Photo by Jared Soares | Equal Voice News
Ongoing series: The opening of China to global trade decimated manufacturing in Southwest and Southside Virginia. With the closing of scores of furniture and textile factories – along with many smaller businesses whose fortune was connected to theirs – unofficial unemployment rates are estimated to be as high as 25 percent in Galax and 35 percent in Martinsville. In this series, we explore how these Virginia communities – linked by similar economic bases and founding family ties – attempt to recover. What are the consequences of globalization in our region? And what are the prospects for the laid-off workers left behind? Read this story and more.
Workers on the cabinet assembly line stack drawers in December at Vaughan-Basset Furniture Co in Galax. John Bassett says he plans to "semi-retire" toward the end of this year, but workers expect his sons Doug and Wyatt will continue in the business.
Vaughan-Bassett Chairman John Bassett reviews paperwork in December with Executive Assistant Sheila Key at the plant in Galax. Bassett put most of his Byrd money into the factory, upgrading it with state-of-the-art machinery.
Picking Up the Pieces
About this series
- "Picking up the pieces" was produced in association with Equal Voice News, published by the nonprofit Marguerite Casey Foundation. Former Roanoke Times photographer Jared Soares participated in the series through funding from the Casey foundation, which provides grants to organizations working on the issues behind poverty.
More from the reporter
Correction (Feb. 12, 2012: 6:15 p.m.): The origin of the Lane Company Inc. was incorrectly recounted in an earlier version of this story. Lane, also a furniture manufacturer, was founded by Edward Hudson Lane in 1912 with no contributions from John D. Bassett Sr. Subsequent generations of Bassett and Lane furniture-makers were intertwined, but Edward Lane was the sole founder of that company. The story has been updated. | Our corrections policy
GALAX — John D. Bassett III was winding along the dusty roads of northern China on a three-day fact-finding mission. It was 2001, and the third-generation furniture-maker was gathering ammo for an epic battle to keep his factory churning.
If he could locate the manufacturer of a single dresser, ornate in the style of Louis Philippe, he just might beat the Chinese.
Back at Vaughan-Bassett, his Galax factory, he had already deconstructed the dresser piece by piece, proving the bargain-basement $100 the Chinese were wholesaling it for was far lower than the cost of the materials. The sticker on the back read “Dalian, China,” and now here he was, some 7,500 miles away from his Blue Ridge Mountains, trying to pinpoint the source of the cheap chest of drawers.
If they were going to war, he told his second-in-command son, Wyatt, they needed to heed Napoleon’s advice: Know your enemy.
They toured seven factories before they finally spotted the dresser in a showroom, in the remote reaches of Liaoning province, hours from Dalian. Its maker was happy to give them a tour, hoping the Bassetts would do what every other factory operator in Southwest Virginia was about to do — including the Henry County and Martinsville factories run by other members of Bassett’s extended, furniture-magnate family.
“I’ll sell the furniture to you, but you’ve got to do one thing for me first,” he said. “Close your factories.”
The official had no idea Bassett was on a mission to gather proof that Chinese manufacturers were not playing by the rules, threatening to put a permanent chill on the smokestacks that bore his family’s name. He had no idea the aging patriarch would do the thing that few in his position would do — put people ahead of profits.
John Bassett may have grown up in the ultra-rich world of summer homes, prep schools and chauffeurs. But furniture industry watchers say he has more sawdust in his veins than anyone in the business.As they left the factory, Bassett invoked the name of his grandfather and namesake, John D. Bassett, the man who put Virginia on the furniture-making map.
“He would roll over in his gra-ave!” Bassett boomed in his patrician Southern drawl.
Then he echoed the orders of another favorite warrior, Gen. George Patton.
“When confused,” he told his son, “attack.”
Back in the spare Vaughan-Bassett offices, filled with ‘70s-era wood paneling and mismatched chairs, the general called his lieutenant sons to order.
The problem? Jobs were leaving for Asia by the thousands, thanks to NAFTA and the opening of trade to China.
