Steady leadership helps The Belden Brick Co. to 133 years in business

 

The Belden Brick Co. is the sixth largest manufacturer of bricks in the U.S. by production volume and the country’s largest family-owned-and-managed brick company. With a 133-year history, it’s also one of the oldest companies in Stark County and employs the fifth generation of Beldens.

“Our motto is that we’re the standard of comparison since 1885,” says CEO Robert F. Belden. “We try to live up to that every day to make sure that we’re providing the very best product and the very best service we can.”

Since its inception, the company has survived massive fluctuations in market conditions that have reshaped the competitive landscape. Many families in the brick-making industry sold their companies. Other than Acme Brick, owned by Berkshire Hathaway and one of the biggest players in the field, others in the industry are, for the most part, owned by foreign entities. Because of this, growth, in terms of acquisitions, is not easy.

Nonetheless, Robert says the company is opportunistic in its approach to acquisitions, and has explored every brick operation that has been for sale for the past 35 years. It bought Redland Brick Co. and its three locations outside of Pittsburgh, in Connecticut and Maryland, in 1996; and in 2011, acquired the assets of Lawrenceville Brick, a Virginia-based company, which it folded into the Redland entity.

Feeling the impact

One market ripple still being felt in the company was caused by the recent recession. Belden’s product mix had typically been around 55 percent nonresidential and 35 percent residential. But as the effects of the recession reverberated through the market, Belden’s mix shifted to 80 percent nonresidential as the rate of new residences being built collapsed.

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.

Personnel predicament

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.

The company’s newest plant, built in 2000, is outfitted with robotic equipment. It can make a like amount of brick using 15 laborers each shift — a total need of 30 people.

“That operates every day of the week. That’s what automation has done,” Robert says. “We’ve got robots that actually pick up the brick, put them on the cars, take them off the cars and put them in the package, and everything else. There’s no individuals there that are handling brick like at every other plant.”

Though he expects robotics will take on a larger role in Belden’s manufacturing process, adding automation to older plants is difficult. Different robotics experts, as well as Belden’s own internal engineers, have looked at the company’s brick-making process, but haven’t yet been able to fully automate the process.

“When you have robotics handling things, everything has to be precisely in the right place,” Robert says. “Every brick has to be in a certain orientation and if it tips over a little bit or gets knocked cockeyed, a person can see that and adjust, obviously, very easily. Robots don’t adjust too well.

“I’m sure as we move forward there will be a lot more robotics,” he says. “We’ve even designed and built some of our own, especially in the packaging area. We’ve got a couple robotic systems that we’ve designed to do what our people have done over all the years.”

Living legacy

Belden Brick now employs the fifth-generation of Beldens. Robert’s great-grandfather, Henry, an entrepreneur and innovator, started the company.

Henry, once the mayor of Canton, invented the Belden Burner and had 13 patents for gasoline vapor streetlights, which he sold to cities throughout the U.S. He was also a lawyer who worked with his father, G.W. Belden, a judge whose partner at the law firm Belden & McKinley was future U.S. President William McKinley.

The story of the Belden Brick Co., however, almost stopped with him. Robert says Henry, who was in need of capital to operate the plant, was ready to give up in 1904, when his youngest son, Paul, Robert’s grandfather, came back to Ohio from the Carolinas. Over Paul’s 66 years in the business, he built up the company, expanding it from one to seven plants and from producing 3 million to 250 million bricks a year. Three of his four sons would join the company and carry the torch.

Robert and his cousin, Bill, joined the company in 1983. Bill was in Canton and left another business to be Belden’s president. Robert came from Chicago, leaving a job in the financial sector, and another cousin, John Belden, also joined. Today, the company employs their sons, nephews and cousins.

“We started in 1983. We had found the right people that have the right motivation to keep the family business going, to keep the reputation and the quality in the forefront of what we do, and I think the young guys that we have now that will be ready to take over also have the right idea about that,” Robert says.

“We’ve been very fortunate, needless to say. But we have certain values and traditions that have served us well and that I think that everybody is in agreement about. That’s helped us to weather all the different recessions, depressions and the cyclicality of this business.”

Takeaways:

  • Longevity takes flexibility.
  • Change is inevitable, adapting successfully isn’t.
  • Establish values and let them be your guide.

The Belden File

NAME: Robert F. Belden

TITLE: CEO

COMPANY: The Belden Brick Co.

Born: Canton, Ohio

Education: Bachelors of Science in mathematics from the University of Notre Dame; MBA in operations research management science from the University of Michigan.

What was your first job? My first actual job was as a member of the Dallas Cowboys football club in 1969/1970, while I was getting my master’s degree in the off-season. Then I went to work for the 3M Company in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the Marketing Operations Research Department as an analyst.

What is something about being on an NFL roster that many people might not understand? It’s the most competitive, high-pressure thing that you can do when you’re trying to make that team. One of my memories was when I went there in 1969, as one of 17 draft choices by the Cowboys, they also had another, I’m going to say, 60 guys there that were free agents that were just trying to get on the team — this didn’t even count the veterans that were coming back later.

I started out with four guys in a dorm room and after a couple weeks there were two guys in there. Then after another week or so, I was in there by myself. You realize that every day at every practice what you do and how you perform is going to matter, and if you don’t perform you’re going to have a plane ticket home.

What two things would you encourage people visiting Canton to do other than visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame? One of them is the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, which has President McKinley’s tomb on the grounds — the memorial. It has exhibits of the history of Stark County in it. And I’d go to a high school football game on a Friday night in the fall because high school football matters here in Stark County.

What lessons from the financial industry have helped you in your leadership role at Belden? I had a seat on the Chicago Board Options Exchange from 1976 to 1983, and I was self-employed. One of my takeaways was, in terms of creating options, all kinds of things would work, but none of them worked all the time. I learned that you try to survive when your style is not working, but you better do well when it is working.