The future is bright - an interview with James Bell

3 mins read

Having started his electronics career in his native South Africa, James Bell spent 15 years with Premier Farnell in senior management positions, managing the business in the Netherlands, Southern Europe and the UK, before joining Rapid Electronics in 2010 as its head of sales. At the time, he described his appointment as an ‘exciting opportunity’.

“Rapid has always had a loyal customer base,” he explains, “and I was brought on board to expand its product range and grow the company’s market share significantly with more focused sales initiatives.”

That ambition was given a significant boost when, in the summer of 2013, Rapid was acquired by Conrad Electronics and Bell was promoted to managing director.

“The timing was perfect for Rapid,” Bell explains. “The company needed to internationalise its business outlook and being part of a much larger organisation enabled us to sign up a host of new brands.

“We had traditionally been focused on the educational market and on smaller businesses but, as part of Conrad, we were able to switch that focus to B2B, targeting design engineers, MROs, CEMs and craftsmen.”

Part of Conrad’s strategy in growing the business internationally is to increase its component offering significantly. Over the past year, Rapid has expanded its electronic, electrical and E-Mech product ranges.Franchised distribution agreements have been signed with the likes of EDAC, Schurter, Cherry, Phoenix Contact, Apem, WAGO and Siretta and, by June 2015, Rapid’s product inventory had jumped from 89,000 to 128,000 lines.

“Line selection isn’t easy,” concedes Bell. “The big driver – the enabler if you like – has been Conrad’s product line and what products have proved popular in the market. Our selection has been brand led and has been driven by the good relationships we have with suppliers based in the UK.

“Technology drives everything and Conrad has its own design department and has financed innovative products themselves,” he says.

Last year, Conrad announced that it was working exclusively with Berlin based start up relayr to support the development and launch of an Open Source IoT starter kit known as the ‘WunderBar’.

“Conrad supported Wunderbar heavily, but it wasn’t about sales; rather, it was about creating a ‘mindset’, a way of thinking, at looking at new innovation and how we could support the engineer,” he says.

According to Bell, the Wunderbar, much like the Raspberry Pi, has found a ready market among university students, where there has been a big take-up.

“It’s seen as a technology enabler and helped us reach the innovators of tomorrow, as well as to identify possible future trends.”

While Rapid is part of Conrad, it is still run as a separate business. “But, as part of a bigger group, we have much greater flexibility to expand into new markets and customer segments as well as test new products.

“Conrad, like Rapid was, is family owned, which means the decision making process tends to be quicker than that in a publicly quoted business and, more importantly, we are allowed to be entrepreneurial. We can manage the business as we see fit.”

As well as managing director of Rapid, Bell also had responsibility for Southern Europe. In May, that role was expanded to running Conrad International.

“My remit now is running everything outside the core market of Germany. Conrad is looking at further acquisitions and at moving into new markets in Europe. My role will be to identify those targets.

“A new office has been opened in Italy and we have just launched a Finnish website.”

A key driver of the business is looking at an aggressive product introduction programme and Conrad has invested heavily in its central warehouse, expanding its logistics centre by adding more storage and shipping capacity.

“It is true to say that both Rapid and Conrad had built a reputation on supplying the hobbyist end of the market,” Bell notes. “That is changing; today, we are working with the likes of Deutsche Bahn and Porsche in Germany.”

Conrad benefitted from being a well known brand, at least in Germany, and as the group has moved into the B2B market that brand awareness has certainly helped.

“Customers are happy to embrace its move into this space and the group is investing in field sales teams with the intention of further developing corporate accounts.”

Having been part of Conrad for nearly three years, the perception of Rapid has changed, Bell thinks.

“Ten to 15 years ago, we tended to focus on supporting very small businesses, now we are looking at corporate entities. We aren’t interested in large volumes, there are plenty of distributors out there who can do that better than us.

“The volume end of the market is full, in my opinion. It is very competitive – the Internet has blown it wide open and now some manufacturers are selling direct. There are plenty of distributors looking to address that space,” he suggests.

“We know where we want to be. For Rapid, it is all about providing a high level of service – we are investing in software that analyses customer behaviour and their buying patterns. Being small and close to our customer helps us to be more competitive but today, with the backing of Conrad, we can offer far more product. It’s proving a good mix,” he concludes.

James Bell

James Bell joined Rapid as head of sales having started his electronics career in his native South Africa. He spent 15 years in a range of management positions at Premier Farnell and played an industry leading role in Farnell’s implementation of the RoHS Directive.

Conrad Electronics’ acquisition of Rapid in 2013 saw him become managing director and he has recently been promoted to run Conrad International.