Business, Finance & Economics

Here's how an American furniture maker battled globalization, for his employees

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John D. Bassett III re-opening a vacant furniture factory in 2012.

Credit:

Stephanie Klein-Davis, courtesy of The Roanoke Times

“He’s relentless. He thinks, eats, breathes furniture. He's got a legal pad by his bed at night. I don’t think he’s slept through the night since globalization hit." That's how a reporter describes the American factory owner who took on foreign furniture producers and globalization.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Beth Macy's new book, “Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town," profiles John D. Bassett III and his fight to stay profitable and keep American workers employed at his plant in Galax, Virginia. 

As a reporter for the Roanoke Times, Beth Macy covered the region in Virginia and North Carolina that had once been known as the nation’s “furniture belt.” She witnessed the plant closings and layoffs that resulted from globalization, as cheaper Asian knockoffs and imports took their toll on the American industry.

“Every time a factory closed down, we had gone down and done a story, but we never went back and said what happened to all those people.”

A few years ago, Macy decided it was time to do that. 

“I didn’t really understand what happened when all the factories closed,” said Macy. “I wanted this book to be the book you could give to your Mom and, after reading it, she would understand why the little town she grew up in looks the way it does now. Some of these towns, it’ll be decades before they recover.”

Macy’s familiarity with the terrain makes her a compassionate narrator, and her ear for the region’s pithy language (“morale was lower than a snake’s butt in a wagon rut”) brings much-welcome humor to a riveting, but ultimately sad story of change and dislocation.

It was early in Macy’s reporting that she stumbled on the story of John Bassett and his Vaughan-Bassett factory in Galax. As his contemporaries moved their operations offshore to Asia, he was somehow managing to continue making furniture and keeping his workers employed. 

She wanted to figure out how he had done it. Her account is non-fiction, but it reads like a juicy, fast-paced novel. To understand John Bassett, she had to excavate the whole story of his legendary family, starting with his grandfather, also John Bassett, who brought furniture-making to the South in the early 20th century.

John Bassett, Sr. and his wife recognized the potential of combining plentiful wood with cheap labor at a time when sharecroppers and subsistence farmers were eager to join the cash economy. He founded a town, Bassett, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and an industry — Bassett Furniture Industries. It went on to become the largest furniture maker in the world. Its growth was spurred after World War II with the demands of the post-war baby boom and the growth of American suburbs.

But in the decades Bassett and other American furniture makers were booming, the sleeping giant that was China was also roaring to life. Millions of people began migrating from rural farms to factories in China’s cities. They started to manufacture cheap knockoffs that would eventually outcompete American goods at a devastating rate. By 1989, the first Bassett plants were beginning to close.

As those closings began to take hold and the industry was buffeted by imports, Beth Macy’s protagonist, John D. Bassett III, was determined to keep the Vaughn-Bassett factory he ran in Galax, Virginia, open for business. He was used to going it alone, the hard way; he'd been forced out of the main branch of the family business by infighting years before. 

As the book opens, it’s 2002. Bassett is “snaking his way through the sooty streets of rural, northern China on a three-day fact-finding mission” trying to figure out how a Chinese-made, Louis-Philippe dresser could be made and sold for as low as $100. He’s determined to find the culprit who’s selling it at what could only be an artificially low price.

“He would say that he’s not anti-globalization,” Macy said. “But he would say that, when China joined the World Trade Organization, they agreed to play by certain rules: you’re not supposed to dump; you’re not supposed to be heavily subsidized by your government; and another complaint they make is that the Chinese manipulate their currency, which gives them an artificially low price, which they find really hard to compete with.”

Eventually Bassett filed an anti-dumping case against China, winning millions of dollars in damages that he then pumped back into the operation of his factory.

Macy interviews scores of factory workers in the course of researching the book. Some work for John Bassett, others, less fortunate, have been laid off from other furniture plants in in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the industry had been concentrated.

One of them, Wanda Purdue, used to work for a company that moved its operations to Indonesia. Her curiosity about the workers who’ve replaced her inspires Macy to travel there to see for herself. Once there, she finds workers grateful to have the first cash-paying jobs of their lives, and their first jobs indoors. She talks to a newly-employed mother who hopes her job will mean her daughter will now be able to go to college.

“That was very moving to me,” said Macy. “I’m sure that’s what my Mom was hoping when she was a factory worker, too, that her daughter would go to college.”

In the end, Macy can’t simply judge globalization good or bad; it’s obviously a mixed picture. But the hope she witnesses in Indonesia certainly doesn’t alleviate the pain she sees back home in Virginia.

“I find the people who were left behind, who don’t have the resources to get themselves re-educated and trained, I just find it incredibly moving, what has happened to them, through no fault of their own.”