New CEO takes the reins at Bell and Howell

Jan. 26, 2014 @ 07:11 PM

While the way banks, utilities and other businesses send bills, statements and promotions will continue to change due to the rise in online bill paying and other trends, Ramesh Ratan said he believes there will always be some form of paper-based communication.

Communication “has been  changing, it will continue to change,” he said. “Companies will find (a change toward what) we call it multi-channel, omni-channel ways of using digital, paper, online, especially with the growth of mobile phones, smart phones.”

Ratan is the chief executive of Durham-based Bell and Howell, a company that designs and sells machines that quickly cut, fold, insert and sort paper bills, statements and mailed advertisements in large volumes, as well as related software.

He started in the role of CEO in November after leaving Pitney Bowes, a larger, Connecticut-based publicly traded company that is a competitor of Bell and Howell’s in the mail production equipment and software business.

While Bell and Howell is a private company that doesn’t report its finances publicly, Pitney Bowes reported revenues of $939 million in the third quarter, down 1 percent from the prior year, and a net loss of $5.5 million.

For the Connecticut-based company, Ratan was president of  the document messaging technologies division and president of marketing services solutions.

He’s relocating to the Triangle to take charge of Bell and Howell, which has been headquartered in Durham since 2011.

In an interview Friday, Ratan was optimistic for the company’s future due to the combination of the staff, his own vision for the company and the company’s ownership.

Bell and Howell is a spin-out of Bowe Bell + Howell, which had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and reached an agreement with a Philadelphia-based private equity firm, Versa Capital Management Inc. and a co-investment partner, Access Value Investors, for the acquisition of almost all of its assets.

Bell and Howell’s headquarters shifted from Wheeling, Ill., after the business was launched from the sale of Bowe Bell + Howell assets.

Ratan said the company has been consolidating operations in Durham. In addition, he said it has reorganized along business lines such as mail inserting, sorting and software.

About 1,200 people work for the firm, about 250 of them in Durham. That’s down from March 2012, when company officials reported about 350 employees in Durham and 1,600 in total.

He said the company wants to grow in Durham and is adding 15 to 20 manufacturing workers to the site on South Alston Avenue.

“Bell and Howell, in particular, has, I would say, between last year, this year, and the year before, stayed reasonably stable in terms of overall size of the company revenues,” Ratan said. “But what we have been doing is consolidating as we face the reduction in first-class mail and those kinds of systems. We’ve been consolidating…more of our capabilities into the headquarters here in Durham.”

The business operates in a world where the number of people who want to pay their bills electronically has continued to go up, and the volume of people receiving traditional, paper-based bills is declining. However, Ratan said the volume of people requesting electronic bills has stabilized, and so has direct-mail marketing.

According to the U.S. Postal Service’s “The Household Diary Study” about mail use and attitudes, in 2012 only 40 percent of all bills were paid by mail. In 2002, 75 percent were paid by mail.

In the same time period, the percentage of bills paid electronically increased from 17 percent in 2002 to 56 percent. The survey also said there’s been a decline in bills and statements received through the mail and an increase from a small base in statements received online.

The survey also found, however, that the number of packages sent and received, excluding CD and DVD rentals, was up 6.7 percent in 2012.

Ratan said the company wants to move into new areas, such as developing machines for parcel packaging to capitalize on the e-commerce trend of consumers buying goods online and having them shipped.

“The parcels, the creation of parcels, wrapping of parcels, the whole parcel business, is a complete new area for us,” he said.

He said the company is working on updating and improving its technology. As an example, he said Bell and Howell has been working to grow its sorting equipment offerings. The company is now selling machines that do “inbound sorting,” or sorting paper bills sent in by customers.

“There’s still a lot of people who still write checks and send them back,” he said. “These machines sort those (after they) come in.”

 He said he believes the company has a strong outlook.

“I think we’re probably at the turnaround position of where we’ve probably done all the hard work, and now it’s about keeping our focus on the finishing the execution of those decisions and actually growth in new areas,” he said.