Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Profile” February 2011.
Joe Bell – A Napa Icon, Founder of Bell Products, Inc.
By Ronda Giangreco
In the glamour and glitz that is now the image of our town, it is hard to imagine a wagon wheel barn in the middle of downtown. It is even harder to envision such a humble building as the original home of one of Napa’s most respected businesses.
Back in 1945, Joe Bell chose the old barn on First Street as the place in which to establish his business. He didn’t mind that it wasn’t exactly a fancy sort of building. His plans were for a simple sheet metal and heating business, so he didn’t see the need for anything lavish or expensive. Even better, there was a small house next door that would work just fine for his family. Thankfully, his wife Dora agreed.
World War II had just ended and the need for high quality metal work prompted Joe to open the doors of his small operation and he called it Bell Products. Little did he know that from this modest beginning, such an enterprise would emerge and become one of the most long standing and successful in Napa.
Actually, the name of the business might have been Belli Products. Joe had learned his trade while working at the Mare Island Shipyard during the war. But, when the war was over, he had decided that his original surname was too ethnic and changed his name to Joe Bell.
Joe had a couple of ideas about business which turned out to be key to his achieving the growth and acclaim that his little shop would enjoy. Says Jim Asbury, the company’s current president, “He was very proud of the work he did. Joe was not the cheapest fabricator in town, he was just the best.”
More importantly, Joe knew that surrounding himself with the most talented workmen he could find would ensure that the high standards that he set for Bell Products would be upheld. He also realized that if you treat your employees right, they’ll stay with you…for decades, as is the case of many of Bell Product’s staff members. In fact, his excellent choice of co-workers and employees paid off in a manner that he could not have possibly foreseen.
In 1978, Joe was involved in a horrible automobile accident that put him in a coma for two months. When he emerged he found that his memories had been wiped out, including his ability to speak the English language. Suddenly, he was only able to communicate in Italian, the language of his childhood. Gradually he recovered, but not to the degree that he could run the business that he had started. It was growing in leaps and bounds, having graduated to servicing the air conditioning needs of the valley, as well. It was then that three men, Jim Asbury, Walt Blackmon and Bob Winchell, all long-time and loyal employees of Joe’s, stepped up and took over the company. They were well aware of Joe’s exacting standards of perfection and his commitment to the community. They embraced his philosophy of giving customers the very best service and products available, as well as providing employees with a congenial and secure place in which to work.
Joe “retired” to work on his beloved stained glass projects and to run his little workshop creating lamps and night-light covers. Each day he would walk to his shop and each day he would work harder at trying to recall all that the memories he had lost. It was a daunting task and he was often required to cover up his losses with humor. In spite of his challenges, Joe considered himself a very lucky man.
Joe Bell died in 2002 at the ripe old age of 89. He lived to see the business that he started become a large and very well respected enterprise, serving thousands of customers. In addition to Bell Products, Joe also started over a dozen smaller businesses, all of which bore his signature style of excellence. He, however, would probably consider his involvement in our community as the more significant role of his life. He was a Rotarian, a member of the Elks and one of the charter members of the Queen of The Valley Foundation.
While Joe Bell had only envisioned his little company serving the people of Napa, the reputation of the company began to be known throughout the region. Today, more than half of the company’s business is from out of town contracts. All Joe had wanted was means of supporting his wife, Dora and his son, Richard. What he became was an icon of the Napa business community.