Incorporated: 1902 as Belden Manufacturing Company
Sales: $667.4 million (1996)
Stock Exchanges: New York
SICs: 3357 Drawing & Insulating Nonferrous Wire
Belden Inc. is a leader in the design and manufacturing of wire, cable, and cord products. Belden serves four primary markets: computers, audio/visual, industrial, and electrical. Computer products, accounting for 34 percent of sales, include shielded and unshielded twisted pair cables, coaxial cables, fiber optic cables, and flat cables used in computer networking, peripheral equipment connections, and internal computer wiring. For the audio/visual market, representing 25 percent of sales with customers in the broadcast, music, and entertainment industries, sports and entertainment stadiums and arenas, airports, convention centers and other public facilities, televisions, production and sound studios, and public address systems, Belden’s products include CATV coaxial and composite cables, microphone and musical instrument cables, digital video/audio cables, 50 ohm transmission cables, and deflection wire. Products for the industrial market, including such processes as factory automation, instrumentation and control systems, robotics, and fire alarm and security systems, include specialized industrial cables, aluminum and steel armored data cables, and instrumentation and control cables, and make up 16 percent of Belden’s sales. The electrical market, with applications including electronic equipment, floor care products, power tools, large and small appliances, electric motor leads, power distribution, and internal wiring for fixtures and equipment, provides 25 percent of Belden’s sales, with products including appliance and power supply cords, and lead and hook-up wire.
Founded in 1902, Belden was operated as an unincorporated division of Cooper Industries between 1981 and 1993 but has been public again since 1993. The company, led by C. Baker Cunningham, who previously led Cooper’s tool, hardware, and automotive division, posted sales of $667 million and net in-come of $55 million in 1996.
Recognizing a Need in 1902
Belden was founded by Joseph C. Belden in Chicago in 1902. Belden had been working as a purchasing agent for Kellogg Switchboard & Supply Company of Chicago but was finding it difficult to locate the high-quality, silk-wrapped magnetic wire needed for telephone coils. Recognizing the need for this product, Belden, then 26, decided to go into business for himself, selling shares in the company, called Belden Manufacturing Company, to 11 investors for $25,000 in start-up capital. Belden served as the company’s president until 1939.
The wiring of America was just getting underway, and Belden quickly found a market for his product. However, in order to protect itself from fluctuations in demand, the company began to expand its product line. An initial foray into supply silk-wound wire frames for ladies’ hats proved less successful given caprices of fashion, and Belden quickly found two new markets—the nascent automotive and electrical appliance industries—for the company’s wire products. Belden’s early commitment to quality helped the company become a leading source of wiring and cables for these industries. Early customers included Thomas Edison and Lee De Forest, creator of the radio vacuum tube. By the end of the century’s first decade, the company had achieved sales of $350,000.
Belden was already establishing its reputation for innovative product development, with strong research and development efforts and a quick recognition of market opportunities. The increasing use of electricity demanded better insulation capacities, and in 1910, Belden introduced its enamel insulation, marketing under the trade name Beldenamel, which would become an industry standard and open the way for such wire refinements as fine and ultra-fine magnet wire. At the same time, Belden also introduced rubber-covered wire products. The new additions to the Belden line helped the company nearly triple its sales to $900,000 by 1913.
Belden next expanded operations to include plastic manufacturing capabilities, primarily to supply bakelite housings and other products for the electrical markets. However, the outbreak of World War I provided the company’s strongest growth, as Belden supplied wire and cables for such support units as motorized transport and field communications for the war effort. The company also began receiving orders from England and Russia for enameled copper wire—Belden later discovered that its products were used for developing and installing wireless radio communications, bringing the company into a new market. After the war, Belden continued to supply both the aviation and radio markets. Meanwhile, the company had a two-year backlog of orders from its domestic customers.
When commercial radio broadcasting began in the 1920s, Belden’s low tension cables, aerial wire, and magnet wire found strong demand. The company also began selling parts to jobbers in the radio industry, beginning the company’s distribution arm. In the late 1920s, Belden entered another market with the development of a molded rubber plug. By then, orders for the company’s expanded product line were outstripping its production capacity, and in 1928 the company opened its second plant, in Richmond, Indiana, which would later become the site of the company’s Electronic Division. In that year, also, the company started producing for the automotive aftermarket. Four years later, Belden signed a distribution agreement with the recently formed National Automotive Parts Association.
Despite the Depression, Belden’s diversified product line and its expansion into the replacement parts market helped the company continue to grow. In 1939, with sales of $4.9 million, and a net income of $378,000, the company went public, listing on the Midwest Stock Exchange. Joe Belden died in 1939; replacing him was Whipple Jacobs, who had started in the company’s cost department as a temporary clerk earning $9.10 a week in 1914. Whipple led Belden into the World War II era, during which, Belden, already a major military supplier, converted much of its production to supply the war effort. Belden also began introducing new forms of wire insulation using such recently developed chemical compounds as vinyl, nylon, and neoprene, further expanding the Belden family of products with Beldure, Nylclad, Formvar, Beldfoil and other brand names. Belden also introduced the first solderable enamel compound, replacing its Beldenamel with the Celenamel trademark. During the postwar years, Belden continued to supply the electric product markets but also expanded into the new and growing fields of radar, sonar, and electronics. Whipple stepped down as president, and Charles S. Craigmile, who had started with the company as an electrical engineer in 1915, was named in his place.
