Obituary: G Susan Bell, Scottish entrepreneur and political activist

G Susan Bell, entrepreneur and political activist. Born: 31 August 1946 in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire. Died: 23 March 2021 in Biggar, South Lanarkshire, aged 74

G Susan Bell in younger days
G Susan Bell in younger days

Susan Bell was one half of a 1970s power couple whose entrepreneurial nous laid the foundation for today’s e-commerce giants.

With her husband Arthur, she founded Scotland Direct, one of the UK’s most influential marketing companies, delivering goods from crafts and collectibles to gourmet foods and whisky to some 200,000 regular customers – reputed to include The Queen – around the globe. And their innovations in customer relationship management and data technology were seen as the building blocks for businesses such as Amazon.

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But she was also a formidable force in her own right, credited with becoming Scotland’s first oil analyst and the first woman elected to the country’s CBI council, standing for the Westminster parliament three times and once being threatened with expulsion from the United States for her outspoken views.

Born to a Welsh mother Nancy Roberts and her husband John Bell, an RAF pilot and managing director of Bells Bakers, she was named Gertrude but known as Susan. As a teenager she worked for the family business while attending Wishaw High School but her first job after leaving school was as a milk recorder, travelling in a little Ford van around farms in Fife, central Scotland and Ayrshire to test milk.

A year later, aiming for a career in business, she decided to study for an accounting qualification at Glasgow’s Central College of Commerce and Distribution and in 1969 she won an international banking scholarship to Ivy League institution Brown University, Rhode Island.

Described as a fearless agitator, she was threatened with being thrown out of America and de-platformed by the Secret Service for agreeing to speak at a Washington rally alongside the Irish civil rights campaigner Bernadette Devlin.

Around this time she had met her future husband, Arthur Bell. Both active in politics they each served as vice chair of the Scottish Young Conservatives and were campaign supporters of Malcolm Rifkind, later to become Scottish Secretary.

She began her portfolio career with a job in investment banking, working as an oil analyst in her early 20s, and married Arthur in 1971. Two years later they co-founded Scotland Direct, initially based in New Lanark and later in Biggar, and pioneered a business model based on club memberships and special interest consumer marketing. Selling everything from thimbles to ceramic baby figurines, they recruited new members through newspaper advertising campaigns, giving customers access to niche craft products unavailable through retailers.

They also pioneered food by post, inventing safe packaging and systems that needed changes to the law for the business to operate, and developed a wide supplier network of specialist producers across the UK. The company became Scotland’s largest pre-internet era mail-order business, a leader in international marketing and winner of many industry awards, including a record 12 Gold awards from The UK Direct Marketing Association and The Royal Mail. It also landed valuable publicity when it was slapped with a court order by Guinness after putting Arthur Bell’s signature on a new malt whisky, The Scottish Gourmet. Guinness, who sold Bell’s whisky, wanted to prevent them selling the new brand but the court came down on Scotland Direct’s side, concluding that “a man has an inalienable right to trade under his own name.”

Meanwhile, in addition to growing the business, Susan Bell had also been pursuing her political ambitions, beginning at the age of 23 when, as the Conservatives’ youngest female candidate to stand, she contested the Motherwell seat, unsuccessfully as it turned out. Then the year after launching Scotland Direct she stood again, this time in the Caithness and Sutherland constituency, undeterred by the small matters of having broken her pelvis and being six months pregnant with her first child. She came third to the sitting Labour MP.

Following the death of Labour leader John Smith she was a candidate in the 1994 Monkland’s East by-election, beaten into fourth place by Labour’s Helen Liddell. She knew the seat was unwinnable for a Conservative but used the campaign as an opportunity to try to engage with the electorate and listen to people’s needs.

She had been an adviser on small and medium enterprise policy to Prime Minister John Major but became increasingly disillusioned with the Conservatives’ stance on Europe and angry over Thatcherism’s economic legacy in Scotland. And in 1997 she and Arthur resigned from the party. Unlike the organisation she had joined in her 20s, she now believed it was cynical and out of touch and latterly switched her allegiance to the Liberal Democrats.

However, as a passionate Conservative for decades, she had campaigned for progressive polices throughout her career, focusing on better housing, developing small enterprises, fighting for reform of failing nationalised industries and raising with government ministers her concerns about what she saw as the failure of Scotland’s social and economic policies. She also served on the Scotvec Education Board, the Scottish Tourist Board and Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital Trust Board.

Over the years Scotland Direct continued to innovate, embracing computerisation in the 1980s and experimenting with its first e-commerce website, selling silk ties online, in 1998. But the following year ill health forced the couple to sell the business and they retired early.

She cared for Arthur for 15 years after he was left wheelchair-bound and following his death in 2015 she displayed an enduring strength of character and resilience. In retirement she loved gardening, good food and wine and particularly enjoyed entertaining friends and family in southern France and at home in Coulter.

She also maintained a keen interest in international politics and was always an insatiable instigator of devil’s advocate arguments around the dinner table.

Susan Bell is survived by her children Gillian, Catriona, Angus and Douglas and seven grandchildren.

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