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Local factory that reopened in 2017 shuttered by pandemic

James Hardie

James Hardie Industries was a pioneer in the development of cement-based exterior siding.

By John McDermott

It took James Hardie Industries about eight years to reopen its South Carolina plant after the last recession.

It took just three years to shut it back down.

The building materials maker’s Summerville factory is among the first manufacturing sites in the state to go dark permanently in part because of the coronavirus outbreak and the near-certain worldwide recession it has unleashed.

“The move will realign supply and demand in the North American market following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the company said in a written statement Monday.

The closing is part of a broader global restructuring Hardie Industries unveiled last week. About 60 employees at the Dorchester County factory will be affected as production winds down over the next few months. They’ll receive severance packages that include continued health insurance coverage and help finding new jobs.

The company was a pioneer in using cement to manufacture siding and other highly durable exterior cladding materials for the residential and commercial building trades. HardiePlank is among its best-known consumer brands.

Now headquartered in Ireland, the company’s roots were planted in Scotland in 1888, when its entrepreneurial namesake founder left his homeland for Australia, where he imported oils and hide tanning products. In 1951, the company went public Down Under and later diversified into building materials. It started making siding from cement fiber in the mid-1980s. It now employs about 4,000 workers worldwide. Sales were $2.5 billion last year.

Locally, Hardie Industries became a poster child for corporate patience under its previous CEO.

The company’s Summerville operation dates back to the late 1990s, when Belgian-Swiss manufacturer Cemplank built the 150,000-square-foot factory to make its own competing brand of siding. It picked the area because of its proximity to the big cement plants around Harleyvillle and Holly Hill and to join the supply chain serving the Southeast construction boom.

Hardie Industries ended up buying Cemplank, and by 2003, it was running its newly acquired South Carolina plant around-the-clock to keep up with demand.

The boom went bust five years later, as the global financial system and U.S. real estate markets collapsed. Hardie Industries mothballed the Summerville site in 2011, saying it would remain offline until “market demand returns to acceptable levels.”

Some companies would have quietly walked back that kind of promise as time passed. Not in this instance. Hardie Industries kept its word under an aggressive plan to nearly double its market share in North America to 35 percent.

The 2017 reboot on Belgian Way required an $18 million investment to bring the business back to life.

About 100 jobs were to be created.

Some three years later, the world suddenly became a different place defined largely by uncertainty.

Hardie Industries, which said it was coming off a strong quarter, gave investors an update about the impact of the pandemic on its business and “liquidity” last week.

Like many publicly traded companies, it’s lowering its financial expectations, suspending dividend payments, initiating a hiring freeze and reining in expenses, all in the name of conserving cash.

It’s also taking the axe to its global manufacturing footprint. In addition to the Summerville site, Hardie Industries is shuttering plants in New Zealand and Australia, while production in Germany is being halted temporarily. The planned commissioning of a new Alabama factory has been shoved to the back burner.

“These decisions are always extremely difficult, and our leadership team took this action with considerable thoughtfulness, and the strategic objective of preserving and enhancing the global organization’s competitiveness over the long term,” CEO Jack Truong said in a statement.

The Summerville factory apparently isn’t part of the future of James Hardie Industries, as it was the last time the economy cratered. The company made no assurances and offered no hope that it will reopen the plant once the market regains some semblance of normalcy.

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott