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You need not visit Columbia Metropolitan Airport in West Columbia- South Carolina to appreciate the breadth of Bell Aviation’s resale and brokerage business. Taking a few minutes to browse Bell Aviation’s helpful site on the Internet shows that Don Bell’s 12-year-old company remains a strong- viable operation in a market not known for indulging weaklings.

Dave Higdon   |   1st November 2002
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Deep Rooted Philosophies

Bell Aviation continues its success juggling brokering and sale businesses.

You need not visit Columbia Metropolitan Airport in West Columbia- South Carolina to appreciate the breadth of Bell Aviation’s resale and brokerage business. Taking a few minutes to browse Bell Aviation’s helpful site on the Internet shows that Don Bell’s 12-year-old company remains a strong- viable operation in a market not known for indulging weaklings.

Like most companies in the business aviation community- Bell Aviation’s business in 2002 suffers from the same buyers’ tentativeness and economic uncertainty. This year the company expects to handle about 65 transactions- two-thirds of the business level of two years ago. It’s an experience shared by many.

While not as busy as a couple of years back- the Bell Aviation staff’s continuing adherence to the founder’s core philosophies helps keep the company as busy as it is – still busier than a number of others working the same market.

Bell is about building relationships at both ends of each transaction- an approach Don Bell credits for the size of the company’s customer base and the strength of the company’s business.

The measure of Bell’s success is evident in the company’s ability to keep its business strong enough to not only keep the doors open- but to also keep his family of employees working. Indeed- the company managed this feat in the face of the market declines of the past 18 months.

Steady at the yoke
It’s hard to find even a niche in business aviation not suffering from the first economic malaise of the New Millennium. Reports of business shrinkage of 12 percent to 40 percent permeate the trade publications.

For Bell- the downturn translates to about one-third compared to the year 2000. The company expects to conclude about 65 transactions this year- according to vice president Rick Richardson. Two years ago- the number broke the three-digit barrier. Despite the downturn- however- Bell continues to employ about 30 people.

Bell Aviation has been able to maintain its relative health thanks to efficiencies embraced to help a small company keep pace with a high volume of transactions. Today- securing stock to offer prospective customers requires savvy judgment- solid intelligence and a quick response.

From a perusal of Bell’s extensive website- the company isn’t suffering from a lack of stock for its sales-and-brokerage operations. Nearly 50 planes fill the company Internet listing of executive aircraft- about two-thirds the traditional mainstays of Bell’s business; brokering and reselling pre-owned business turbine aircraft.

Current listings show about one-third Cessna Citations- about an equal number Beech King Airs- the balance a mix of Cessna pressurized piston twins- other jets and propjets including an IAI Astra – as well as one of its cousins- the renamed Gulfstream 100; a Challenger- a Beechjet- a Hawker and a Learjet. Aside from the collection of 90- and 200-series King Airs listed- Bell also lists a number of other propjets- including some Cessna Conquests and a Jetstream 31.

Solid Judgement
If business these days is tough for some companies- at least according to Bell’s staff- the opportunities are out there for the making. According to Bell and his staff- two particular areas have helped the company sustain its momentum and avoid the problems other similar vendors have suffered in recent months.

First- the company focused more on brokering airplanes than on buying sales stock. This- according to Bell- doesn’t mean the company works less or short changes clients. The change does help Bell avoid sinking dollars into projects that don’t really require a change in ownership – or healthy upgrade work – to be attractive and marketable. 'Intelligence in finding and selecting the airplanes is every bit as important when brokering as when buying the plane to add to our stock-' said Bell.

The other element that contributes to Bell Aviation’s ongoing success is its international scope. 'We keep Ronnie Frank (Bell’s International Sales boss) busier than ever these days-' said Bell. 'He speaks so many languages and has contacts in so many places that he gives us an edge in finding and landing choice aircraft that come available overseas and in matching our stock to the needs of our international customers.'

'You can’t do business with what you don’t have- and Ronnie helps us maintain the depth we need to succeed.'
Most of Bell Aviation’s formula for success and survival remains basically unchanged though: The focus on building customer relationships rather than on simply moving a product.

If business these days is tough for some companies- at least according to Bell’s staff- the opportunities are out there for the making.

To paraphrase Don Bell- you don’t abandon a successful philosophy just because conditions change or buyers become more cautious. In fact- he stressed that tight times like these make it more important than ever to build bridges between Bell and its clientele. It’s this that has kept Bell’s staff as busy as it is.

