Titans of industry: Adande’s Nigel Bell

Nigel Bell tells Jim Banks how he is using his vast experience to help fast-growing UK company Adande to revolutionise the refrigeration market

When you ask Nigel Bell who he most admires, the answer gives you a clear view of the steely focus and the love of innovation that have driven him throughout his career. First on the list is Sir Alex Ferguson, for his ability to adapt to change and keep winning. Next is Nelson Mandela, for his total commitment and focus on what he believed in, no matter what was thrown at him. Finally, he chooses Sir Richard Branson, for fostering breakthrough innovation based around the customer experience.

Brought up in a family of engineers – and a qualified chemical engineer himself – Bell has a passion for invention and exploring new ideas, but always with a practical application. The executive chairman and CEO of innovative refrigeration company Adande has always sought to bring a rounded view of business to bear on a clear goal, and always with a tangible end product.

“As a leader you need clear vision and the ability to communicate a strategic direction, as well as determination and a bit of humour,” he says. “I believe a broad experience of doing business in a lot of countries is as important as working in different businesses, and experience of different roles – engineer, production management, sales – also helps. But you always need clarity and planning. It is critical for a small company to have a plan, even if you deviate from it at times. You have to know what you need to achieve in a day and be brutally honest about the things you cannot achieve.”

Bell began as an engineer in plastics manufacturing for Shell before playing a key part in the company’s strategy of investing in new ventures. His later roles in business management and planning included chemicals manager for Shell Philippines and then a similar role in the US, before becoming global vice president at Shell Additives. After a stint as marketing vice president of Infineum, a joint venture in the additives business between Shell and Exxon, he worked as a consultant in private equity and became chairman of Prosonix, a small venture-backed chemical processing technology licensing business, before joining Adande in 2008.

Adande (Applied Design and Engineering) was originally founded by consulting design engineers Ian Wood and George Young as an HVAC engineering consultancy specialising in industrial ventilation, refrigeration and air conditioning for the offshore oil, gas and petrochemical industries. The founders had their ‘eureka’ moment when chefs working on North Sea oil and gas rigs asked them for fridges and freezers that would hold temperature when in constant use. To address the problem of cold air falling out each time the door was opened, which led to food spoiling, they came up with the Adande Refrigerated Drawer system that is now used by McDonald’s and KFC in the UK, other famous chains such as Jamie’s Italian, and many Michelin- starred restaurants.

“I did not plot my career path from the beginning,” Bell explains. “My father and my grandfather were quarry engineers, so engineering seemed like a good thing to do. As a child I did not really have any ambitions beyond that. After I graduated in chemical engineering I had a lot of offers but I chose to work for Shell in plastics manufacturing. The Shell system drives talent forward, so I had the chance to work overseas, and when I returned to the UK I went into new ventures – buying technology and new businesses – because Shell was making money and had a strategy of being involved in many new things.

“At Shell, I was never in the oil business. I was always on the chemicals side. The company funded a course at Harvard, then sent me to run a chemicals business in the Philippines, and then I went to work in Houston. Shell always plans growth and recognises talent, so I was given the chance to take on a global role in the company. I moved countries and changed job regularly, so my global experience is one of my strengths. Later when I worked with private equity and smaller companies it was always about technology and innovation, so with Adande I have continued in that vein.”

A global growth perspective

Based mainly in Lowestoft, Suffolk, Adande is growing fast but remains a small company. It is a long way from the global giant Shell where Bell gained so much of his experience, but the sheer simplicity of the idea behind its refrigeration drawers and the desire to continue driving innovation were big attractions. The technology itself has many advantages over conventional refrigeration solutions – it is able to maintain stable temperatures, it can be installed under counters to make the best use of space and it is highly energy efficient – and its left-field approach has helped shake up the sector.

“Before moving to Adande I checked the intellectual property (IP), an area in which I have gained skills over the years, and I loved the technology. It is such a simple idea I could not believe that people had not used it in refrigeration before. With innovation, people often talk of starting with a blank piece of paper, but your chances of coming up with a brilliant idea that way are very small. The people behind Adande had experience of heating and cooling structures, usually in the offshore environment, and they were not limited by what the foodservice industry said could not be done because they had never built a refrigerator before.

“The depth of technical thinking from Ian Wood is much greater than our competitors in this industry. The Adande drawer is fundamental innovation, not the incremental change that other manufacturers make. We had a blank sheet of paper for this innovation but it was informed technically by Ian and George’s experience from other applications.”

Bell was drawn to the leap in thinking and the simplicity of the technology that resulted from basic scientific principles. His engineering background gave him a deep appreciation of the technological aspects of the business, and his experience in management would become key to driving the expansion of the company after he joined in 2008.

“In the pharma sector, for instance, the large companies are so big and so structured that innovation has been lost. People are always asking how much money a new idea will make in the short term. So people leave to form their own companies to innovate and are then brought back. Adande is still a small company and it can be innovative. We are about to introduce new products to commercialise our Aircell technology, and our chief innovator Ian Wood is now putting most of his time into that, while engineering managers oversee the incremental development of the drawers.”

