Factory Man by Beth Macy has nothing to do with fashion, and very little to do with textiles, but it is one of the most interesting and compelling stories I’ve read in a very long time. It’s the story of John Bassett, who despite all odds has managed to keep his furniture business, Vaughn-Bassett, producing in the United States.
John Bassett was born into the the Southern furniture business. His grandfather, J.D. Bassett founded Bassett in 1902, and from there the various branches of the Bassett family formed furniture factories all over south-western Virginia. For years the companies were highly successful, even weathering the Great Depression without worker lay-offs. After John Bassett’s grandfather and father died, he was presumed to be the next head of the family business, but instead his brother-in-law was put in charge. In 1982, John Bassett was essentially edged out of his family’s company. He decided to leave and work as the head at Vaughn-Bassett, which was a company owned by his wife’s family.
At this point I have to say that keeping all the Bassetts straight was a difficult thing. Thankfully there is a family tree in the back of the book to help keep who owned what in order.
Things continued to be fine in the furniture business until the 1990s. At that point, workers began noticing groups of Asian people coming through on tours of the factories. As amazing as it might sound, the factory owners welcomed people from Taiwan and China to come in and observe. In many cases they took notes and even video taped the operations.
The furniture makers should not have been surprised when Chinese-made furniture began showing up in the American market. At Vaughn-Bassett, which makes bedroom suites, they noticed a chest that looked very much like what they were making, but that had a price tag of only $100. John Bassett bought one as a sample, had his engineers disassemble it and work up a cost projection. They realized that the cost of the materials far exceeded $100.
So Bassett sent his son and an interpreter to China to try and locate the maker of the chest. After days of searching, the factory was located. John himself went to the place to talk with the head of the Chinese factory, and was told point-blank that it was in his best interest to close the US factory and to buy from China, that they could and would continue to undercut American furniture makers until they were forced out.
Today this story does not seem to be very surprising, but in the early 1990s, the first ripples of the Chinese way of doing business were just beginning to reach the US. John Bassett went home and studied the trade laws and realized that the Chinese were guilty of a practice called “dumping.” You flood the market with a cheaply priced product until the competition either joins you or folds, then you can raise prices and make a profit.
John Bassett then began legal proceedings against the Chinese. It was not easy because he had to get the other bedroom furniture makers to join him, and many were reluctant because they were already involved with importing the cheaper goods. Eventually, the case was won, and Vaughn-Bassett and the other companies who signed on with the complaint were granted millions of dollars in duties that the Chinese were forced to pay in order to continue to do business in the US.
Vaughn-Bassett took its share and reinvested it in the company, buying the latest equipment with the aim of becoming more efficient and more competitive. But other companies were not able to survive even with the influx of cash. The original Bassett eventually closed all seven of its US factories. They put their duty money into developing retail stores. Today, Bassett is mainly an importer and retailer. The company survived at the cost of the communities that made Bassett rich.
All in all, there have been around 300,000 furniture manufacturing jobs lost in the US since 1990. Today Vaughn-Bassett employs around 700 people, and other companies, mainly makers of upholstered furniture, have also managed to keep domestic production. With the closing of Bassett, the town of Bassett lost much of its infrastructure. Other towns in the area have unemployment rates as high as one third.
I’ve heard some know-it-all experts say that America does not need manufacturing jobs as long as we have the design and engineering that goes into manufacturing. Try telling that to a 45 year old man or woman who worked for Bassett for twenty-five years and suddenly found themselves jobless. All the fast food and retail jobs in the world can’t absorb 300,000 workers.
The book is very well researched, with what must have been hundreds of hours of interviews conducted by Beth Macy. I was just thinking what a great movie this would make when I read on Macy’s website that a HBO mini-series based on the book is in development. What could have been a pretty dry story instead comes across like a spy novel. The only negative thing I have to note is that Macy can’t resist trying to mimic the Southern Appalachian accent when recalling conversations with John Bassett. It comes across as patronizing.
I was given a digital review copy of Factory Man by the publisher, through Net Galley. Just be aware if you read books on Kindle or other e-reader, that there are lots of end notes. In my review copy they were not linked to the text, so accessing them was very inconvenient.