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From One ‘Factory Man’ To Another

Factory Man

“John D. Bassett III, center, with part of the company team that took on China.” Photo: David Hungate

The New York Times wrote a beautiful article on Factory Man, a new book on the Bassett legacy and the dedication John D. Bassett III has to American made furniture.

Beth Macy wrote a book each one of us in the American furniture manufacturing industry would love to see be written. Especially those in American furniture brands steeped in family tradition like ours. And she did it. Factory Man is a great story of the Bassett Furniture legacy, and one Bassett in particular, John D. Bassett III, who has been determined, like so many of us, to keep furniture made here – in America. The book is called Factory Man, and rightfully so. Mimi Swartz, executive editor at Texas Monthly wrote a great article about it for The New York Times. Excerpts of that article are found below…

It is impossible to read Beth Macy’s “Factory Man” without casting the inevitable movie version to come. Picture an updated “Norma Rae” in which the hero isn’t an oppressed factory worker but a desperate factory owner battling scheming relatives, callous Wall Street bankers and ruthless Chinese competitors — all to save his workers’ jobs and his family’s bricks-and-mortar legacy, a furniture business in a speck of a town in south central Virginia…

The first half of the book is given over to Bassett history in great detail. John D. Bassett Sr. founded the business in 1902, but the family was illustrious long before then. Mr. J.D., as his employees knew him, was a descendant of a Revolutionary War captain to whom King George III had deeded 791 acres of Virginia farmland in 1773. But the imaginative, ambitious Bassett and his equally driven wife — that would be Miss Pokey — set up a small store and inn, and eventually made themselves indispensable in the town that soon carried the family name. Then, in a move that would serve both as the key to their success and as ironic portent, the couple cased a Michigan furniture factory and figured that they could outdo the Grand Rapids craftsmen instead of shipping them all their good Virginia walnut, oak, hickory and more. Bassett workers became experts at copying and mass-producing furniture; even if the product wasn’t especially finely made, it was good enough to satisfy a swelling middle class.

The Bassetts got rich by following the dictum of Henry Ford: “Sell to the classes, eat with the masses. Sell to the masses, eat with the classes.” And everything worked out fine for a good long while. By 1967, Fortune magazine deemed Bassett the world’s largest manufacturer of wood furniture.

Throughout that time Bassett remained a family business — run by various sons and sons-in-law, that is — and, not surprisingly, managed with the kind of paternalism common to its time and place. Bassett, Va., became a company town in which Bassetts owned or controlled just about everything: the banks, the schools, the church, the local government and, essentially, the people who lived there. According to Macy, in the late 1930s, Mr. J.D. “liked to buy ice cream and peanuts for kids at baseball games, and he could afford to, with six humming factories that sent freight cars laden with Bassett furniture all over the country.”

There were also the kind of natural rivalries that occur in most families but particularly families with a lot of money and legacies that matter. JBIII spent most of his youth and early career trying to prove that he wasn’t an heirhead, with other relatives just as invested in proving the opposite. This was particularly true of his sister’s husband, Bob Spilman, who blocked young John Bassett at every turn.

It is this prodigal son narrative that dominates the second half of the book, as globalization takes hold and the family fortunes turn. In the 1980s, American furniture makers began to find themselves in a bind; to compete with cheaper products made abroad, they had to begin manufacturing abroad too. The result, of course, was that foreign (mostly Chinese) companies sent representatives here to learn the business and solicit contracts — and, just as the Bassetts had done long ago, promptly undercut their American tutors by offering knockoffs at substantially cheaper prices. Americans had become perilously shortsighted: “If the price is right, you will do anything,” a Taiwanese businessman told John Bassett. “We have never seen people before who are this greedy — or this naïve.”

The rising tide of the global economy was supposed to float all boats, but as the Bassetts soon discovered, it didn’t. Yes, American consumers initially benefited from the availability of cheaper furniture made offshore, and the workers in poor countries started enjoying better lives. But the Americans who actually made things — and whose labor made families like the Bassetts rich — began to suffer.

With local factories closing, families began losing their jobs, their homes and their life savings, along with their hopes. “If somebody wants to predatorily kill your industry and take market share, that’s fine as long as the consumer can get it a little cheaper?” Bassett’s son Wyatt asked Macy at one point. “But what happens when they destroy your industry and then raise prices 30 percent once all your factories are gone?”

What had been a thriving business was soon decimated. From 2000 to 2002, furniture imports from China jumped 121 percent, and by 2003, offshoring had cost American furniture makers and related companies 73,000 jobs.

Faced with closing his factories and laying off loyal employees, Bassett chose to take a stand. Instead of capitulating — selling out for zillions and letting his workers go hang — he cut costs, upgraded product lines and kept layoffs to a minimum. Bassett, a “Republican-­leaning independent,” in Macy’s words, even turned to the federal government for help, pushing representatives to enforce trade regulations against the Chinese. The company broke even in 2012, with shareholder equity at $114.5 million, which Bassett considered a victory.

Support American furniture manufacturing. Order your copy of ‘Factory Man’ here.

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