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Cash crunch, divorce court and heart surgery.


Melvyn Bell Emerges From A Triple Threat To Fight For His Fiscal And Physical Health

A familiar face on the Arkansas business scene checked into St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center under an assumed name to avoid the public spotlight a few weeks ago.

Melvyn Bell, using the alias made famous by Superman, took up temporary residence at the hospital as Clark Kent. It's a nickname the founder and chairman of Environmental Systems Co. picked up because of his quick change acts while traveling.

The Ensco flight crew bestowed the moniker on Bell after noting the speed with which he changed from his much-favored casual clothes into a business suit before dashing off for a meeting and then quickly switching back to blue jeans afterward.

In keeping with the motif, Bell received a Superman suit as a birthday present back when he was truly flying high in the mid-1980s. But times have changed.

The costume and Clark Kent I.D. are now symbolic of the superhuman conditions Bell has labored under since the fall of 1987.

Bell's fortune was built on Ensco stock, and he leveraged those tens of millions of dollars into a varied empire of business interests covering amusement parks, bathhouses, bingo gambling, real estate and more. (See BELL'S INVESTMENTS).

The stock market crash in October 1987 crumpled the value of his Ensco shares like so much paper money, reducing his corporate wealth by nearly half. In two months alone, the market crushed his Ensco holdings from $42.3 million to $21.7 million.

The stock has been on a roller coaster ride ever since, taking Bell with it.

Bell has adopted a man-of-steel persona while fighting through a mountain of debt and tons of lawsuits to try to salvage his many investments. Time spent waging his financial battles contributed to Bell's decision to step down as president and CEO of Ensco in 1989.

In the process, he's sold off thousands and thousands of shares of Ensco stock to shore up his financial positions.

At last count, Bell owned 805,111 shares -- a nest egg worth $11.27 million on May 7. He also is entering the third and final year of a three-year package with Ensco that pays him $300,000 annually.

The strain and stress of the last three years took its toll on both his marriage and his health. Bell was brought down to earth after experiencing severe chest pains in the midst of the recent divorce suit filed by his wife, Darlene.

Bell entered the operating room to undergo a triple bypass. He emerged from the operating room with a quadruple bypass instead. There are reports that Bell has had post-operative complications as well.

By all accounts, recovery will be the most traumatic aspect of Bell's hospital visit. It's not his style to lie around and watch day-time TV, even under doctor's orders.

The 53-year-old exec has kept a cordless phone busy since his surgery. Bell has refused to say die in more ways than one, but some wonder if his number is finally up.

Asset Split

Observers and creditors wonder how Bell's divorce will impact his already strained fiscal health. Suspicious-minded folks wonder too if the divorce is a clever move to protect assets from a future bankruptcy.

Friends and associates, who reacted with surprise and disappointment to the divorce, tend to dismiss such conspiracy theories. They do point out the move will safeguard a financial legacy for the Bell's daughter no matter how things turn out on the business front. Megyn Elizabeth turns six May 13.

Pulaski County Chancery Judge Annabelle C. Imber spared Melvyn and Darlene Bell a degree of public scrutiny when she ordered the property settlement in their divorce sealed.

"It depends on the circumstances, but if it has to do with business and competition, I have them sealed," Imber remarks. "Let me assure you that I look closely at the settlement and every item in it to make sure it's fair and equitable for both parties."

The Bells separated on March 14, she filed for divorce a week later and the divorce was granted before the end of April.

"Wherefore, it is considered, ordered, adjudged and decreed: That the plaintiff, Darlene Bell, be and she is hereby granted an absolute divorce of and from defendant, Melvyn Bell and that bonds of matrimony heretofore existing between them be, and the same are hereby set aside, cancelled and forever held for naught. ..."

The divorce petition ending the 16-year marriage is short and sweet. Of the seven points in the complaint, Melvyn Bell only denied two. One was Darlene Bell's request for their $670,000-plus home at 12 River Mountain Road -- everything in it -- and her car.

