From mechanic to MD

To understand how Adrian came to establish Bells Buses, you only need to ask him about the journey that has led him to become the founder and MD of Bells Buses. He has lots of stories to tell, but whichever one you hear first you will quickly realise how genuine his passion is for fixing and improving things, especially when it comes to vehicles, and how important good old-fashioned values are to creating a better journey for his customers and family at Bells Buses.

For Adrian, operating in a market of both large and small competitors, customer service is paramount.

I like to think of Bells Buses as a delicatessen rather than a supermarket! Even though you might do most of your shopping at the supermarket, you still have to go the deli for quality products. When you want a minibus, Bells Buses is the place to come.

It’s great that my family name begins with a ‘B’! I like the sound and symmetry of the Bells Buses’ name – it’s got a ring to it and it’s memorable!

Adrian’s desire for running his own business started from an early age, using his naturally inquisitive and enquiring mind to constantly read, learn and either fix or find solutions to problems and not automatically accepting the status quo.  This has very much been the ethos Adrian has adopted throughout his life and ultimately the reason for him running the company today.

When did you become interested in the motor industry?

I’ve been interested in cars and buses, and anything with an engine for as long as I can remember. When I was very small, I wanted to be a fireman because fire engines were red and it sounded exciting, but I ended up becoming a mechanic after developing a real interest in fixing and making things in my early years.

Growing up as a child at home, I used to occupy myself by taking equipment apart and trying to make things I did not have and could not afford.  I dismantled lots of things with the hope of putting them back together so I could see how they worked. But I also tried to repair them. I remember an uncle giving me an old speedometer from his car. It was beautiful and very intricate, full of cogs and springs, like a watch. I took it apart in my Dad’s garage with his toolkit. There were literally hundreds of pieces.  When my uncle realised he needed his speedometer back, it was too late, it was a goner!

What I really wanted when I was young was a new bicycle but I couldn’t afford one, so I used to fish old bikes out of the river and rebuild them. There were plenty dumped in River Wandle near where I lived.  My friends and I built scramble bikes from the various pieces we found and would go trail riding, building jumps. This was before mountain bikes had been invented. Most were bikes based on postman bike frames which were strong and regularly found in the river.

By the time I was 10, I was working on a milk round. I then added a paper round and at 12, I also cleaned in a butcher’s shop after school.

All of this gave me some income to buy, build and sell bikes, eventually progressing to motorbikes.

I carried on tinkering with motorbikes and fortunately my school in Morden offered a day release course at Carshalton college, where I studied Motor Mechanics, obtaining a City and Guilds Distinction.  When I was 16, it was a great triumph to be able to buy a motorbike and ride to school on it – I was one of only two or three kids at school with a motorbike at 16.

When I left school, I started an apprenticeship to become a fully qualified mechanic. I loved the course and at the same time I started performance tuning motorcycles and worked weekends and holidays in a neighbour’s Garage in Richmond Upon Thames.

I served my apprenticeship with London Transport on the buses, although I really wanted to work on cars. In the early eighties the job situation was poor, there was a recession, 1 in 10 were unemployed but I was lucky enough to have a few ’O’ Levels and also had a lot of mechanical knowledge for my age. This got me through three rounds of interviews and some practical tests.  There were 8 positions in London and 400 applicants and I was offered a job.

What gave you the idea to start your own business?

I always wanted my own business and knew I would work for myself. I watched Margaret Thatcher on the TV saying “… you can do it!” and remembered the Nat West adverts offering easy banking for Starts Ups. Margaret Thatcher said we could so I did. 

The scramble bikes were for fun, not an entrepreneurial exercise at all. But when I was about 10, I bought a bike from an older boy at my school. He was a bully and everyone was scared of him. He sold me his frame for £5. I rubbed it down, stripped it back and resprayed it – it looked fantastic. Then he came around and told me he wanted it back. I was scared of him so I thought okay, I’ll just get my money back even though I had spent weeks working on it. But when he saw it, he was blown away by how good the bike was and he gave me an extra £10, which at the time was a lot of money. I was over the moon! And I think that just sowed a seed.

After my apprenticeship, I worked for Lancia in Wimbledon and then went to Jack Barclay Rolls Royce & Bentley, Berkeley Square in London, where I trained at the Rolls Royce factory in Crewe. Whilst there I worked hard, studied further and saved enough money to make the leap and rent a workshop and work for myself.

