Learning from “Factory Man”

The Vaughan-Bassett team that took on China, from left: J. Doug Bassett IV, John D. Bassett III, Taiwanese translator and consultant Rose Maner, company comptroller Doug Brannock, Wyatt Bassett, and Vice President Sheila Key. Photo by David Hungate for Slate Magazine.

The Vaughan-Bassett team that took on China, from left: J. Doug Bassett IV, John D. Bassett III, Taiwanese translator and consultant Rose Maner, company comptroller Doug Brannock, Wyatt Bassett, and Vice President Sheila Key. Photo by David Hungate for Slate Magazine.

Waveland     All year I kept reading that this book with the long, drawn out title, Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy was a “must read.” From the descriptions, it sounded a bit like an anti-globalization, “there’s something out there that might save jobs and manufacturing,” piece. Obviously my kind of book.

There was a problem though because the book was all caught up in the fight between the publisher Hachette and the giant “everything store” that dominates the book selling market, Amazon. I’m a hardcore Kindle user by necessity, because I can’t carry the weight of so many books on my travels, and because I can’t afford to buy the books in hard and soft cover unless there’s no other choice. What a paradox though that I couldn’t easily access a book about the impacts and strategies of dealing with globalization because a legacy business, elite publishing house with some claims to justice in the dispute is going head-to-head with a company that is a modern master-of-the-universe that has disrupted the old business models and wants to globally dominate publishing and a lot of other businesses. What should I do?  Who knows, but I went with “waiting it out” and a “pox on both of their houses” until they settled the dispute, and I could peacefully get the book on their bad, but mutually agreeable terms on my Kindle.

It’s an idiosyncratic read, but on the whole worth the wait and the effort because the last several parts of the book make wading through the early parts a classic case of the ends justifying the means of the author’s strategy.

Here’s the short take though. A multi-generational family of North Carolina furniture makers managed to steer a lot of the furniture business from Michigan and the East Coast to their neck of the woods by offering better access to timber and cheaper labor, made a lot of money and built houses on the hill in the weird class and racial relationships of the area, and then is bitten hard by the same dog-eat-dog strategy as first Taiwanese manufacturers and then Chinese furniture factories undercut their labor and production costs, oftentimes using lumber from the same forests and shipping back container loads of products for sale in the USA at dirt cheap prices. Many of the US-furniture makers decide they can’t beat them, so they join them and start outsourcing more and more of their work, shutting their factories, laying off their workers, and creating ghost towns of empty houses and rusting hulks of abandoned factories.

In this tale there’s one maverick grandson, John Bassett III, who gets hopscotched out of his patrimonial claims to run the business, ends up with a shirttail piece of the business, makes it a success with close attention and a tough love management style, and ends up rallying what’s left of the industry to successfully file a claim under US law against dumping and, using another piece of legislation, gets workers some retraining benefits as well. He ends up cutting his imports to 0% and by the end of the book, despite having shuttered many of his own plants, is finally reopening one with fewer workers, but regardless is on the upswing, and is the “last girl on the island” making wooden bedroom furniture.

The author tells the story with JBIII as the hero, which is the way these things go, but it’s hard to miss that the real winners were the lawyers on the dumping case from the fancy, DC-firms, who probably grossed $50 million. One of the few good things ever to be attached to former Senator Robert Byrd, the legendary segregationist and longest serving member of the Senate, was an amendment giving workers retraining money in dumping cases, but of course that’s now history because of US agreements with the World Trade Organization. Watching the way various furniture manufacturers used their dumping relief money is also sobering since so few of them upgraded their factories and so many of them simply rejiggered their retail operations or cashed in what they could.

It’s hard to miss the moral of the story of Factory Man, which seems to be the same oft repeated tale, that it’s really all about the money and the exception, an industrialist that likes his factory and cares about his workers, still proves that rule. There’s no solution here and little hope, just a well-written book on what seems an outlier, who didn’t just take the money and run.

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