for independence – he wanted to be an entrepreneur.
For this reason, Horace decided to start Bell Company. He already had some knowledge of printing, i.e. type spacing, layout, etc., so engraving and marking naturally interested him. He was a hard worker and believed that he could offer his customers dependability and a quality product, even though he knew little about engraving and marking.
Horace set up shop in the basement of his home, working with a small pantograph engraving machine and teaching himself how to hold different items and engrave different materials. For the first few years, Horace did small engraving and printing jobs for local customers in Trussville (engraving small metal plates and name badges and printing flyers, etc.)
During the 1950′s and 1960′s, Bell Company’s business began to grow. This was largely due to the changes going on in the U.S. government and the national economy. In particular, the government was funding massive amounts of military and aeronautical development, stemming from the “Arms Race” and the “Space Race” with the Soviet Union. As a result, Horace Bell was able to secure several government contracts. For example, Horace engraved a variety of different parts for government and the missile industry.
Also around this time, Horace began to enlist the help of his son, Neil, who was then a teenager. Horace taught his son to work hard, and Neil claims that hard work “kept me out of trouble.”
The father and son team were “tinkerers” and liked to work. Eventually, both Horace and Neil concluded that they were an efficient team. For example, Bell Company had received a government contract for engraving the base of a special light bulb. Neil was able to build special holding jigs for engraving the bulbs, and his father, Horace, did the engraving. This working relationship continued well into the future: Neil built the holding jigs, and his father did the engraving.
During this time, Neil and Horace were Bell Company’s only employees and were responsible for all aspects of their operation; production, sales, accounting, etc. And in addition to the government contracts they had, their customer base was growing. They secured local corporate accounts for signage, nameplates, badges, rubber stapes, etc.
Eventually, the time came when Bell Company’s workload was too much to handle in the family home. After 18 years in a residential setting, the company moved to their current industrial park location in 1964. There they continued to grow and hire a few employees to handle production, while Horace and Neil focused on continuing to broaden their customer base.
During the 1970′s, the government contracts began to decline, and competition in the engraving industry began to increase. Neil and his father realized that it was time to look for business in other areas, so they decided to pursue the wholesale end of the market, i.e. selling engraving material and supplies to others in the industry.
This change of focus caused the company to have to rethink their advertising and marketing strategy. Accordingly, Bell Company began placing national advertisement, including regular ads in the early issues of The Engravers Journal. These efforts began a steady transformation of Bell Company’s sales from the local level to the international marketplace. As Neil explains. “We didn’t need to be on Madison Avenue; we just needed that kind of national exposure.”
As the company continued to grow through the 1980′s and into the 90′s, business grew at a steady pace. Along the way, Bell Company added several products and services to perpetuate that growth. Additions included A.D.A. signage, vinyl lettering and computerized engraving, just to name a few. And as needed, the company also added on to its building to accommodate its growing business.
In 1982, Horace Bell retired from his position at the helm of the company, turning it over to his son, Neil, who is now the company president.
Bell Company Today
Bell company is currently located in the same (expanded) building they originally moved to in 1964. The 10,000 square foot building is in an industrial park about 10 minutes from Birmingham, Alabama. They recently acquired an additional 2,500 sq. ft. building next door for their paint facility.
Bell Company’s customer base is comprised of clients around the world. While the company still maintains 10 percent local patronage, the remaining 90 percent is national or international. Neil Bell explains that because the state of Alabama has a relatively small population (around 4 million), the company had to expand nationally and internationally in order to reach their present size. Bell Company has several thousand customers throughout the world. Customers can place orders via telephone, mail, fax or modem, and the company can ship orders UPS virtually anywhere.
Bell Company’s staff now consists of 25 full-time employees, who work in the various departments. Employees work in engraving, beveling, pre-cut stock, accounting, cast metal, silk screening, hot stamping, plastic/vinyl lettering, rubber stamps, signage (including ADA), and the sales department.
Bell Company offers a variety of engraving supplies and services. They manufacture and sell four different manual engraving machine and also represent Roland (computerized engraving machine.)
In addition to offering engraving machines, Bell Company also sells various engraving materials (brass, plastic, etc.) and supplies, and continues to fill orders for custom signage, name badges, rubber stamps, screen printing and so on. Several of the services offered by the company are so-called “value added” services, i.e. they add value to a product. For example, Bell Company not only offers pre-cut engravable plates, but they drill, profile, hot stamp and engrave the plates to customers’ specifications.
Bell Company’s first catalog (published in 1974) was a rather small, 24-page black-and-white catalog that featured various items for engraving, e.g. engraving materials and manual marking devices. Today’s 4-color 38 page catalog highlights the numerous products and services offered by the company.
Bell Company provides customer support for all of the products and services they sell. They offer instructions to customers on how to work with any machine, material or product purchased from the company.
Bell Company’s Success
As you can see, Bell Company has certainly been successful in its 74 years. Even more interesting, though, are the reasons why the company has continued to grow and succeed.
President Emeritus Neil Bell explains that one of the main reasons Bell Company has been around so long is their loyal customer base. The company has had a loyal customer base of several thousand for a number of years. Customer Loyalty is a direct result of customer satisfaction, and achieving customer satisfaction is a major priority at Bell Company.
One way the company keeps customers satisfied is to ship orders promptly. Additionally, Neil explains that all orders, both large and small, are treated with equal importance. In his words, “We appreciate every order that has come through in the past 65 years.”
Another way Bell Company keeps customers happy is by sharing “helpful hints” that they have learned along the way. Neil and his employees are more than willing to share mechanical, managerial and business tips with customers, and help out by providing advice and “tech support” to novices in the business. They pride themselves on having the knowledge about the products they sell.
Sharing information with customers is a large part of what Neil refers to as treating customers with a human touch. For example, Bell Company telephones are never answered with automated systems, and all orders are taken by trained employees who can either handle customer questions and requests, or refer the call to someone who can. Time is taken with each customer so that, with rare exceptions, orders are correct and all of the customer’s needs are met. And customers are encouraged to call if they have problems, or “just to stop by” if they are in the area. All of these techniques are very effective in building customer satisfaction.
A second area to which Neil attributes the company’s success is a staff of qualified employees. The employees at Bell Company are hard-working and extremely loyal. Some of the employees have worked for Bell Company for over 30 years.