Africa an important focus for Bell Helicopter CEO

John L Garrison, Bell Helicopter's president and chief executive officer claims Africa is such an important focus for the company's attention writes Jon Lake.

In essence, Africa’s importance to Bell lies in the fact that it represents a growing market, in which the company already enjoys a firm foothold, and that is a good ‘fit’ for several of Bell’s new product lines, Garrison said.
“We subscribe to Honeywell’s growth schedules and forecasts, and in the total African region they’re forecasting a growth of about 2,000 to 3,100 helicopters over the next 20 years,” Garrison said. “Based on our own internal projections, we think that that’s a reasonable forecast. Obviously political uncertainty could impact this figure, but with some degree of stability we think that this is something that can be achieved in Africa, so we’re investing in our product, people and service so that we can participate in that growth as it occurs over the next decade.”
Garrison believes that Bell is entering an exciting new phase in its 79 year history. The company has recently emerged from a period during which parent company Textron kept a very tight hold on the purse strings when it came to investment, forcing Bell to be more conservative with new product offerings. In recent years, however, the company has been able to design and develop new helicopter designs that are genuinely innovative and revolutionary and that no-one could characterize as being derivatives of existing product lines – a criticism of many of the company’s previous offerings.
Though the military V-22 tilt-rotor is unlikely to find customers in Africa, Garrison does expect a first export customer (in the Middle East) to be announced before the end of the year, and is proud of the fact that the aircraft has been used by US forces in the northern half of Africa for some time, demonstrating the capability of the V-22 in terms of payload, speed and range. “Africa is a huge continent, and the capabilities of the V-22 to traverse such a large land mass has been clearly demonstrated,” he says “it’s causing a lot of nations to notice the revolutionary capability that the V-22 brings.”
More likely to find military customers in Africa is the Bell 407, recently upgraded with a Garmin G1000 cockpit to produce the 407GX, and also available in an armed scout configuration as the 407GT. “The US Government sold an armed variant to the Iraqis that are using it as we speak in their challenges, we’ve sold other 407s to undisclosed customers that have also armed the aircraft, which really is a cost-effective, light attack helicopter that gives a customer the opportunity to have a light attack helicopter that also keeps it in the light utility based configuration. With that degree of flexibility I think there’s going to be opportunity for us throughout Africa for Armed Forces use.”
Bell has also upgraded its Model 412, which Garrison described as having been “an absolute workhorse around the world for many many years, but again, it needed to be updated, so we’ve updated the 412 with a fully integrated digital glass cockpit to produce what we call the 412EPi.”
Bell has brought the 429 to market, and has delivered more than 200 aircraft around the globe, proving to be a very successful programme for Bell in the vital light twin market segment. Last year the company announced a wheeled variant of the 429 which promises to further increase the aircraft’s customer appeal.
There are also two major commercial development programmes, both of which will produce helicopters that are likely to find plenty of customers in Africa. The Model 505 Jet Ranger X is described in detail in a separate feature, and Garrison believes that the bigger Model 525 Relentless will also find a ready market in Africa, “working with global operators and with local operators in West African offshore oil and gas operations, thanks to the unparalleled capabilities that it has, and being the first fly by wire commercial helicopter. With its range and payload capabilities it will also have a very strong market segment in the Search and Rescue mission, and as a VIP/VVIP transport aircraft. To some extent all three segments can be served in Africa.”
Garrison believes that the development of new helicopter types and new variants of existing types has been an essential element in the company’s strategy, which he says is already working on a global basis and regionally, with Bell’s sales now “growing faster than the underlying (growth) rate of the market place.”
Bell’s strategic priority is to grow a balanced business; making investments in the company’s military, commercial and aftermarket service and support businesses.
Across all of the company’s businesses, Garrison is determined that Bell will deliver what he calls a “a differentiated product and service to our customer, because that’s how you win.” He is also a great believer in listening to the market.
“We’ve been in the market a long time (75 plus years), and we’ve been intently listening to the voice of the customer.Where we start with that is that we have a global customer advisory panel that we sit down with even before we put the first engineer to work, bringing in customers from around the world, some that are Bell customers and frankly, in many cases, non-Bell customers. And we go through a very detailed rigorous process of capturing the voice of the customer, very methodically in terms of what they’re looking for, type specifications, and then we listen, and then we come back with a very preliminary design review. It’s an iterative process and we say we heard you, and this is kind of what it looks like now. Here’s the features and benefit sets, this is the payload/range, does this meet the need? And so there’s a give and take, back and forth, with the customer advisory panel on all aspects of the aircraft.
“As well as the significant investments that we’re making in our product and our product portfolio we have been making investments in our sales and marketing team, to win back a market position in the commercial market space,” Garrison said.
Garrison said that Bell currently had less than 40% of the market share in South Africa, but has been investing in the region to support its customers and to win new business, investing in more sales personnel and product support engineers in the region. These personnel are augmented by a product support engineering team based at Mirabel (near Montreal in Canada) and by the Amsterdam Supply Centre. 

Bell is also working closely with the company’s four independent representatives in the region, each of which has invested in additional personnel and resources to provide local support. These representatives are South Africa’s NAC (National Airways Corporation) which operates a large full-service FBO, a flying school, and a designated Bell Customer Service Facility in Johannesburg, Africair in Kenya, Welprotech in Tunisia and Scramble in Egypt. Our independent representatives are doing well, so we’ll continue to provide them with support,” Garrison observed.