Granite Geek: This N.H. Company Depends on Shrinking Demand for Old-School Industrial Product

Dec 2, 2015

Evolving technology can sometimes make the things we use outmoded. For example: when’s the last time you’ve dragged your typewriter to work? But then again, typewriters are still useful at town clerk’s offices for some paperwork. One company in Boscawen still manufactures leather industrial products like belts and straps that aren’t used as often as they once were, but are still tremendously important to the businesses that need them. For more on Page Belting Company, we turn to David Brooks. He’s a reporter with The Concord Monitor and writer at GraniteGeek.org. And he spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

Tell us about this company, Page Belting Company. What does it make?

Page Belting Company—incidentally, long-time Concord residents will know this company because of its original buildings at Horseshoe Pond. They’re now senior citizens housing. They’ve moved out of those a number of years ago. So it’s been around for a long time and it makes products out of leather. It originally made industrial, high-quality belting. In particular, it made power transmission belts. This was in the day before electric motors, definitely before electricity when it started. These are the big belts you may have seen if you visited the Lowell National Historical Park or any other old textile mill or museum.

These are the belts, you’d have the big pulleys running across the ceiling that were powered by the waterwheel and there are belts that could be a foot or two feet or even wider than that running down to another wheel that turned the actual looms, and this was a way that power was transferred from the original source of the energy, which in this case was the waterfall, inside the building to these specific devices. Industrial belts were one of the absolute necessities of the early industrial age.

And the way you’re describing it now makes it easy for me to see how easy it would be for a company like this to disappear completely, but they haven’t. Why haven’t they been replaced?

That’s frankly why I did the story, because I couldn’t believe they still existed. A lot of people don’t realize they still exist, even though they’ve been in Concord for 140 years. They’ve moved a couple of times, they’re over the border in Boscawen now. They have six full-time employees and sales of about a million dollars per year. But they’re still around, and they’re still making leather—they just do leather now—making leather belts, mostly for vintage machines that either need to be replaced…so when I was there, they have one they’re repairing the belt that’s about 2 feet wide and fifty or sixty feet long, and it’s for a roller coaster in California, and it’s old enough that it’s operated by this belt, and they want to repair it to keep using it because there’s no good alternative.

They do a lot of leather gaskets and seals. That’s about a third of their business now. That’s not for appearance, just industrial usage, like Coleman lanterns or water pumps. Leather, unlike synthetic or plastic materials, it has memory qualities in that it remembers the details of the metal that’s pushing in on it in a way that helps it do a better job of sealing than any synthetic, so they still have to use leather for certain types of seals and gaskets.

And I imagine that manufacturing this kind of leather belt the old-fashioned way some kind of old-fashioned machinery. So what happens when some of their machinery breaks down?

It would be a terrific place for a tour group from steampunk fans because it’s all gears and levers and knobs. There’s no touchscreen in sight. And that’s partly because there’s not enough business to automate it. It probably could be automated, but it would take a lot of money, and you only spend a lot of money to automate if you’re going to get enough sales over a long period of time.

So it’s all hand equipment, a lot of it is fifty or sixty years old. When it breaks, there’s no manual to fix it, and there’s no replacement parts. Most of the companies that made the equipment have gone out of businesses.

I talked to Mark Coen who is the owner. He bought it. He started there in 1992, came in as a vice president and bought the place in 2000. He says you don’t need an IT guy, you need a clever mechanic. So he uses Davis Machines in Concord.

They’re simple and straightforward. They’re mechanical devices. It’s a little easier to figure out when teeth aren’t meshing on gears than to figure out where software code is going wrong, so he keeps it going that way.

This seems to be a case study in how a company can weather the technological changes that are happening in the world around it. What’s your takeaway? I mean, what does a company have to do to sort of stay alive as technology changes?

“Weather” is a good verb, actually, because their business is shrinking despite everything they’ve done.  And he admits it. Mark Coen was talking about—it’s interesting, that’s the way he put it—it’s interesting managing a business in a shrinking marketplace. As long as there’s enough of a market and you’re willing to be flexible and you’re willing to innovate and put up with and work within a changing marketplace, you can keep going. It’s not easy, but it’s cool.