The Bell Approach
In interviews for a story in the May 2000 World Aircraft Sales Issue- Bell and Richardson spelled out the particular formula applied to build Bell Aviation to the level of transacting two airplanes weekly – a formula that put the people first in the equation.
'The key to surviving the lean years was putting in what ever hours it took to do the job-' Bell has said in the past- 'and it still isn’t an eight-hour-a-day job.'

Bell echoed that in today’s world- the eight-hour-a-day standard remains as far off the norm as it was 12 years ago- when he started the company in 1990. The company sold 18 airplanes that year- Bell recently reminisced- but the company survived and grew.

Given the market of the day- surviving then was an even larger feat than today. Twelve years ago business aviation was still five years away from the end of a long- slow slide. But clearly today’s market is tougher for sellers and resellers than the boom years from 1996 to 2000.

Those same good times helped attract more competition – some of which no longer exists. Bell noted in 2000- 'When the economy is easier- more people get in – which doesn’t necessarily make our job easier.'

Today- the stability of a company like Bell Aviation helps attract new business- because of the demonstrated stability of the operation and the strength of its repeat business – always an important factor to Don Bell. One benefit of Bell Aviation’s experience and philosophy has been the strength of its repeat business- on both ends of the equation – buying and selling. It’s that repeat business strength that is one reason Bell should turn as many aircraft in 2002 as it expects.

Just let Bell iterate his philosophy: 'We preach around here- ‘Make customers-’ because we don’t want to make deals. In a deal- people often wind up never speaking again.'

'We try to be of service to our customers and develop a relationship… help them identify what (aircraft) type they need- and then find the right one-' Bell explained further. 'Repeat business is absolutely the key. The difference between working 18 to 20 hour days and ‘normal’ 10-hour days is repeat business.'

Richardson’s attitude reflects Bell’s: 'The opportunities to build customer relationships into repeat business occur at both ends of any given transaction; the buyer- of course- as well as the seller or brokerage client.'

That means double the opportunities to shine with each transaction explained Richardson- noting that- 'When you move more than 100 airplanes a year you can increase the customer base as much as 200 people every year.' Even in times when the expectation is a more-modest 65 airplanes in a year- you’re still looking at 130 opportunities to make new – or reinforce existing – relationships- by this philosophy.

Harder times- harder work
If using the emerging Internet and other intelligence tools was important to a growing business back in the 1990s- these skills and approaches hold even more importance now- in the first economic slump of the dawning 21st Century. Bell Aviation’s embrace of these tools- of an international market approach and of solid supplier relationships- helped the company build to its peak of a couple years ago.

Today- with a smaller market- more caution on the part of buyers- and unrelenting competition- those tools and processes hold even more importance. For one- according to the company- they help maintain an edge over smaller- more aggressive competitors and some of the less-committed players- and for another- the embrace of these tools brought a level of efficiency that’s made it easier for Bell to sustain its stall level in the shrinking market.

Of course- much of this success in hard times would be less possible – even less probable – had Bell Aviation’s staff not performed as well as they did during the better times a few years back.

Most importantly- Bell’s stability means its cadre of customers still find familiar faces working for them and hear friendly voices when they call- and that stability should work out to be an even stronger advantage if markets continue to show signs of rebounding and growth begins to resume.

Planemakers and marketers alike report interest in new and upgrade planes strengthening in recent months- signs which have drawn sighs of relief from across the business aviation community. With new jet deliveries largely stable- the opportunities for companies like Bell Aviation should begin to improve- despite some signs of operators deciding to upgrade existing hardware rather than upgrade to a different aircraft.

When that market reversal starts to occur- Don Bell and his highly capable staff stand in a good position to capitalize on the opportunities to better serve their customers. 'Our staff are the key- our most important asset- and biggest reason why we’re the success we are-' Richardson said in 2000.

'They work with our customers like family and we try to treat them as family in return… and that makes all the difference in the family of friends we gained out of people who started as customers-' added Bell.

Knowing how well Bell’s philosophy worked at the end of the 20th Century- there’s little to create doubt about how well it will work at the dawn of the 21st.

• More information from Bell Aviation; Tel: +1 803.822.4114; Fax: +1 803.822.8970; Website: www.bellaviation.com

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