At first, the losses were in textiles — big-brand factories that made pantyhose, towels and sweatshirts. By 2002, more than 9,000 textile jobs had left Henry County for China, where wages were low and environmental regulations lax.
Now the Chinese were coming after furniture — and threatening at least as many jobs.
American factory owners were forging production contracts with Asian plants in a kind of outsourcing stampede. They would leverage the best-known names in the furniture industry, but the people making the dressers would be Chinese, earning $1 for every American worker’s $33.
“The saying was, ‘The dance card is filling up.’ If you didn’t sign with a factory right away, you’d be all alone,” recalled Doug Bassett, John’s oldest son and the company’s executive vice president. A former Republican congressional staffer, he left Capitol Hill to help his brother and dad battle what they call the Asian Invasion.
Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. employs nearly 700 line workers at its Galax plant. Doug Bassett, the company's executive vice president and chief operating officer, predicts the factory will expand output 50 percent by 2013. Bassett said the company's battle with Asia has made it "stronger, leaner and meaner."
Bins filled with drawer parts rest in front of a "quality first" banner inside the Vaughan-Basset factory in Galax. With sales of $83.9 million in 2011, the company is the largest wood bedroom manufacturer in the United States.
To hell with the dance card, Bassett told his sons. Imagine a desert island instead:
There is one woman stranded on it, surrounded by 12 men. “I got news for you, boys!” he bellowed. “When you’re the only girl left standing on an island with 12 men, you don’t have to be good looking, some-body’s gonna fall in love with you!”
If Vaughan-Bassett could be the last factory standing in the realm of mid-priced wooden bedroom furniture, they would get the business.
Bassett thought of his workers, mountain folk with an average age of 49. In a town where just 66 percent have high school degrees, many followed their parents and grandparents onto the assembly line.
He thought of his maverick grandfather. A century earlier, the elder John Bassett pooled $27,500 with his brother and brother-in-law to launch Bassett Furniture Industries in their eponymous Henry County town.
He knew the old man conducted business with his sons over long, four-course lunches made by servants in the family home. His grandfather had started out running a general store and in 1892 helped secure a post office for the fledgling town, which was then named for the family.
The elder Bassett branched into sawmilling and had the chutzpah to talk the fledgling Norfolk & Western Railway into running its new Punkin’ Vine line from Winston-Salem to Roanoke in 1892 — through the middle of his property. Why, with his sawmill, he would even sell them the timber for the ties. (Legend has it that he sold a railroad buyer many of the same pieces of lumber — more than once.)
A century before offshore production became the norm, the original John D. Bassett had the notion that he could fatten his profits if he quit exporting lumber to America’s furniture center in Grand Rapids, Mich., and make the stuff himself.
He went on to spawn the country’s biggest names in furniture — Hooker, Stanley, Bassett and more. As the northern factories collapsed in favor of the South’s cheap wages and plentiful woods, no one realized the creative destruction it wrought would repeat itself a century later.
The family elbow
John D. Bassett III grew up in the classic company town of Bassett, where the first workers lived in Bassett-owned homes, were paid in Bassett script, had their babies in a Bassett-endowed hospital — and went to John D. Bassett High. They even wrote their heating-bill checks to Bassett for the leftover factory steam that powered their shotgun homes.
By 1925, the town had 3,000 residents — more than double its current 1,221. “It was a joke that you graduated from high school and went to the University of Bassett Furniture,” said Ward Armstrong, the former state delegate and Bassett native whose father spent a career in furniture.
Furniture has not been produced in the 300,000-square-foot J.D. Bassett building in Bassett for more than a decade. The structure suffered damage in November, and Bassett resident Silas Samuel Crane was charged with arson and burglary after admitting he'd been in the building to steal copper. Resource Exchange Association, a nonprofit based in Graham, N.C., owns the building.
Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times
John D. Bassett III, chairman of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. in Galax, announces in January his company's $8 million expansion into the Webb Furniture building next door. The company plans to add 115 jobs over the next three years, expanding the workforce of the largest wood bedroom furniture manufacturer in the United States.
Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co.
- Founded: 1919 by Bunyan Vaughan with seed money from John D. Bassett Sr.
- Place in market: The largest wood bedroom manufacturer in the United States, with sales of $83.9 million last year.
- What it makes: Moderately priced pieces from $1,400 for veneer to $3,200 for hardwood bedroom suite.
- Employs: 650-700 in Galax plant and 50 in Elkins, N.C., factory, with plans announced in January to add an additional 115 workers in Galax over the next three years.
- Leadership: The privately held company is run by John D. Bassett III, chairman, and his sons Wyatt Bassett, president/CEO and Doug Bassett, executive vice president.
So it went that the first John D. Bassett sent his descendants into the world: daughter Blanche married the man who would create Vaughan Furniture; daughter Anne, the founder of Stanley. Other members of the family (referred to collectively by regular folk in Martinsville as “The Families”) begat such companies as Hooker, Stanley, Bassett-Walker and Weaver Mirror.
Bunyan Vaughan was Blanche Bassett Vaughan’s brother-in-law and an early Bassett Furniture manager who left for Galax in 1919 to launch Vaughan-Bassett, with the blessing of — and seed money from — the old man.
Most of Virginia’s furniture companies were launched with the help of the patriarch, who created his own competition while at the same time maintaining a thread of control. Intertwining his corporate babies with the family tree, he spawned generations of family fortune.
So it went that John D. Bassett III spent childhood summers inspecting lumber and helping his dad check on plant operations en route to Little League games. He enjoyed seeing his family name all over town — especially on the smokestacks — and was reared to believe the factories would one day be his to run.
In 1962, he returned from his post-war duties in Germany to become a Bassett manager and married Bunyan Vaughan’s great-granddaughter, Pat, who was also his distant cousin. (Pat’s grandmother and John’s grandmother Bassett were sisters.)
The family has learned to ward off jokes by beating observers to the punch line: “Listen, I should have crossed eyes and buck teeth, but I don’t!” he jokes.
John Bassett won’t talk publicly about the family split in 1983 that sent him to Vaughan-Bassett, the offshoot run by his wife’s family. He’d spent two decades running Bassett factories in Henry County and Mount Airy, N.C., learning every facet of the business.
Asked if he was elbowed out by his legendarily stern brother-in-law, Bob Spilman, who became Bassett’s CEO, he barked, “Elbowed? It was more like a knee or a foot!” But that’s as far as he’ll go on the subject, insisting, “I’ve buried that hatchet.”
Spilman, who was 10 years his senior, was already aiming to be the heir apparent by the time John Bassett returned from the Army, according to his wife, Pat.
“I don’t think they ever made up,” Armstrong said.
In 1998, John Bassett tried to buy the empty W.M. Bassett Furniture plant in Martinsville — only to be stonewalled by Spilman, who didn’t want to compete for labor with him and gave it to the city instead. The property lies barren now, another smokestack razed — a symbol of Martinsville’s collapsed economy, with a 16.7 unemployment rate that’s the highest in the state.
Industry watchers say the feud fueled a powerful competition between the two that drives John Bassett relentlessly even now, two years after Bob Spilman’s death.
Told that John Bassett attended both of Spilman’s funerals, in Martinsville and Richmond, one analyst deadpanned: “He probably just wanted to make sure he was dead.”
By the time he arrived in Galax in 1983, the Vaughan-Bassett plant was outdated and operating at a $200,000 annual loss. He dipped into personal resources to help it modernize and grow.
He recalls one competitor telling him: “What little bit of reputation you ever had, you’ve lost it now.”
With the Asian Invasion heating up, conditions were ripe for a black sheep with a dresser-sized chip on his shoulder. He didn’t have the private plane or the fancy office his brother-in-law claimed, but John Bassett had some things to prove.
Moving the cheese
By 2000, most furniture-makers were shifting to outsourcing, turning humming factories into warehouses for imported goods. Vaughan-Bassett, with 1,600 workers spread amid four plants, dug in its heels.
