Obituary: Arthur J A Bell, entrepreneur, political campaigner and social activist

Arthur J A Bell CBE: Driven entrepreneur who helped save the New Lanark village from demolition
Arthur J A Bell CBE: Driven entrepreneur who helped save the New Lanark village from demolition
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Born: 6 October, 1946, in Brechin. Died: 27 September 2015, in Biggar, aged 68.

Entrepreneur, political campaigner, heritage conservationist, wheelchair sportsman – whatever the challenge, Arthur Bell’s dynamism never deserted him. From his student days, throughout his successful business life and to his support for political and social issues, his dedication to the cause resulted in a man who truly made a difference, most notably in the restoration of New Lanark, a derelict industrial mill site now a major tourist attraction and employer.

He made the village the initial base of Scotland Direct, the mail order firm he set up with his wife Susan, to market Scottish craft goods across the world, and over the next 40 years he led the voluntary work that ultimately saw the village awarded Unesco World Heritage Site status.

By that time he had already suffered life-changing complications following heart surgery, losing his leg and facing a future confined to a wheelchair. But the issue of disability was merely added to his list of causes and he used his new predicament to raise awareness, becoming chairman of the Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities for Lanarkshire and representing Scotland in wheelchair curling.

Born in Brechin, he was the son of Leonard Bell, a Church of Scotland minister and editor of the magazine Life and Work, and his wife Margaret, a doctor at Stracathro Hospital. Educated at Edinburgh’s Royal High School, he studied economics and politics at Edinburgh University and, as a student, co-authored, along with his friend Alan Peden, The Complete Edinburgh Pub Guide, a sell-out publication, covering the city’s many drinking establishments.

It was also during his student days that his campaigning began when, in 1968, he stood in St Giles Ward for the City Corporation, on a platform of renovation and restoration of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Focusing on the twin problems of derelict historic buildings and what is now termed “social exclusion”, he campaigned under the slogan “New Life for the Old Town”.

After graduating a couple of years later he joined an Edinburgh-based mail order company, Heather Valley, that specialised in knitwear and tweeds. Within three months he had been promoted to marketing manager and helped to reinvent the business, turning it from a massive loss-maker into profitable firm and doubling its turnover.

In 1973 he and his wife Susan, a fellow political activist and entrepreneur whom he had married two years earlier, founded their own small mail order business, Scotland Direct, which expanded to become Scotland’s largest mail order operation with trading arms including The Scottish Gourmet, The Thimble Guild, The Whisky Connoisseur, The Great British Beer Club and the Tie Post. It outgrew its New Lanark premises and in 1985 moved to Biggar, where it became the town’s largest employer and amassed more than 200,000 customers.

That same year, Bell, whose company pioneered many marketing initiatives, was sued by Guinness Plc, owner of Bell’s Whisky, for selling a new whisky prominently bearing an “Arthur J A Bell” signature on the label. He won the case when the judge at the Court of Session determined that a man has “an inalienable right to trade under his own name”, under Scots law. The attendant publicity displayed his creative use of the media to make his point.

Once described by the vice-president of Ogilvy and Mather, one of the world’s biggest advertising networks, as “one of the two or three most influential people in British direct marketing”, he is said to have virtually invented customer relationship management.

Under Bell’s guiding hand Scotland Direct won a host of industry accolades including a record 12 Gold awards from the UK Direct Marketing Association and The Royal Mail. The firm was twice awarded both Best Low Cost Marketing and Best Advertising, and won Best Copywriting three times.

It also triumphed in the first Scottish Marketing Awards in 1982, and was runner-up five times in The Best of Europe Marketing Awards. In 1996 the supreme award of the US direct marketing industry, The Gold Echo, was presented to Bell in New Orleans, for a campaign marketing rare bottles of malt whisky. Unusually, Scotland Direct never used outside advertising or direct marketing agencies, but did all its own creative and production work in-house.

He was also recognised as one of the direct marketing industry’s leading speakers, appearing as keynote speaker at conferences, awards ceremonies and seminars around the world.

In addition to his business interests he maintained a keen and active interest in politics: he stood as Conservative candidate in the two general elections of 1974, first in Kirkcaldy and then Lanark. He stood again in Lanark in 1979 and chaired the Scottish Tory Reform Group from 1989-1997. After the Tories’ 1997 general election defeat he publicly resigned and later joined the Liberal Democrats who, he felt, had similar Scottish and European policies to those he had long championed. Bell, who had been director of the Small Business Bureau, was made a CBE that year for services to public life and politics.

He and Susan were forced to sell their businesses in 1999, due to illness, and at 55 he was semi-retired. A heart operation which went badly wrong left him wheelchair-bound and partially paraplegic. He spent six months in hospital but faced his disability philosophically and with great humour while continuing to campaign for numerous causes.

His myriad other achievements include founding and chairing the charity The Food Trust of Scotland; editing Small Business News; chairing the Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities for Lanarkshire; becoming a founder board member of the Lanarkshire Development Agency and chairing the Clydesdale Development Company.

But his greatest commitment down the decades has been to New Lanark, the village he helped to save from demolition and which he served, as deputy chairman of the New Lanark Trust, from 1990 until 2003 when he was elected chairman, a post he held until 2013.

The New Lanark Trust said when it started the village restoration programme in 1974 he gave constant and steady support beyond any immediate business interests.

“He shared with the trust the understanding that New Lanark was an historic site of international significance, and he also had the vision to see the potential.” His long service, even after his heart surgery, reflected his commitment to New Lanark, attending, participating and leading, in 40 years of demanding and detailed voluntary work, said the trust.

“Committee and board meetings were invariably enlivened by his indomitable sense of humour. Arthur brought his unfailing optimism, innovative business acumen and marketing talent to the New Lanark project, and there were some remarkable successes.

“In 1983 he was a crucial influence in persuading George Younger, then Secretary of State for Scotland, to confirm the trust’s acquisition of the entire mill area against the recommendation of the civil service. Without that decision New Lanark would not be the national icon it is today, and one of the most successful visitor attractions in rural Scotland.”

Arthur Bell, who spent his summers in southern France where he fell ill in June and was diagnosed with cancer, is survived by his wife Susan, children Gillian, Catriona, Angus and Douglas and six grandchildren. His life was celebrated at a memorial event at New Lanark on 6 October – what would have been his 69th birthday.