Bell Pipe & Supply

Bell Pipe picBell Pipe & Supply’s experienced employees and smart technology investments have made it a leading distributor in southern California.

By Tim O’Connor

Strong competition in the industrial piping supply market has left little room for direct growth the past several years, so Bell Pipe & Supply is taking a different path to differentiate itself to customers. The company is investing in its own technology capabilities to become more efficient and reducing the cost of inventory through supplier relationships so its buying can remain competitive. “Growth is important, but it’s not all-driving for us,” President and CEO Franklin Bell says. “It’s more the quality and customer service we give to the customer.”

Customer service has been Bell Pipe’s modus operandi since its founding 60 years ago. Bell’s father, Frank M. Bell, was a district and regional manager in Los Angeles for Crane Co. for several years. Eventually, his skills earned him a job at the company’s corporate office in Chicago and in February 1956 he left sunny southern California.

When he landed in Chicago, the elder Bell was blasted with the 5F below zero winds as he stepped onto the tarmac, immediately realizing Chicago and Crane corporate were not for him. He left the Midwest and returned to California with plans to start his own business using a $6,000 loan from a family member.

The early days of the company were difficult as Bell Pipe & Supply struggled to find customers. Then one Saturday morning the company got its big break. Frank Bell found himself sitting in the office that weekend, trying to figure out if the newly formed business was going to work when he received a call from someone at paper products manufacturer Kimberly-Clark. The factory needed some materials and everywhere else was closed. Bell Pipe box

Frank Bell said he could deliver and sprung into action, making calls to manufacturers he knew from his years at Crane. He personally delivered the order a few hours later and the company secured its first major account.

The incident taught Frank Bell just how important the service side of the business was for customers. He decided then to incorporate customer service into Bell Pipe’s core business philosophy. The company dedicates a larger split of its resources to employees and customer service than many competitors and its systems are designed to give clients access to a greater amount of information.

Regional Leader

Those customer service efforts have helped Bell Pipe become one of the leading distributors of valves, fittings, air control devices, hoses and other piping supplies in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and the Inland Empire region.

The brands Bell Pipe represents include Spirax Sarco, Numatics, Automated Switch Co. (ASCO), Nibco, Apollo and Dixon. Today, its customers include businesses in a range of industries, including chemicals, HVAC, food and beverage, pharmaceuticals and environmental. Los Angeles is the center of the entertainment world, and Bell Pipe serves major attractions such as Universal Studios and Disneyland, which is an especially important part of the Anaheim, Calif., community.

To provide that high level of customer service, Bell Pipe needs to have well-trained employees with experience in the industry. Many of its workers have been with the company more than 25 years, which gives Bell Pipe a strong knowledge base. “In our industry, with the diversity of the products we have, it takes a lot of time to learn how to engineer and accurately put these products in applications,” Franklin Bell says.

Keeping that knowledge up to date is a challenge. Bell Pipe works with its manufacturers to provide training on new products. “Our manufacturers have always been very generous with their time to make sure we’re trained well,” Bell says. “It benefits both parties in the long run.”

The company also uses its participation in the American Supply Association to provide additional training. Those kinds of association memberships have been critical to the company’s growth and stability, Bell says. Affiliated Distributors, an organization that supports independent distributors, has provided incentives on purchase from key manufacturers, networking opportunities, information on best business practices and opportunities to create in joint market summits. Affiliated Distributors has a national sales arm called Supply Force that helps Bell Pipe compete advantageously on national sales contracts.

Adding Capability

Transparency is critical for suppliers such as Bell Pipe. Customers need to know the status of delivery of a component at all times because arrival impacts the scheduling of installation and when a system can go into use. Delivery delays can be costly and time consuming. Bell Pipe implemented a system for tracking back orders on parts so customers have a better idea of when their order will be ready. The system keeps customers better informed on the manufacturer’s status by sending notices as updates occur.

Bell Pipe can provide that information because of its entrenched relationships with manufacturers. The company prides itself on its sourcing. “We’ll do the extra step to dig in and try to find key items as quickly as possible at the best price for our customers,” Bell says. “We’re good at it and our guys care.”

Bell Pipe backs up that sourcing with its own extensive inventory of around 1.5 million products and 100,000 SKUs. The company has 25,000 square feet of warehouse space between two facilities and five trucks that make deliveries. In addition to its own fleet, Bell Pipe utilizes carriers such as UPS to handle smaller items.

The ever-increasing speed of business requires that Bell Pipe stay on top of new technologies that can help its customers. The company is working on ecommerce and electronic data interchange (EDI) capabilities that will allow clients to remotely purchase items. The e-commerce system will launch in mid-October after nearly two years of work. “We’re going to have a very robust, easy to use integrated e-commerce system,” Bell says.

The e-commerce system is the result of CFO Russ Congelliere’s efforts to keep the company at the forefront of technology trends. Last year, Bell Pipe installed a new ERP system that improved historical data reporting, allowed for easier input and integrated with the company’s e-commerce system. Bell says e-commerce is going to be critical to the company’s growth over the next five years as the next generation of procurement people who are familiar with online ordering come into place at customers’ companies.

Continued investments in technology allow Bell Pipe to continue delivering for its customers and providing jobs to employees. “We appreciate everybody out there that has helped us through the years,” Bell says.

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