The other is the grounds for divorce sought by his 42-year-old spouse, described in lawyer talk:

"That during the term of the marriage, defendant has treated plaintiff with general indignities, all systematically pursued so as to make her condition in life intolerable and make impossible for her to longer live with him."

Bell's words in a speech celebrating the 60th anniversay of Capital City Junior College of Business in 1987 create a dark backdrop for recent developments.

"To be successful, I think you must realize that you're going to have to sacrifice some relationships with your family and friends," Bell said. "Work will have to come first, which is unfortunate but true."

Way Back When

Will Bell have anything left to show for his first big success with Ensco? It would be tragic if he didn't, but the list of his assets -- purchased with Ensco stock profits -- is dwindling.

Bell played nursemaid to a company that didn't report its first profit until 1980. Back in the early days, it was known as Pollution Control Inc. -- a small over-the-counter outfit based in Minnesota on the brink of bankruptcy when Bell entered the picture.

Darlene Bell helped make ends meet during those lean years by operating a service station to sell off diesel fuel owned by PCI.

Today, her Ensco stock tips the scale at $3.3 million.

The early days were trying, but Dr. George Combs doubts if things have ever been tougher than now for his high school classmate, college roommate and fellow Ensco officer.

"If he were to take one of those stress test questionnaires right now, I'd say that Melvyn would rank off the scale," Combs observes. "His greatest failing is that he overcommits himself in trying to build things, to fix businesses that are in trouble, to create jobs.

"Other people have contributed to building Ensco, but Melvyn has been the catalyst to make things happen. He's already done a lot in his life."

How much more will Bell do? That really depends on how his struggling investments fare in the coming months.

Making Ends Meet

Last month's sale of Bell's huge antique collection is perhaps a sign of how strapped for cash he is these days. The assortment of pieces ranged from classy items like a 1931 Mercedes Benz to curios like a gigantic, 100-year-old carvedoack bar.

The Bells had assembled the pieces, some of which were never uncrated until the recent two-day auction, during the years in huge buying sprees. The value of the collection was said to top $10 million, but the sales total for the auction was placed at more than $1 million.

Bell also has turned to friends and associates to help make ends meet.

George Combs recently loaned him more than $1 million backed by 230 acres in west Little Rock and The Exposition Building, where the antique auction was held and SOB once entertained crowds.

Ensco has loaned Bell as much as $1.86 million, which he has paid down to $700,000 now due June 10. The company also bought his 55 percent stake in Consumat Systems for $5.95 million in 1988.

The U.S. Park Service has given Bell a 30-month deadline to finish the renovations of five historic bathhouses in Hot Springs. With a total estimated price tag of $6.5 million, this might be Bell's toughest trick to pull off.

However, Bell is already in technical default on a $6.72-million improvement bond issue for Darbe Development's three west Litlle rock subdivisions: Bell Pointe, Pleasant Heights and Carriage Creek. The improvement district recently sued Bell for not paying property assessment on the hundreds of lots that have gone unsold.

Darlene Bell's name is on the dotted line alongside her ex-husband in many deals. It's uncertain how she is impacted by the swirl of financial liabilities since the divorce was finalized.

The setting remains intact for a continued death spiral of business activities or a dramatic story of survival in the face of tremendous adversity. No one is willing to make a call on which ending will pan out in the months ahead.

PHOTO : HAPPIER DAYS: The strain and stress of the last three years have taken its toll on both Melvyn Bell's marriage and his health. Bell was brought to earth after experiencing severe chest pains in the midst of the recent divorce suit filed by his wife Darlene.

PHOTO : ANTIQUE AUCTION: The Bells had assembled an amazing antique collection over the years in huge buying sprees. The value of the items was said to top $10 million, but the sales total for the two-day auction was placed at more than $1 million.
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Title Annotation:Melvyn Bell of Environmental Systems Corp.
Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 13, 1991
Previous Article:Record changes.
Next Article:Building bonds.

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