Its flagship plant would remain in Galax, but it would change its operation entirely. A state-of-the-art $2.5 million rough-end system from Germany run by one highly skilled worker replaced 10 line workers who marked and measured raw wood by hand. John Bassett had the common sense to keep one woman monitoring lumber defects with chalk — in case the high-tech camera broke, an ocean away from the Germans who could fix it. (The remaining workers were absorbed into other parts of the plant.)
His credit-processing department cut the time it gauged retailers’ credit from two weeks to 30 minutes — unheard of in the industry. He had to threaten to fire a resistant manager to make it happen, giving him three days to “figure it out.”
John Bassett went to war with an arsenal of legal pads, a yellowed poster board he calls his Bible and 100 copies of Spencer Johnson’s bestselling book, “Who Moved My Cheese?” Featuring four hungry mice searching for their missing food, the book is a parable about the perils of clinging to old habits.
He gathered troops on multiple fronts. He rented out the local Elks Lodge to rally suppliers. He brought together a coalition of 20 other furniture companies and raised nearly $7 million for hired legal guns — trade lawyers who would argue their case against the Chinese.
He told people in the industry: We have a responsibility to our employees to make sure they’re not losing their jobs due to illegal trade.
“He conducted himself as the field general,” recalled Steve Walker, an industry expert at North Carolina State University who watched the epic unfold. Bassett recited Churchill’s “We Shall Never Surrender” speech at industry meetings, part of a five-point sermon he created on leadership.
No. 4 on his poster-board Bible: Don’t panic. “The business schools were telling us to close, the bankers were saying it too. Thank God we’d paid down all our debt because no one would loan us a dime!” he recalled.
Some competitors mocked him for instigating the case, then the largest anti-dumping petition ever brought against the Chinese. At the 2003 semiannual international furniture market in High Point, N.C., detractors passed out buttons featuring a basset hound and the question, “How big is your duty?”
“They didn’t like it because we moved their cheese!” said Bassett, now 74, referring to his favorite management book-turned-mantra. “Guys, if we’re behind in business, let’s don’t try to catch up with the guy in front. Let’s leapfrog him instead!”
Vaughn-Bassett Chairman John Bassett makes a phone call in December from his office at the plant in Galax. Bassett regularly calls factory managers at all hours with news of his latest idea to improve the plant's efficiency.
John Bassett lobbied state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, for government incentives to help pay for his expansion of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. in Galax. Stanley helped snag $275,000 in funding.
Effects of globalization on the American furniture industry
- More than 9,000 jobs lost in Martinsville/Henry County and 300,000 lost nationwide.
- More than 250 U.S. wood furniture plants closed.
- Imports increased from 25 percent of total furniture sales to 75 percent between 2000 and 2010, although American production increased last year.
- U.S. wood furniture imports fell 30 percent in the past three years, with China’s share dropping from 47 percent to 41 percent.
- China’s shipments of wood bedroom exports fell by $700 million, a 50 percent drop caused partly by anti-dumping duties.
Back at the plant, he commandeered a megaphone to pump up his workers, offering them chances to win a Harley-Davidson or a Browning rifle as a production incentive. He broke down pieces of Chinese-made furniture so they could see the inferior construction methods they were competing against and shouted, “The Chinese are not super people!”
He instituted attendance bonuses that whittled absenteeism from 5.5 percent to less than 2 percent. The bonuses are paid separately at the month’s end so workers will connect their performance to cash. (One line worker praised the method because it allows her to hide the extra check from her husband, calling it her “pantyhose money.”)
Bassett told them he would fight the battle in Washington if they would do their part by working harder, too.
“They’re in their own little world with a captive labor market, which helps them keep wages on the low side,” Walker pointed out, with line workers earning 5 percent less than the industry average, or about $12.50 an hour including benefits, in the non-union shop.
Bassett called in the press to witness 98 percent of his employees signing the anti-dumping petition in a symbolic show of support. Workers walked away with T-shirts that read “I Voted to Save My Job.”
