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Meet our Members – Craig Bell

Meet our Members – Craig Bell Posted on 23 December 2021

Blair Castle, Perthshire

We find out what it’s like to be a member of the Scottish Decorators’ Federation. This time it’s Craig Bell, Chief Executive of Bell Group, the biggest commercial painting contractor in the UK

What’s your background?

I watched my parents grow our family business since 1984 and spent many summers lending an extra hand with ‘apprentice’ work alongside my dad. I joined the business Bell Group (as it had become) directly from secondary school in 1998. 

I spent two years learning the trade, the industry and the intricacies of our business, then I became a junior surveyor in our Head Office in Airdrie where I was given all the jobs no one else wanted to do! Driving three and a half hours to Argyll to measure up a school for a quotation and such like! I didn’t mind. It got me out and about, meeting people and learning about the business.

I continued my surveying career at our Head Office until 2004 when I transferred to our north west England branch to assist in the turnaround of the branch. This was a huge learning curve for me. I walked in thinking I knew everything, and very quickly realised I knew nothing! 

The branch was an acquisition of a small, local family business, however the previous owner had upset customers and demotivated his workforce. It became clear that I had to turn the branch around, so I set about looking for new opportunities, reinvigorating the staff and even went as far as reorganising the office furniture so that the new layout created a more welcoming, team spirit. 

After three years in the north west, I was appointed Regional Director for the south east of England and joined out Main Board of Directors. My new role meant developing the business in parts of the country where we had no presence. We acquired businesses and, in some cases, saw opportunities to open branches from scratch.

In 2016, my dad retired as Chief Executive, and I took over the role.

What’s your speciality?

I learned from the best. My dad is a true entrepreneur and seeing how he dealt with clients taught me a lot about sales and negotiation. My mum too, is very smart – she has an MBA – but also a social conscience, so that has helped to shape the company into what it is today. I continue to champion social causes, such as hiring apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds, employing ex-offenders and working with housing associations.

When did you join the Scottish Decorators’ Federation?

It was pretty early on – I think when my dad initially started Collins & Bell in 1984.

What’s the best thing about the Federation?

Well, my dad was always very supportive of the SDF and I continue to respect its dogged determination in driving the industry forward. The organisation always makes sure that members’ voices are heard at the highest level both in government and in the construction industry in general.  

How has the Federation changed?

The Federation’s mission has remained the same but it has changed its ways to meet the changing demands of an ageing workforce and ever-evolving political landscape. Now more than ever, it is aware of the recruitment challenges we face when trying to bring young people into our industry.

What has been the biggest challenge in your career?

My day job is overcoming challenges. But what I would say is that one of the greatest challenges I had to overcome (especially in the early part of my career), was just being my dad’s son. People think it’s easy to walk into the family business, but it’s really tough to be taken seriously, to live up to both your parents’ expectations and those of your fellow workers. 

What’s been the favourite job in your career?

Two stand out for me. The first was early on in my career, in 2000, and it was painting the exterior of Blair Castle in Perthshire. The client was Jamie Troughton, who is an architect, and was extremely patient and knowledgeable. I came away from that job having learned so much. The paint we used (Keim Granital) was supposed to have a
10-year lifespan, but it still looked great in 2012 when the job was re-tendered, and we painted it again in 2013. 

The other job that is memorable to me was the refurbishment of the Midlands Hotel in Manchester. This is when I was at the Chorley branch, and it was a year-long project which involved deconstructing turrets to discover where water was coming in, then repair and rebuild them using reclaimed boiled terracotta bricks to match the originals. It was fascinating to be involved in a project like that and I felt a great sense of pride and achievement when it was completed in 2005.

What would be your dream job?

Ah, to paint a landmark like the Eiffel Tower would be amazing.

What are your long-term goals for the business?

I would love to expand internationally. We have recently acquired a business in Northern Ireland, and the logical step would be to break into Europe through setting up a business in southern Ireland. Spain, France and Italy all appeal, and my older sister (who is Quality and Compliance Director at Bell Group), speaks fluent French, Italian and Spanish. Her husband, who is Italian, also works in the business, so we already have European connections. 

I always say that although we have diversified the business into other trades, painting and decorating still accounts for 50 per cent of our turnover. It must always be at the foundation of what we do, and so any future business development must always have painting and decorating at its heart. 

What about your personal life?

I am married to Siobhan, who is Scottish, and we live in north London with our daughter Ora (9) and son Milo (8). Siobhan and I have worked alongside each other for 18 years so she is also very much part of the business, heading up our Bid Team. Ora has her heart set on being the company’s Health & Safety Officer, while Milo hasn’t committed himself yet… he still has aspirations of being a footballer, or an astronaut!

Christmas Day is very interesting as so many of the family work in the business – it’s difficult to get away from work chat!

When we get a chance, we do love to go on holiday, and we have recently returned from Mauritius, but I am so busy, so it’s often hard to take time off. I would love to be able to spend an afternoon playing golf, but there’s always an email to write or a call to answer.   

Main picture: Blair Castle in Perthshire was a memorable job for Craig.