Book Review: Factory Man

By Chris Wendel

Factory Man

How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local, and Saved an American Town

464 pages

Hardcover: $25.20, E-book edition: $14.99

Factory Man is an entertaining piece of non-fiction with a longstanding family business as its subject. The book chronicles the once prosperous Bassett Furniture Company. Basset is one of many towns in Virginia that have closed furniture making operations in the past 20 years mainly because of competition from China.

Written by award winning reporter Beth Macy, Factory Man documents this rise and collapse of the American furniture industry. The book’s main focus is one strong-minded owner who chooses to fight back against the foreign onslaught by filing anti-dumping charges against Chinese companies.

At first Factory Man is so fixated on the Bassett family that it sometimes reads like a James Michener novel, covering the lives of three generations in a southern setting and weaving some history into the story. Except in this case, all of the story is real and Macy’s knack for detailing the Basset family (and its eventual fortune) is the bones of a drama that only a rich family could provide.

Macy begins the detailed Bassett Furniture story with the enterprising landowner John Bassett, who founds a tiny Virginia settlement in his name shortly after the Civil War. Convincing a new railroad to go through the newly-minted town of Bassett, John Bassett realizes that with plenty of available timber close by that he is well positioned to start a furniture company. At this point, the world’s furniture capitol is Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It’s John Bassett’s wife Pokie (short for Pocahontas – yes, her real name) who tours a trusting furniture factory in Grand Rapids. Taking copious notes on the Michigan operation, Pokie returns to Virginia to assist her husband with the design of their own furniture manufacturing company. With an abundant supply of materials and inexpensive labor the Bassett Furniture Company quickly becomes the first of several Bassett furniture making factories in the American South.

Within 30 years the tiny town of Bassett grows into the consummate company town, owning its own bank, most of the town’s housing, and a utility company. The Bassett family also holds tight control over the town’s two churches. As the Bassett fortune grows, so does its dominance of the furniture industry in southern Virginia and North Carolina. Along the way, there are plenty of undercurrents here that reflect the societal challenges of each time period.

Black laborers are employed by the Bassett factory and given the nastiest jobs and paid much less than their white counterparts. Macy reveals through her exhaustive interviews and research that the Bassett men continue in the 1920s and 30s a longstanding tradition of taking advantage of the “help.” Disgruntled family members and employees break off at different times to start their own companies. The succession of ownership and management from generation to generation validates the ugly backstabbing that can occur when family posturing and business politics collide.

As time and the chapters roll along it becomes apparent that John Bassett III ( JBIII) is the book’s true hero. JBIII’s grandfather and company founder John Basset wished that his grandson one day be the company heir apparent. Wishes don’t always become reality and when JBIII grows into the family company he is eventually forced out by his own brother-in-law. JBIII then goes to work for a Bassett Furniture competitor.

After reaching its zenith as a Fortune 500 company in the 1980s Bassett Furniture is about to fall to Chinese competitors. JBIII is now running his own furniture company that successfully fights Chinese knockoff furniture that is illegally priced in the world market.

In the end Factory Man is a long and winding tale that requires some patience to get through its early descriptions of family members. That investment sets the foundation for the second half of the book that is an enjoyable case study of American economic history.

Chris Wendel is a commercial lender and consultant with Northern Initiatives in Traverse City. Based in Marquette, Mich., Northern Initiatives provides entrepreneurs with access to capital, information, and new markets.