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Digger Man Blog

by Nick Drew  |  Wed 07 Oct 2020

Bell Rings the Changes with X Series

A look back at one of my articles previously published in Earthmovers Magazine, bringing it to life on the internet with alternative photos and video footage.

Based in the Gloucestershire town of Cinderford on the edge of the Forest of Dean, family business KW Bell Groupís story started some 51 years ago when the current Managing Director Peter Bellís father Keith Bell set up the firm with nothing more than a shovel, trowel and a few hand tools as a solo bricklayer.

Bell Rings the Changes with X Series

With a solid knowledge of housebuilding and scaffolding behind him the business later expanded into groundworks. The company further expanded into housebuilding on their own developments and also engaging in the groundworks for a number of major blue-chip housebuilders, something they have been doing now for the past 45 years.

Bell Contracting is the largest of the three businesses which make up the group it has a £50m turnover and employs in the region of 500 people, 300 of those are directly employed with the remaining 200 being self-employed subcontractors.

The additional arms of the business are Bell Homes which has annual sales of between £20 to £25m per annum, while the plant division Bell Plant is a £3m annual turnover business supplying plant into the Bell Contracting arm keeping things very much in house, while running as separate entities. KW Bell hit the headlines in 2019 by being listed on the Sunday Times Profit Track 100 league table, which ranks Britain’s top performing private companies with the fastest-growing profits.

Bell Plant runs around 250 items of equipment with an estimated value in the region of £4m, to £5m, consisting of 90 x excavators of varying sizes, 70 x dumpers, 22 of which are now cabbed, 25 x rollers, 7 x telehandlers and numerous smaller pieces of equipment. The company also run 2 x road sweepers, and 2 x new vacuum excavators, something the team are very excited about, allowing for safer excavation around services and in doing so, avoiding the potential for any costly cable strikes.

Bell have been a long-term supporter of British built equipment, in fact one of their first excavators was from the Hull based manufacturer Priestman Bros. These days they a regular customer of JCB products which they have been buying for approximately for the past 30 + years.

Talking about JCB Peter said, “It’s a great British company and a great brand, for us its been a fantastic brand for us, its had its problems over the years, but the great thing about JCB is that right from the top Sir Anthony Bamford has always backed the brand, so any issues that have been well documented, they have been backed up by a very good support network from the dealers, so what we find is the dealership will always get great factory support for any major issues which is underwritten by Sir Anthony. So that for me is very reassuring”.

Peter continued, “From a marketing perspective they are the best brand, and we think that with the new X Series excavators they are now following it up with some very good stuff, they really look the business, and the feedback we have received from the operators on sites has been tremendous, so its credit where credit is due, they have ploughed a lot of investment into developing these machines and we  think they have got it spot on now”.

“I also think that over the years the role of an excavator has changed a lot, on housing sites these days we do a lot more tracking about, often using them like a mini forklift, carrying packs of blocks, bricks, pipes and everything else in between, this inevitably takes its toll on the undercarriage, especially tracking around on hard tarmac roads, the wear can be incredible.

Of course, years ago that role would be undertaken by the trusty and venerable old 3CX backhoe loader, but unfortunately nobody seems to want to drive them anymore as they see it as hard work, so yes, the housing game can be hard on the tracked machines, as they were not designed to do so much continuous tracking, but it’s the nature of the game these days”.

Bell initially ordered a batch of 12 new 14-tonne 140XLC models from their local dealer Holt JCB, which was closely followed by an order for 10 more, plus an additional 2 x 22-tonne 220XLC models with around 3 more 22-tonne class machines expected to be changed later this year.

We caught up with some of the firm’s large batch of new JCB X Series machines on sites in the Newport area in South Wales.

One of the 140XLC’s was being operated by Kenneth Hatcher whose regular mount on the firm is a Doosan, he was certainly impressed with the new range saying, “I have to say it’s a very nice machine, JCB have definitely upped their game with this range, very comfortable cab in which I especially like the air cooled seat, it digs well, and its very good on fuel and Ad Blue. I also notice that its very easy to grease up and there are vast improvements in the quick coupler set up”.

