Journalist Beth Macy documents the collapse of the American furniture industry and its human cost in her new book Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local, and Helped Save an American Town.
She profiles John Bassett III, a determined owner who fought back against the foreign onslaught — both by filing anti-dumping charges with the U.S. International Trade Commission against Chinese firms, and by making his own company more competitive.
When Chinese companies started manufacturing furniture, the Bassett Company, based in Virginia, watched their once vibrant Virginia town become vacant. Thousands of workers lost their jobs.
In today’s interview Macy tells us how the Bassett family tracked down a Chinese knock-off of their product in China:
There’s a dresser that’s just come on the scene [in 2001] in the American market and it’s a Louis-Philippe [style] dresser. It’s wholesaling for $100 and [John Bassett III] can’t figure out how the heck [the Chinese company is] able to sell it. “They can’t be making money,” he says. He has his engineer take it apart and deconstruct it piece-by-piece and price out the pieces. And he knows they have to be “dumping,” which means selling it for less than the price of the materials.
So he sends his son Wyatt, who is kind of his head business guy, he sends him and a … translator, who is a family friend, to Dalian because the stick on the back only says “Dalian, China.” It doesn’t say exactly which factory it’s from. And he sends them off to do a secret spy mission. They’re pretending that they’re looking to buy — but what they’re really looking for is that one particular dresser.
They find it after days and days of searching. They finally end up in this remote section of the province, almost to the border of North Korea, and they find it there… The gentleman running [the factory] actually meets with them and he has this very chilly one-on-one dialogue with them that’s all translated. But the guy says, basically, “Close your factories.” (Bassett’s got three factories left at the time.) “Close your three factories and let me make all of your furniture for you.”
… The translated word, and John [Bassett III] remembered it very well, was “tuition”… “This is the tuition of [China] being able to capture your market share. We’re going to sell it so cheap and with government subsidies — we’re going to be able to make all of your furniture for you.”
They ended up driving them out to this furniture industrial park, out in the country and there [are] just stacks and stacks of timber… When [Wyatt] saw all that Russian timber laid out they knew [the Chinese] were serious. And they knew they were going to war.
Photo: An abandoned lumber mill in Martinsville, Virginia, 2010. via the New Yorker