Meanwhile, the stories coming out of his relatives’ factories were growing bleaker by the moment. Bassett Furniture Industries gradually shuttered all but two of some 40 factories across the nation in favor of marketing imports and selling them in their new retail stores. As it reduced its workforce from 9,026 to 1,400, people asked: How can Vaughan-Bassett hang on when no one else can?
Most third-generation business owners have grown up wealthy and are not as driven to success as their forebears, but the battle reinvigorated John Bassett, recalled George Cartledge Jr., chairman of Roanoke-based Grand Piano and Furniture, a longtime seller of Vaughan-Bassett goods.
“People ask me all the time, what’s John Bassett know that nobody else seems to know, and one thing he knows is: Work hard,” Cartledge says.
Vaughan-Bassett managers are regularly called at all hours with news of his latest efficiency idea. (“I don’t call Gentiles on Easter weekend or Jews on Yom Kippur,” he snapped. “Any other day, I call.”)
The ideas morph into tasks that get scribbled on one of the ubiquitous legal pads. He sleeps next to them, too — to jot down thoughts that bolt him upright at 3 a.m.
He wakes up by 5 in the morning and reads five national and international newspapers on his Kindle before making the half-hour drive to Galax from his stunning Roaring Gap, N.C., home, with views that stretch 100 miles from Floyd County to Winston-Salem.
In his coffee-stained 2007 Lexus sedan, the list keeps growing. “Your name gets next to an item on that list, and that’s not good,” explains Rodney Poe, 42, a third-generation Vaughan-Bassett worker who rose to plant manager. On a recent Sunday night, Bassett called Poe from his $2.26 million Florida resort home in Hobe Sound — where one of his neighbors is Tiger Woods. “He’s at you constantly,” Poe says, “with a thousand different questions.” The John Bassett theory of management: When you see a snake’s head, hit it.
Not all the cheese-moving initiatives flourished — some of them grew mold. Like the line of Elvis-themed furniture that landed him on “Good Morning America” in 2001: “I call that my glorious failure. What I learned was that Elvis people are fun, but they don’t have a lot of money for furniture,” he said.
To maintain his market share, he trotted out promotional suites named “barn burners” at rock-bottom prices. “He’d come up with something so cheap, you had to buy it whether you needed it or not,” Cartledge said.
But the strategy wasn’t enough to keep two subsidiary plants afloat in the Smyth County town of Atkins and in Sumter, S.C., and they closed in 2007 and 2004, respectively.
When Poe was growing up, Galax was a bustling factory town with six plants. His schoolteachers used to point to the factories out their windows, warning students they’d end up elbow-deep in varnish if they didn’t finish their homework.
Vaughan-Bassett, the largest employer in Galax with nearly 700 employees, is the only one left. “What motivates him is he cares deeply about carrying the tradition onto his sons,” Poe says. “He wants to hand them down something other than a plane ticket to China.”
In 2003, Bassett’s coalition of bedroom furniture-makers prevailed. The result? An average 7-percent duty enacted on Chinese factories found to be illegally dumping goods.
The duties, also referred to as “Byrd money” (named for the 2000 Byrd Amendment legislation that created them), were annual fines designed to level the playing field between American bedroom furniture makers and the Chinese dumpers, which were artificially supported by the Communist government.
Collected from 2004 to 2007, the duties were distributed to the coalition members who’d filed the complaint — bringing more than $21 million to Vaughan-Bassett alone. Though Congress repealed the amendment, $152 million in collected duties is still tied up in litigation, more than $20 million of which Bassett stands to gain.
Some Chinese factories absorbed the duty costs, but many passed them on to buyers, and American companies already importing furniture ultimately paid millions more for the goods.
“Some companies were literally kept alive by that money,” said Jerry Epperson, a Richmond-based industry analyst. “But no one anticipated the violent reaction of some retailers. They raised hell.”
Many big-box retailers felt especially stung. “They’d gone to a lot of expense to set up buying teams in Asia, and they’d played by the rules and didn’t think they should change,” Epperson said.
