Carole Bellon’s straightforward and tough-minded approach to business results in a win-win situation.
By Sigrid Tornquist
When I was younger I wanted to grow up to be a doctor or a pilot—or a race car driver. I’ve always liked competition,” says Carole Bellon, owner and president of Bellon Industries, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. “Then I went to work with my father at his company. That is where I learned about running a business.” From that time on, Bellon focused her penchant for competition on the specialty fabrics industry.
As a child, Bellon would spend time at Bellon Industries—which produces awnings, winter shelters and industrial products—counting nuts, bolts and grommets at inventory time. As a teen, she worked part time as a secretary. When she was 18, she began working full time at the company, and in a few years worked her way from secretary to assistant accountant to accountant to salesperson to manager—and at times, purchaser, sewer and shipper.
Working in the family business, Bellon recognized the importance of maintaining a clear boundary between family and work. “At one point one of my sisters came on to work as a secretary. I love my sister, but she wasn’t very good at the job,” Bellon says. “I was working as an accountant and when I told my father that I had to correct everything my sister did, he responded by saying he couldn’t fire a daughter. So I left and went to work for Rolls Royce Canada in their accounts receivable and payable.”
Eventually, the sister left the company and Bellon returned—with one condition. “When my father asked me to return, I said yes, but with new rules,” she says. “I told him he had to trust me and stop thinking of me as his little girl.” He agreed. Her father concentrated on the awning side of the business and Bellon managed the manufacture of winter shelters, industrial products and trailer awnings.
Bellon and her father jointly purchased a nearby canvas shop, which she also managed. Both companies experienced growth and it wasn’t long before she was prepared to buy Bellon Industries from her father, but he wasn’t ready to retire. At the point when he was ready, Bellon had young children and decided the timing wasn’t right. “I referred him to someone who was interested [in purchasing the company] and found work at a ceramics manufacturer,” she says. When the financing fell through on the deal, Bellon Industries’ accountants called and asked her to reconsider. Initially she refused, because she didn’t have the time to work the hours necessary to run the company, but when her accountants pitched the possibility of a partnership to her, she agreed. In 1995, the accountants came on as silent partners, purchasing one quarter of the business. They found two other partners to purchase a quarter each—an owner of a brass works company and a salesman for a sign company. Bellon purchased the other quarter.
The partnership provided more than shared financing and responsibility for managing the company—it expanded their holdings and client base. As a part of the transaction, Gallery Brasswork, which had been solely held by one of the partners, was acquired by Bellon Industries. Acquiring the smaller company increased Bellon Industries’ capabilities in the metalworking portion of the business. The partner who had previously worked leasing land for billboards and marketing the advertising space came on board with client contacts that would increase the company’s clientele.
Though the partnership was held in four equal parts, three of which participated in the active management of the company, it was Bellon who had the last word on decisions. “There’s always one person who’s stronger headed than others [in a partnership],” she says. “And maybe it ended up being me because I knew the industry better than the others. They concentrated on their responsibilities but I made sure I knew all portions of the business, including how to fold awnings and industrial curtains and how to polish the metal properly.”
The company experienced growth under the partnership but in 1997, Bellon bought out the two active partners, leaving the silent partners still holding 25 percent. Bellon, at 75 percent ownership, was in sole charge of the company leadership. She assessed the needs and potential of the company, and in 1997, decided to purchase Prestige Awnings—her biggest competitor. All of the Prestige employees became employees of Bellon Industries, and the former owner became vice president of operations. In 2004, the company further diversified and expanded its client base by purchasing a cleaning service company, which offered cleaning for boat tops, awnings and tents for manufacturers and rental companies, making some of her competitors, her customers. She bought out the silent partners in 2007 and is now sole owner of the company.
It’s who you know
A large part of Bellon’s strategy for success rests on her ability and determination to network with other business owners in her region. Now president of the east-end chapter of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, Bellon became decidedly active in the Montreal Chamber in 2005—because of a competition. “There was a contest for medium-sized manufacturers, which we were,” she says. “I thought it would be fun for the employees to enter the competition because it would distinguish us from other companies. We won—and it built a sense of pride in the employees.”
The next two years Bellon judged the competition, which proved to be a stepping stone toward her presidency in the Montreal Chamber, as well as an effective networking tool. “Through the Chamber of Commerce I meet government people and municipal people—all kinds of potential customers and suppliers,” she says. “It is a bit time consuming but it has brought good business.” As a part of the company’s marketing plan, Bellon insists that all of her sales staff be part of a chamber of commerce, depending upon their sales territory.
“I thrive on human contact. Developing contacts with contractors, designers and architects is part of the fun,” she says. ”Because our company has been around for a while and I’m straight with people, they trust us. So if the contact goes well, it goes well. If not, not.” For Bellon—that’s a winning approach.