Growth through the 1970s
Belden began its shift toward the television and data processing markets as these industries began their commercial growth in the 1950s. Belden’s sales continued to grow steadily, and it continued to add capacity to its Chicago and Richmond plants. By 1965, the company’s sales had grown to $53 million. In that year, Robert W. Hawkinson became the company’s president. Hawkinson, who joined Belden in 1945 as an engineer after serving as a fighter-bomber captain in the Army Air Forces during the Second World War, would lead Belden through its next growth phase.
That era began in 1966, when Belden changed its name to Belden Corporation and built a plant in Franklin, North Carolina—its first new plant since 1938. Over the next three years, the company constructed two more plants, one in Pontotoc, Mississippi, and a 170,000-square-foot site in Jena, Louisiana. The company also went on an acquisition binge, acquiring Complete-Reading Electric Co., a distributor of electrical motor parts, in 1967. The following year, Belden acquired Southern Electric Sales Co., based in Dallas, which distributed electrical wire, insulating material, and replacement parts, and Insulation & Copper Sales, a Detroit-based distributor of magnet wire, lead wire, and associated products. Capping the expansion of Belden’s distribution business, which gave the company 16 warehouse distribution centers, was the 1969 stock-swap acquisition of Electrical Specialty Co. of San Francisco, adding that company’s electrical wire, insulating materials, industrial plastics, and shop equipment distribution facilities. Meanwhile, Belden was also expanding its production capacity, with the acquisition of General Wire & Cable Co. Ltd. of Canada and that company’s two manufacturing plants. At the same time, Belden moved to consolidate its research and development operations, building the company’s Technical Research Center in Geneva, Illinois. Among the products Belden developed during this period was its Duofoil brand of coaxial cables for master antenna and cable television systems.
“ Belden’s strategy for the future is fairly simple. We intend to generate sustained increases in revenues and improve profitability. Revenue growth should come from three sources: market growth, market penetration and acquisitions. Market growth will be fueled by the creation of the information superhighway, conversion to digitalized broad-cast technology, expanded and improved CATV systems, added automation by industry and general economic growth. Market penetration should result primarily from new product introductions that provide innovative solutions to the increasingly stringent technological demands of data, audio and video signal transmission and from expanded sales and distribution coverage. Consolidation of the global wire and cable industry appears to be occurring. Belden plans to be an active participant in that process. Improved profitability will be attained through increased manufacturing efficiency, effective utilization of assets and more sophisticated process controls that allow higher throughput and higher yields.”
By 1970, sales had topped $100 million, and the company began listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Helping to fuel this growth was a stepping up of its activity in the automotive aftermarket, which itself was growing rapidly with the steady increases in car sales of the period. During the 1970s, the company continued to expand its production capacity, adding a 75,000-square-foot automotive aftermarket facility to its Jena plant, while adding new plants in Dumas, Arkansas, and Monticello, Kentucky. The company also moved to improve its profits by exiting the low-margin commodity market, discontinuing production of heavy wire and closing its original Chicago plant. By 1978, the company’s sales had grown to $240 million, earning profits of $8.8 million.
Reemerging in the 1990s
Belden’s stock price, however, had not kept pace with its revenue growth. By 1980, the company had become the target of a hostile takeover, and Belden found refuge in a merger with Crouse-Hinds Co.. The following year, when Crouse-Hinds itself became a takeover target, another white knight appeared, and Belden found itself a subsidiary of Cooper Industries. Belden served Cooper as a source of cash flow to fuel Cooper’s expansion into other industries; meanwhile, Belden began positioning itself toward the international market, while also expanding heavily in the booming computer industry. In 1993, Cooper spun off Belden as an independent, publicly-traded company with annual sales of $300 million.
Within three years, Belden would more than double its annual sales, a growth fueled in large part by sales of the company’s network cable products. The company’s international sales to Canada, Europe, and Latin America were also becoming a strong source of revenue, nearing 25 percent of annual sales by the mid-1990s. After moving its headquarters to St. Louis in 1994, the company prepared for a new string of acquisitions. In March 1995, Belden acquired American Electric Cordsets, based in Bensenville, Illinois, adding the $24 million company to its newly formed Cord Products Division. Two months later, Belden purchased rival Pope Cable and Wire B.V., based in Venlo, the Netherlands, for $50 million, adding that company’s $112 million in annual sales and strengthening Belden’s position in Europe. A year later, Belden acquired the wire division of Alpha Wire Corp., based in Elizabeth, New Jersey, further positioning Belden to achieve a strong share of the ongoing networking products boom. Meanwhile, Belden began preparing for expansion into the growing Asian and Pacific Rim markets, while extending its Latin American reach as well. With the new market for internet and corporate intranet products just beginning to explode in the mid-1990s, Belden’s history of quickly shifting its focus to emerging technologies and markets continued to serve the company well.
Belden Wire and Cable; Cord Products Division.
De Young, Garrett H., “‘You Must Know Your Strengths,’” Photonics Spectra, August 1989, p. 52.
Galarza, Pablo, “Belden Inc., St. Louis, Mo., Cashing in as Technology Lifts Wire Demand,” Investor’s Business Daily, June 16, 1994, p. A6.
“High Operating Rates Prove Boon to Belden, Wire Maker,” Barron ‘s, August 7, 1978, p. 39.
Manor, Robert, “Local Newcomer Soars on Market,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 11, 1994, p. 4.
Mehlman, William, “Investors Responding Slowly to Altered Belden Image,” Insiders’ Chronicle, April 6, 1979, p. 1.
“Strong Demand Puts Belden Operations in High Gear,” Barron’s, September 25, 1972, p. 29.
“Wire and Cable Maker Belden Set to String Up an Earnings Come-back,” Barron’s, December 15, 1969, p. 26.
—M. L. Cohen