In the typically genteel world of furniture manufacturing, several companies dropped Vaughan-Bassett from their supplier lists and still refuse to walk into the company’s showroom at High Point.
The duties weren’t enough to make the difference for most American furniture plants, which were doubly slammed by environmental regulations and rising health care costs — neither of which burdened their Asian competitors.
Vaughan-Bassett Free Clinic employee Renay Murphy prepares to take the blood pressure and other vital signs of a factory worker in Galax. The clinic opened in 2006 in an attempt to contain health insurance costs and is open to employees and their families.
Bassett Furniture Industries Chief Executive Officer and Director Rob Spilman stands in the Bassett boardroom last month. Spilman, newphew of John D. Bassett III, says his uncle may have won the anti-dumping battle but has still seen his profits slide.
Byrd Amendment and anti-dumping duties
- Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act of 2000 imposed duties on Chinese factories found to be “dumping,” or selling furniture for less than the cost to produce it.
- Sponsored by then-Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.
- Cited in 2003 by a coalition of more than 20 furniture-makers led by John Bassett III in a request for a government investigation into allegations of dumping. The coalition prevailed, resulting in an average 7 percent duty levied against factories determined to have dumped goods.
- Millions in duties were distributed between 2004 and 2007 to coalition companies, including $21 million to Vaughan-Bassett.
- Repealed in 2006 during the Bush administration.
- $152 million in collected duties is still tied up in litigation. Vaughan-Bassett stands to gain more than $20 million.
John Bassett funneled most of his Byrd money into the Galax plant, upgrading it with state-of-the-art machinery. He doubled his inventory from $15 million to $30 million in stock and rolled out a speed-delivery system for retailers called Vaughan-Bassett Express.
With beefed-up efficiency and a five-day delivery model, Vaughan-Bassett hoped to outplay China where it could: by competing against the six weeks it takes a container full of imports to reach the United States.
Consumers can get American-made inventory quicker, small to mid-sized retailers don’t have to tie their assets up in inventory and, as Doug Bassett enthused: “If a dresser’s broken on arrival, you can call us up and, in a heavy Southern accent, we’ll fix it. Try getting that from Asia!”
As health care costs threatened to eat up profits, Bassett kept his insurance rates flat with the creation of the Vaughan-Bassett Free Clinic, an off-site facility staffed with nurse practitioners where workers and their families can be seen for free. The company pays $350,000 annually for it, the idea being to trim use of its traditional Anthem insurance — with its high deductible and $25 co-pay — by pushing use of the free clinic first.
The company had to push resistant employees to get checkups, including diabetics who hadn’t been to the doctor in 10 years. Sixty men simply refused to go.
The notion sent John Bassett back to his legal pad, whereupon he composed a letter threatening to rescind use of the free clinic for each man’s family if 60 days passed and he still hadn’t submitted to a physical.
He mailed the letter on Friday afternoon, strategically timed for Saturday receipt — and addressed it to each man’s wife.
“I let Mama take care of it!” Bassett boasted, eyes ablaze at the triumph of old-fashioned horse sense.By Monday afternoon, 53 had signed up for physicals. The men reminded him of toy soldiers, standing in a line that stretched out the clinic doors.
‘Not a social experiment’
The line workers were working harder than ever, and most realized a major battle had just been won. But would the duties be too little too late?
Two hours away in Henry County, they were. Stanley Furniture, which received $23.2 million in Byrd money, held out as long as it could before closing its Stanleytown plant in 2010, putting 530 people out of work. (It still employs 112 workers in Henry County in its warehouse and offices, and operates a youth-furniture factory in Robbinsville, N.C., with 380 workers.)
Stanley CEO Glenn Prillaman declined to be interviewed for this series but wrote in an email: “The closing of the factory really hurt me. Changed me. It is something I have to put behind me if I am to lead this organization.”
Octavia Witcher shares that pain. A Stanley employee for 12 years, she applied for more than 100 jobs in 13 months before finally landing a cleaning job at Liberty Fair Mall in Martinsville last month — days before her unemployment extensions were due to expire.