We originally started out as a service and repair workshop in Wimbledon Chase, which has now been redeveloped into houses. My wife, Amanda was expecting our first child and would do the accounts and assist with the office.  After a couple of years we diversified into vehicle rental and took on a Thrifty car rental franchise. In order to grow the business, we would bundle the children into the back of the car at night and drive all over the county, dropping off replacement cars for RAC.  We started with one location and eventually grew to 100 staff and 1200 vehicles, becoming their biggest franchisee. But we had to scale back because the Thrifty brand was sold and the new owners did not want franchisees, then the credit crunch impacted trade and that’s when I realised I didn’t want to run a  big business with a large amount of finance, So, with the management team in agreement, I decided  to go in a new direction using everything we had learnt.

How did the idea for Bells Buses come about?

I always thought minibus rentals was an interesting niche market but was very poorly serviced by all the rental companies, which included us when we ran the Thrifty Franchise. I couldn’t find a good specialist in this part of London and I knew there was room for one, so I decided to create Bells Buses.

Bells Buses totally beats the competition on every level.

There are some minibus companies that do some of the things we do, but as far as I know, there’s nobody else doing all of it – self drive rental, transport, sales and leasing – nor doing it to the high standard upon which we’ve built our reputation. Of course, there are some good operators around the country who run transport routes with drivers and provide a great service but there are also some poor quality operators. I know at Bells Buses we work very hard to be good – there’s really no-one else who can compare with us in terms of the breadth and flexibility of our offering and quality of our service. We manage our own fleet and our vehicles are maintained to a very high standard by the manufacturer with our national fleet arrangements. They are also used across the business, which gives us a larger fleet and a commercial advantage. Everyone else operates only in one sector or another, so we really are the only minibus specialists.

What values are important to Bells Buses?

People think of us as a family business particularly due to the name and several Bells family members working in the business. But I like to think of all staff in the business as family too. I think your family are the people around you and the people you are close too, not necessarily just confined to relatives per se.  There are six staff who have been with the company for over 20 years.

We definitely operate on good family values, by that I mean being honourable, honest and fair to customers and staff. We genuinely provide the service that we ourselves would like to receive, and I always say to the staff “think like a customer”. Looking after our customers really is important to us and we strive to provide the best products and the best service that we can. This is very important to me; I am genuinely not aware of anyone out there doing what we do as well as we do it.

What lessons have you learnt from running your own business?

Building up the business has certainly taught me some valuable lessons. There are three things that immediately come to mind. Early on, an accountant who I really respect told me to always remember that cash is king, and that is so true. It’s a simple thing, but it’s often the borrowing that will cause problems in a business.

When things are going well build up your funds, be careful not to overtrade and plan for the possibility of worse times ahead.

Another thing I have realised is that business is not for everyone.  Ultimately, success is a personal thing and means different things to different people. If you are happy and contented with something to look forward to, surely you are successful?

But for me, the biggest thing I’ve learned is that to be really good at anything, and I would say this for most things, whether it’s sport or something else you love, not just business, you just need to do a lot of it, keep going and enjoy it. If you’re not prepared to put the hours in, that’s okay, but don’t expect the best results unless you work hard and keep going.  Doing something you enjoy and get excited about is a big help. This is a conclusion I have come to rather than something I think about when starting something new. The huge amount of knowledge and experience of our staff learnt through hundreds of thousands of hours working in the minibus and transport sector is what makes us so strong and successful at what we do.

Outside interests help me switch off.

I love many different things and there is always something I’m enjoying outside of work – at the moment it’s mountain biking because one of my sons is into it. As I have touched on previously, I do believe in learning and training hard to do things well. At various points in my life, I’ve done kitesurfing, road biking, sailing, roller hockey and I still love fishing too. I know fishing is considered a rather boring pastime by some, but I absolutely love it and this comes from having fished in small, local rivers when I was at school – the River Wandle, River Thames and Mitcham Common are where I started out. It takes you out into beautiful countryside and is deeply interesting and satisfying.  I have waded into the river at night and fished for hours, with just the light from the moon to guide me and at first light have watched the dew rise from the water and the stunning kingfishers dive into the river for their first morning’s catch.

I’m also still keen on mechanics.  At the moment I am restoring an old VW Campervan from the eighties and use the full tool kit, I’ve had since I was at Rolls Royce – never selling that!

Skiing has also been a fantastic hobby for me over the last few years. In fact, the last two winters I have skied in some unusual places.  As a way of marking my 50th birthday, I skied the coastal mountains to the sea in Iceland which was stunning.

We have some exciting plans for the business over the next two years, as we look for new ways of doing things better and the interest and motivation is as strong as ever.

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