Portrait of a furniture maverick
There are few heroes in what’s happened to the U.S. furniture industry over the last 15 years.
A new book spotlights one man’s successful campaign to keep making furniture in America against the odds, as cheap imports from Asia flooded the market and tens of thousands of jobs disappeared while plant after plant was shuttered.
“Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town” by Beth Macy chronicles the story of John Bassett III and his leadership of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture.
The company, based in southwest Virginia, where it employs between 600 and 700 people, is the largest domestic manufacturer of wooden bedroom furniture in the U.S.
Bassett and his company are well-known in High Point, where his son, Doug Bassett, serves as chairman of the High Point Market Authority.
A decade ago, Bassett led a campaign that proved Chinese companies were selling their furniture for less than it cost to produce it, which violated international trade laws.
An array of fines and penalties were assessed that were paid out to American companies like Bassett that provided a lifeline for many manufacturers.
Macy, a former Roanoke Times reporter, already has garnered considerable praise for the book in advance of its release on Tuesday.
She won a $30,000 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia University. The New York Times has written glowing articles about the book, and she is scheduled to be on the National Public Radio program “Fresh Air” on Monday.
Macy came to write about Bassett during her reporting for the Roanoke Times on the impact of globalization in the furniture belt of southwest Virginia.
“My goal was to tell the story of this eccentric maverick, but also to be fair to the other side,” Macy said in an interview. “So I interviewed Chinese CEOs and people that closed their factories. I set out to find people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own because the rules changed. They’re from the same communities as the people who manage the factories today and still get to go to work and sell imports.”
Macy writes about how Bassett traveled to a remote part of China in 2002 to find the producer of a $100 dresser as Asian competition heated up.
In an interview, Bassett described finding the producer among a massive complex of six factories and how he related his plans to put American furniture-makers out of business.
“What he told me was, ‘I can help you’ — and at that time, we had three factories — but he said, ‘You will have to close each and every one of your factories and put yourself entirely in my hands,’” Bassett said. “The first thing I thought was, ‘My grandfather would roll over in his grave.’ I knew that we were then — this industry — was in the fight of our lives.”
Bassett began to uncover how unlevel the playing field was with his Chinese competitors.
“The Chinese government was subsidizing his entire operation,” he said.
In her book, Macy describes Bassett’s defiant reaction to this.
“That’s not a sentiment you hear from a CEO very often. I think part of his message is, America needs to get back to its fighting spirit,” Macy said.
Bassett pulled together a coalition of furniture makers to fight Chinese “dumping” of its furniture on the market, and ultimately prevailed.
His concern for his employees and his community shines through in Macy’s portrayal.
“Yes, we bought the most expensive equipment in the world, but we also enlisted the support of every employee in this company,” Bassett said. “One thing the anti-dumping thing did, the people in this plant knew we didn’t want to close it. They knew we were fighting for their jobs and our existence.”
Macy, the daughter of a displaced factory worker from Ohio, writes about globalization by interviewing business leaders and economists, but also from the perspective of ordinary people who lost their jobs as a result of offshoring.
“I interviewed a ton of economists who hate what (Bassett) did,” Macy said, explaining that some see lost jobs as a manifestation of the “creative destruction” that comes from the supposed benefits of globalization, such as low prices for consumer goods.
“I think the book is, in one word, enlightening,” Bassett said. “Furniture represents one of the many industries in the U.S. that went through this. We’re not denigrating globalization, but anything that large has a downside. I think (Macy) does a wonderful job pointing this out.”