“A few have gone back to school, but most everyone from Stanley that hasn’t left town is still looking for work,” she said.
Publicly owned companies in Henry County didn’t properly reinvest the anti-dumping money into factory modernizations, most observers believe. “They thought, we can turn these buildings into big warehouses and the company will make more money, not thinking about all the people who would be out of work,” said Mike Micklem, a Roanoke-based sales rep for Vaughan-Bassett.
“Instead of modernizing when we were telling them to, back in the early ‘90s, they took the easy way out,” Walker, the North Carolina analyst, said. “Barring some big effort on the part of the government to protect industry ... if you were a public company, it was a whole lot easier to just shut ‘em down and go buy the product.”
Why make it for $100 when you can buy it for $50 — and forego the worry of rising health care and environmental compliance inspectors? By 2005, the percentage of wood-furniture imports flip-flopped from 25 percent to 75 percent. In the past decade, 300,000 American furniture jobs have vanished, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Bassett Furniture Industries, which closed its last Henry County plant in 2007, received $8.5 million in Byrd money. With $250 million in sales last year — down 50 percent from its heyday — it shifted to imports earlier than Stanley and eliminated the middleman by adding 90 retail stores, Bassett Home Furnishings, which now sell 70 percent of the company’s inventory. It’s also partnering with HGTV to launch a line of furniture that will be featured on the network.
Bassett Furniture still employs 250 employees in the region, including warehousing and corporate offices in Henry County and a table assembly plant in Martinsville. Hooker Furniture, which put 280 workers out of work with the closing of its Martinsville plant in 2007, still employs 206 area workers in distribution and office facilities, as well as 400 workers between two upholstery plants in Bedford and Cherryville, N.C. (It has 30 full-time employees in China and Vietnam.)
“The duties helped some, no question, but I felt like the horse was already out of the barn by the time they arrived,” said Rob Spilman, CEO of Bassett Furniture. Many importers ultimately shifted production to Vietnam or Indonesia, where the duties don’t apply.
“We’ve been a public company since 1930, with shareholders that have to get profits,” added Spilman. “At the end of the day, we are not a social experiment.”
Spilman points out that John Bassett, who is his uncle, may have won the anti-dumping battle, but Vaughan-Bassett’s profits have still dropped significantly, and he hasn’t been immune from the sting of factory closings.
With the shuttering of the Sumter and Atkins plants and the mothballing of a factory in Elkin, N.C., Vaughan-Bassett lost 900 jobs from its 1,600-worker peak. Fifty of the Elkin workers were later re-hired. Bassett blames the Elkin losses on the housing recession, not globalization, and said he plans to expand that facility when the economy rebounds.
Vaughan-Bassett executives Doug Bassett (left) and Wyatt Bassett (right) have lunch with their father, company Chairman John Bassett, last month at the County Line Cafe in Galax. Bassett and his two sons meet daily at the diner for lunch and shoptalk.
The bulletin board in John Bassett's office at Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. in Galax is filled with family photographs and pieces of inspiration. Opponents of Bassett's anti-dumping efforts passed out buttons like the one pictured at top left, which features a basset hound and reads, "How big is your duty?"
Next in the series
- "Picking Up the Pieces" will continue March 11 with an examination of the powerful Harvest Foundation, created to restore hard-hit Martinsville to its once-booming prime, and on April 22 with a story about the workers who were displaced by the evaporation of nearly 19,000 jobs in Martinsville and Henry County.
The privately held company reported record net sales of $168.2 million in 2000 compared to $83.9 million last year, according to the company’s annual reports, with gross profit margins plunging from 18.9 percent to 10.7 percent over that same period.
Still, Spilman concedes, “He’s managed to keep more of his production than most anybody else ... which took a lot of tenacity and guts.
“But that’s what you’re going to do if you have your employees and much of your family wealth tied up in the business. You’re going to fight like the dickens.”
As Walker describes it: “His business is two-thirds of what it used to be, but ultimately, he won the war — because he’s still there.”
