“Factory Man” Is a Fascinating Look at the Downfall of American Manufacturing

By focusing on one American furniture magnate fighting to save his company, Beth Macy’s recently published Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town paints an effective picture of the broader industry, which has, overall, switched to importing furniture instead of making it stateside. She also highlights the difficult, ongoing implications for thousands of displaced workers, putting faces and names to facts and figures.

John D. Bassett III, a fiery, controversial, hard-charging third-generation furniture factory owner in southern Virginia, takes center stage. He’s the great-grandson of the co-founder of Bassett Furniture. The first third of this can’t-put-down book reads like something from Faulkner, as Macy relates Bassett family history back to 1773 in Henry County, Virginia, replete with intrigue, double-crossing, and family squabbles.

John D. Bassett Sr. started Bassett Furniture in 1902 with his brother and brother-in-law. He would go on to help fund lots of other Virginia furniture manufacturers, including Stanley, Hooker, Vaughan, and Vaughan-Bassett.

John D. Bassett III was assumed by most everyone to be the heir-apparent to lead Bassett Furniture, but thanks to a fight with his then-CEO brother-in-law, he was forced out. He left to work for the competing (but still family-connected) Vaughan-Bassett.

His tenure at Vaughan-Bassett would put him face-to-face with a foe even more formidable than his brother-in-law: China. Bassett, with assistance from U.S. anti-dumping trade laws, fought for recourse against what he perceived to be unfair competition. As a result, his factories remain open today, employing workers who make furniture here in the United States. (As does Columbus, Mississippi-based Johnston/Tombigbee Furniture. Its owner, Reau Berry, is quoted several times in the book.)

This is an enormous feat, as this quote from the book shows: “Between 2001 and 2012, 63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million American factory jobs went away. During that same time, China’s manufacturing base ballooned to the tune of 14.1 million new jobs.”

I won’t give all the details away here; this story is well worth reading on your own, and John D. Bassett III’s legendary antics have to be read to be believed.

Macy presents the facts as she finds them, while expressing skepticism over outsourcing’s benefits to society. We often hear about the economic effects (lower costs for consumer goods, for example), but the hard human reality of the situation is more nuanced. She shares the stories of many unemployed factory workers struggling to figure out what’s next. Reading these, it’s impossible not to sympathize with them and not to cheer for John D. Bassett III.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/09/15/book-biz-compelling-story-american-maverick-fighting-fair/)

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