Putting ideas to the test

Aircell is a unique and patented airflow management system, developed for open front refrigerated multi-deck display cabinets. Cabinets incorporating the technology are currently undergoing in-store trials at a new Tesco eco-supermarket in Lincoln, UK. Bell is now helping to drive domestic and international growth on both sides of the business – the drawers for foodservice and Aircell for display refrigeration – and his global experience is vital.

“My role as global VP of Additives at Shell was very important because I had global responsibility,” says Bell. “I had contact with operations in China and Asia, for instance, as the centre of gravity in the business world started to move east. That shift to the east is still relevant now. Some big foodservice companies like McDonald’s may have started in the US but the have many interests in markets, such as China, where it is easier to grow profits than in more mature economies. The number of people in high-growth markets and the development of wealth mean that growth is coming from the east.”

Adande is already active around the world. It sells into most European and Middle Eastern markets, Africa, India, ASEAN countries, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand, Hong Kong, Brazil and North America. Growth in the UK market is also strong.

“I have learnt how to adapt quickly to new products, in new markets and in different cultures. I have skills in managing IP and licensing, budgeting, strategic analysis, marketing and prioritisation, all of which are important, and I have experience of different cultures. At Adande, the IP creates the opportunity for growth. The drawer product is exceptional, and once you understand it you can’t imagine why everyone does not use it.

“International sales have developed quickly over the past few years. International sales were 40% of the total in 2016 to date. This has been achieved by finding good local partners in several key countries and by expanding our international sales team. It is all about the extraordinary team. Achievements are definitely based on ‘we’ not ‘I’ in this company.

We have achieved continued growth since 2008 extending into the international market and have gathered support from both private investors and state grants that have allowed us to grow and continue to innovate.”

Hooked on innovation

New ways of thinking can present challenges as well as opportunities, of course, but they are challenges that Bell relishes. “We are introducing a technology to an industry that changes slowly. If you look at induction cooking, for instance, some of the people rolling it out now are very positive about it but they may have been first introduced to it 20 years ago. People tend to stick to what they know in the kitchen. There is also a lot of inertia in the retail sector – which is a large market for Aircell technology in the future – because no one wants to be a trailblazer when it comes to investment decisions.

“Also, this is a capital goods industry. You don’t sell regularly to the same customer as you would as a fish or meat supplier. You sell, and that specific need is filled for anything up to 10 years. So continual development of a sales pipeline is critical. This was a new experience for me, as my previous businesses sold products used by other manufacturers to make final products on a daily basis. We do a lot of testing to compare how well food is preserved in Adande drawers compared to conventional refrigeration, and take-up from customer trials can be up to 90%.”

Once people appreciate what Adande products can do, they often become outspoken in their praise for the technology. Many distributors, consultants, QSR equipment people and chefs are now Adande evangelists for the product. This is the perfect platform on which to build the brand, but Bell knows that the company cannot rest on its laurels.

“There are companies trying to copy our drawer products but not using the patented aspects. As a result, they don’t perform as well, and customers see that. We see this ‘copying’ as a clear demonstration of growth in the undercounter drawer market, so as the leader in that market sector we value that. A mandatory energy labelling scheme was introduced into Europe on 1 July 2016. Adande brought out a new unit that bears an A+ label and we have not seen another manufacturer with energy labels above A in professional refrigeration.

“The innovative element of our technology is key. For a small company we have very strong brand recognition because we remain focused on what we do. We have looked at being a service company, moving into other product areas and selling other fridges, but we have chosen to ‘stick to our knitting’, as they say. You have to be clear about what you are doing as a company.”

As Bell looks back on his career he can be proud that he has helped to bring new ideas out of the conceptual realm into people’s hands. Although the birth of his first grandchild is a powerful draw to the domestic life he shares with his wife of 40 years, he’s not ready to hang up his boots yet.

“I’m in a fantastic industry with good potential for growth. Being able to work with innovation businesses in recent years is an unexpected pleasure. There is no typical day. That’s one of the things I like. At Shell, I rarely sat at the same desk, so I’m comfortable with uncertainty.”

Jim Banks



Bell played a pivotal role in ensuring that a consistent set of brand values was not only clearly defined, but also communicated throughout the company. “Our core values are organic,” he says. “In 2012, we looked at our brand image and compared our internal perceptions of the company with how we are seen by customers and consultants. From that we generated our brand values, which are now on the walls everywhere within the company. We work to ensure that we live up to every element of them. They grew from within the company but they are used very explicitly. You have to be clear about what kind of company you are.”

• Innovative: creating unique solutions that offer efficiency and sustainability
• Flexible: providing flexible refrigeration solutions for storing food
• Reliable: trustworthy, providing answers, putting customers first, addressing issues against high standards
• Global: via Adande Global Alliance Partnerships and trade partners
• Respecting the individual: health and safety, communication, growth, recognition

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