SUNDAY TIMES - Cost-cutting benefits drive Bell operations to northern markets
Sunday Times Business By DINEO TSAMELA, 2017-03-19 00:00:00.0

Cost-cutting benefits drive Bell operations to northern markets

MINING A NEW FUTURE: Bell, the earthmoving-equipment giant, has decided to take most of the assembly and manufacturing of its vehicle parts offshore, but this is not about the mining and construction industries' woes in Africa, says CEO Gary Bell.

A decade ago the construction industry was thriving. Bell Equipment hit amazing highs, with its share price reaching a record R49.78. Today the share price is a third of that.

The impact of the global financial crisis and the aftermath of the 2010 Soccer World Cup construction boom left the likes of Bell scrambling to find value elsewhere.

Bell's profit for 2016 was down to R39-million from the previous year's R142-million.

This resulted in Bell taking more of its manufacturing and assembly capacity to Germany. Gary Bell, CEO and grandson of Bell Equipment founder Irvine Bell, said this made economic sense for them because of the cost benefit.

"The possibility of taking the products offshore is not dependent on the mining industry," he said. 'The global market for our core product is very much in the northern hemisphere.

"Our US and European markets take a lot more product than the southern hemisphere."

With Africa's big economies still under pressure, local construction and mining industries hold little comfort for Bell Equipment. Since 2009, the JSE All Share index has risen 129% while the construction-sector index fell 68%. The mining industry has not fared much better.

But recently Bell said that the company decided to take most of the assembly and manufacturing of parts offshore, but that this was not about the mining and construction industries' woes across the continent.

"To put it into perspective, the continent of Africa consumes about 3% of the global production of our core product, the articulated dump truck," whereas the US market accounts for 50% of sales, he said.

Bell said it was about the economics of moving big machinery around the world because the northern hemisphere markets are bigger than the domestic market.

Bell admitted their foray into Germany was fraught with challenges. Conquering the market took a great deal of effort.

But Bell said the company would not be leaving South Africa or moving operations entirely offshore. "The main office will remain in South Africa and so will some manufacturing, but what we want to do is assemble those products closer to offshore markets because there's a logistical cost benefit for us," he said.

Bell said that growing the company's market share in other markets would help the business in South Africa.

Bell was founded in 1954 by Irvine Bell in KwaZulu-Natal.

The business grew as Bell started selling and investing in agricultural vehicles for sugar cane harvesting.

In the 1970s, the founder expanded his business to include construction vehicles, as construction of the Richards Bay port began. By 1977, Bell brought its first dump truck into the market. This would later become their core product.

The family business continued to thrive, and in 1999 US equipment manufacturer John Deere bought a stake in the local business. Today John Deere owns 31.53% of Bell Equipment.

North America represents 50% of the global market for Bell's articulated dump truck.

"We were excluded from that market because of our licensing arrangement with John Deere. That was terminated in 2013 and we were allowed access back into that market," said Bell.

Entry back into the US has been good for the company.

Bell said that this was part of its strategy to make sure it did not depend on a small part of the world market and mining activity in Africa.

The two businesses run independently, although they compete in the US market. Bell sells John Deere equipment in South Africa, but beyond that has no other distribution agreement with the US company.

But Bell has not been alone in its struggle to sell heavy-duty earthmoving equipment.

Barloworld, which has an earthmoving-equipment sales unit, has also faced headwinds in the equipment business due to the depression in mining and construction activity.

African operations and struggles in Russia contributed to depressed earnings in the past 18 months, but Mergence equity analyst Peter Takaendesa said geographic diversification had somewhat helped Barloworld relative to its peers.

"Russia has actually contributed strongly to Barloworld over the past 12 to 18 months despite challenging economic conditions as they benefited from much better activity in open-cast gold mining in Russia, helping to offset weaker oil and gas activity," said Takaendesa.

For both Bell and Barloworld, a stronger rand is likely to present new challenges. "Unfortunately, the stronger rand will be a headwind this year but better operational activity in local currencies in Russia and Europe should partly offset the negative impact of a stronger rand," said Takaendesa.

Back home the mining and construction sectors have eased up on equipment spending.

In 2015-2016, mining companies spent 9% less on equipment from R55.5-billion in the previous year. This figure was lower than expected, although a lot better than the average decline in global spend on equipment of 23%.

Top JSE-listed construction companies' spend was 12% lower in 2016. But the market is hoping for recovery in construction and mining - although it is likely to be a slow one.

"There are early signs of a turnaround in mining activity as commodity prices have recovered," said Takaendesa.

This came after Barloworld's February trading update for its first quarter to December 2016, which indicated its order book in southern Africa and Russia had shown an improvement.

Bell said the company's order book also reflected a turnaround from the mining business.

"We're sure that the domestic market and the African market will become a bigger part of our business going forward," he said.