But it was the industry — not just Belden — that was shaken by the recession’s impact. Robert says in 2004, the industry shipped 10 billion bricks, a number that dropped to 3 billion in 2009, and has recently gotten back to about 4 billion bricks a year.
In comparison, from around 1983, when Robert first arrived at the company, until around 2008, Belden averaged about 182 million bricks shipped each year. From 2009 through last year, the company averaged about 116 million bricks shipped — around 60 percent of what used to be considered normal.
In 2016, he says Belden had a great first quarter because of the weather, but ended the year even with 2015. This year, another mild winter helped the company finish ahead of last year’s results. As of May, the company was up 5 or 6 percent in shipments, putting it on track to be its best year since 2008.
The recession also impacted personnel. Robert says for the 25 years prior to the downturn, there had been no layoffs. But the drop in demand required Belden to shut down one of its three tunnel kilns, which meant fewer people were needed for production. The company adjusted the schedules and moved an underperforming residential product line out of one plant and into another.
Some of the company’s most expensive architectural products remained in high demand during the downturn. That meant a couple plants could run at almost full production. Belden moved people, as well as a product line, which had been run on discontinued machinery that was costly to repair, from one plant to another to keep them working and mitigate further layoffs.
Layoffs can be troublesome because the nature of the work means there aren’t many candidates to choose from when hiring.
“It’s still a very physically demanding job in that some people are handling, like, 20,000 units a day that weigh about five pounds a piece,” Robert says. “They’re moving 100,000 pounds and it’s physical. We have people that start and quit before one day is over.
“There’s been a fairly high degree of turnover and you’re trying to develop some teamwork in handling this brick because you’ve got three or four guys working together as a team to put brick onto the kiln cars or take them off,” he says. “We found it’s pretty challenging — not that many people want to do that kind of physical labor.”
The physical requirements can also pose other challenges.
“We don’t have that many, what you might consider, light-duty-type jobs, where if somebody has been moving brick around for 25 years and they’re getting up there into their 40s or 50s, we only have so many lift trucks to operate,” Robert says. “There’s not always a natural transition into something that’s a little less physical.”
Overall, total employment has dropped only slightly. The company maintains 450 employees in the Belden operation, which is down around 10 percent from full levels.
Outside of the brick handling operation, it’s consistent and steady employment. At one time that company had around 40 percent of its employees with 20 years or more of service, a number he says still remains high.
Introduction of automation
While turnover and the need for layoffs have evened out, another change looms in the distance: automation.
Belden’s oldest plant uses beehive kilns, which are periodic kilns that require laborers to load, fire and unload, as well as package and sort. Its 20 kilns can make about 24 million bricks a year, which takes 110 laborers to accomplish.