He’s not only still around, he’s now the largest wooden bedroom furniture maker in America.If Bassett hadn’t won the war, Galax would have a much higher unemployment rate than its current 9 percent. “It would look like Martinsville,” Walker said.
‘Tilting at windmills’
Bassett and his two sons meet daily for lunch and shoptalk at The County Line diner in Galax, apropos of old man Bassett. During a recent lunch, Doug Bassett recalled the war’s early skirmishes, back when people called his dad Don Quixote. “They said, ‘Bless him, there he goes again, tilting at windmills.’ ”
During the height of the factory closings, friends approached the family tentatively, “like we had cancer or something,” Doug Bassett said. Vaughan-Bassett may be smaller, but he contends that battling Asia has made it “stronger, leaner and meaner.”
The company pledged an $8 million expansion in January when it bought the empty Webb Furniture plant next door to make room for expanded assembly and finishing operations. With a 20-percent sales increase last year, Doug Bassett predicted the factory will expand output 50 percent by 2013, adding 115 new jobs over the next three years.
National industry figures underscore that prediction, with imports falling 30 percent between 2007 and 2010, partly due to double-digit annual increases in Chinese labor costs. Imported furniture represented 71 percent of all wood furniture sold in 2010, but sales of domestically made furniture had gone up 3.6 percent.
John Bassett plans to “semi-retire” toward the end of this year and spend more time in Roaring Gap, the enclave of North Carolina tobacco and manufacturing moguls. Barring disability, the only way he’ll ever fully retire “is if they take me out behind the lumber stack and shoot me.”
Factory workers and analysts alike predict his fourth-generation furniture-maker sons will carry the battle forward. “They’re as stubborn as he is,” said Gary McKinzie, a 65-year-old plant maintenance worker.
The fact is, he’s put in place managers who think exactly like he does, guys who revere him as a man’s man — and an expletive-dropping saint. “He called me one Christmas at 6:20 a.m. and had me go check on the wood kilns, which didn’t make my wife real happy,” said Doug Brannock, a vice president and the company controller. “But tell you the truth? I would die for the guy.”
In January, he very nearly did. At the end of a board meeting about the Webb plant purchase, Brannock casually tossed out the idea of getting government incentive grants: “I guess it’s too late to get any grants.”To which the aging patriarch snapped: “You’ve got to be [expletive] kidding me!”
Brannock had forgotten poster-board lesson No. 1: If you don’t think you’ll win, you’ll lose.For the next eight days, every official and economic developer in the region received the full-on Bassett, the battle plan being tenacity + speed = victory. “Guys, we’ve got to move with a-la-cri-ty!” he barked to the troops.
John Bassett hadn’t even voted for state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, having been friends with his opponent, incumbent Roscoe Reynolds, most of his life. But during the fall 2011 campaign, Stanley stopped by Vaughan-Bassett for the requisite tour and poster-board speech.
After which Bassett peered over sawdust-covered glasses and told Stanley he would support him if he won the election — and if he left him his personal cellphone number, “not the one with some little 18-year-old girl answering the phone.”
It came in handy as the commander proceeded to lobby Stanley daily for government incentive grants to help get the Webb plant cranking again. He called at night and over the weekend, pulling him out of late-January General Assembly session meetings. He nudged him to interrupt the governor, who was in South Carolina stumping for Mitt Romney. To fine-tune details, he deputized Brannock, who then exchanged 66 text messages with Stanley, who laughed describing the two-tiered assault.
What normally takes the machinations of state government two or three months was nailed in eight glorious, debate-filled days, as Stanley helped cinch $200,000 in tobacco commission funds and another $75,000 from the state.
Whereupon John Bassett gathered reporters from Winston-Salem to Roanoke to witness the smokestack he was bringing back to life. Five hours away, President Barack Obama could talk all he wanted about bringing manufacturing back from Asia.
“But guess what, guys?” he told one reporter, positively giddy at the victory. “When you never went cheap with some other woman, you don’t have to come drag-assin’ back.”