Kenneth continued, “I’ve been on machines now for well over 30 years and I can see quality, and these seem to have it. The only thing I don’t like is that the feel on the levers seems heavy to me, but I think that comes from me operating the Korean stuff for many years, they do seem to have light handed controls”.

On another example we spoke to another experienced operator Neil Mclaughlin who received his machine 2 weeks before Christmas last year, giving his thoughts on the machine Neil said, “I do like it, it’s a very nice machine with great visibility, there has been big improvements on the old JS models which I liked anyway, but these are a lot more driver friendly, however, I have two issues with mine, the camera screen is too dark, and the seat adjustment lever protrudes too far out and digs into my calf during the day, if we can get that sorted, it would be brilliant!”.

Whilst the fleet is dominated by JCB machines they do run other brands in what could be seen as a bit of a mixed fleet. These include 7 x models from Hyundai supplied by Molson, 30 x Doosan’s which are their chosen machines in the 6 and 8-tonne midi excavator sector which are supplied by Kellands Plant Sales, a Kobelco 8 tonner and a few Kubota mini’s. It is company policy to aim the change the machines every 3 years as part of their constant fleet renewal programme, to ensure that the sites are always equipped with the latest and most technologically advanced machines.  

The company employ two full time plant fitters, soon to be three, mainly based at the yard in Cinderford, with one of those performing the role of plant manager, with such a large fleet of machines and running beavertail lorries to move them from job to job, much of the plant managers time is spent administering those machine movements. Regular servicing of the machine fleet is usually conducted by the dealers responsible for the different brands on a service contract basis.

The company is also investing in the latest GPS systems from Leica valued at £1m talking about the benefits that it brings to the business Peter said, “What I like about it is the fact that it enables us to do an awful lot more production with less labour and a lot more efficiently, for instance you can cut and fill a site, with very little labour, you can prep a foundation ready for digging, more professionally and with no days lost waiting for engineers to set out.

And not forgetting the old days when a peg would get knocked out causing more delays, now we have young lads who have made the grade to ganger man walking around with the rover, effectively doing the job of a site engineer, it’s amazing!”.

Peter continued, “Also from a safety perspective it means less people on the ground at any one time. Talking of safety, we have also started investing in the fully cabbed dumpers, from JCB, Mecalac and Wacker Neuson, which enables us to move muck more efficiently around site and in a safe manner. We are now tending to have named drivers on site, usually around 4 individuals, which we see as a move away from the age-old scenario of having every man and his dog able to jump on a dumper, and over-populating sites with dumpers that are not being fully utilised, so now we have a more dedicated approach to dumper usage”.

“Another aspect is our investment in the vacuum excavators, with these on our fleet we don’t need to have a conventional mini digger anywhere near a service hole, this like all our continued investments are all geared to further improve our overall efficiency”.

Some of the excavators have been fitted with tiltrotators from Steelwrist, another tool in the arsenal which Peter see’s as another great addition for cutting down manual labour, he suggests that they will be adding more in the future for sure.

The company have also invested in a professional quality drone at a cost of some £50,000 and they have trained two pilots to fly it, they can conduct cut and fill measurements and perform surveys of major job sites. Peter see’s this as the future with the young blood coming into the industry who are already up to speed with this kind of technology being key to its success.

This modern technology is all well and good, but as Peter says, we still and always will need skilled people to lay the kerbs properly, lay & finish concrete, tarmac and to lay deep drainage like we always have had too, that will probably never change although modern techniques like smart manholes that require no “benching” to make those old labour intensive jobs easier are constantly evolving which can only be a good thing.

Site safety and bringing more young blood into the firm are key elements of focus for Peter’s daughter Nicola Bird in her role at KW Bell Contracting as Safety and Business Development Director. She has been instrumental in setting up a bespoke groundwork’s apprenticeship scheme in conjunction with a sub-contracted training provider. The trainees attend one of two training hubs set up by the firm, one just stone’s throw away from their offices in Cinderford with the other being located in Cardiff.

From what I saw during my visit, this is a very well respected family business which goes the extra mile to provide a top quality service to its clients and does equally well in looking after its workforce, many of whom have been with them for a very long time and that is a great testament to any firm.

 

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