2019 Nominee Seven: The Belden Brick Company

In 1905 Henry Belden was facing disaster … again. Debts at his Canton Pressed Brick Company threatened everything he owned. For the fifth or sixth time Belden was flat on his back, looking for a way to bounce back. He only had to look as far as his own family.

There are two kinds of entrepreneurs in America: Those who start a business and those who keep it going. Belden Brick owes its 134 year existence to both. Henry Belden was a restless serial entrepreneur who led five different companies, with mixed success. He once had to visit neighboring towns with suitcases full of money to buy his way out of street lighting contracts that became bad business when John Rockefeller more than tripled the price of gas. Henry’s resilience is the reason Belden Brick is one of the few survivors from hundreds of similar companies populating the clay fields of northeast Ohio at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, with Henry again on the brink of failure, son Paul hurried home from his successful sales career down south. He found ways to recapitalize the firm, restart production, improve quality, expand operations, and turn Belden Brick into one of the most successful brick companies in the country. Along the way the Hartung family became part of the ownership structure.

From the time Paul Sr. returned to Canton in 1904 until his death in 1970, there was never a doubt who was the boss. He transformed the ruins of Canton Pressed Brick into one of the most important companies in Canton history by constantly reinvesting in plant modernization through booms and busts. At some point during his leadership, the company went from being merely a business to a family and community treasure.

Henry started the fight. Paul turned it into a successful business. Generations of Belden’s made it more than just a business.

Robert Belden, the current CEO is typical. A day before he was to break ground on a new home in Chicago, his cousin Bill called and asked him to join the company. After almost a decade working as a market-maker at the Chicago Options Board, Bob was anxious to start making a more solid contribution to society and bricks are about as solid as things can be.

Bob and Bill Belden ran the company with their eyes as much on heritage as profit. Of course, profit was important, especially with the growing number of family stockholders. All wanted a return, but Bob and Bill both realized the special nature of their positions as leaders of a closely held family business deeply ingrained in the social fabric of their hometown.

Maintaining family ownership as markets changed and the family grew to 132 stockholders, has been a challenge. Inheritance taxes, dividend levels and succession issues are formidable hurdles, but somehow Belden Brick has remained a successful family business . The secret is in lessons learned from the two men who started it all, Henry Belden and his son Paul.

From Henry they learned resilience and the importance of capital. From Paul they learned the value of conservative financial management and civic involvement while constantly investing in plant modernization and product quality.

When Henry Belden faced financial ruin 115 years ago, family saved him. Over a century later, Belden’s still make a habit of leaving good jobs elsewhere to return to the family business and keep it running for another generation. Today Belden Brick stands as one of the largest family-owned brick companies in America. It’s amazing what a business can accomplish when profit becomes a means rather than an end.