Life can be counterintuitive. An accident when he was 17 nearly cost Richard Bell a foot, but it also changed the course of his life and career.
So did having to retake some accounting courses. So did losing a job when he was in his 20s. And he says he wasn’t a very good law student, either.
And yet Bell, now 67, is being recognized for lifetime achievement in accounting.
“Maybe I can give some hope to these B and C students out there,” he said in a recent interview, because “being willing to change” can be more important than “book skills.”
Fifty years ago, when Bell was a student at Oak Grove High School in Pulaski County, his father was already teaching him welding and metal fabrication in preparation for a job at Phelps Machinery Co., where his father was the shop superintendent. Had he not mangled his foot in a lawnmower accident, Bell said, he would probably be a retired ironworker today.
Dr. Austin Grimes, an orthopedic surgeon, saved the foot, but Bell has been physically handicapped ever since. Grimes encouraged Bell’s parents to send him to college, since a physically demanding job was no longer in the cards.
“My father knew I was good in math,” Bell said. And, in his supervisory role, his father also saw the checks that Phelps Machinery sent to its accountant. “I didn’t even know what a CPA was, but my father thought I would be good at it.”
The most important choice, however, wasn’t what to study. “I had to make a decision when I was a young man that I wasn’t going to have a pity party.”
Bell enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the fall of 1971, and it took him five years to earn his degree. “I had trouble with some of the accounting courses,” he said. Plus, he was working to pay for school, first at Kroger and then at the Skaggs grocery store in North Little Rock, where he met his wife, Lee.
He started law school in the fall of 1976, but continued to work at the grocery store — “I had a pretty good job, making $6.30 a hour” — until Lee began to question why her boyfriend was not putting his accounting degree to better use. Between 1977 and 1980, he worked as a staff accountant for the Frost and Cobb Engstrom accounting firms, and then joined the General Properties property management firm as controller, working on his law degree at night.
The job at General Properties didn’t last long. He was fired in 1981. “It was my fault. I was a little bit abrasive back then,” Bell said. “But there wouldn’t be a Bell & Co. if I hadn’t been.”
With no other prospects, Bell lined up three clients and went into business for himself from his home in Cabot. Their retainers totaled $1,400 a month.
That was the start of Bell & Co., which has grown to 38 employees and which has a variety of boutique accounting specialties, especially working for trucking companies.
Richard Bell’s younger sister, LaNell Sterling, who had followed him into the accounting program at UA Little Rock, has practiced with him for 32 years and is a shareholder. His daughter, Jennifer Bell, also became a CPA and a lawyer, and is also a shareholder in the firm. (Bell’s son, Clayton, is a physician.)
If he had practiced with a large national or regional firm, Bell said, he would already be retired. Instead, he now shares his experience as a mentor and teacher, and has no plan to quit.
“As long as I still have my competencies, I’ll probably stay around. To be honest with you, I don’t know what I’d do.”