A Furniture Industry Renaissance?

Tim Hairston, laid off in 2007 when Bassett Furniture shut down a factory, has regained employment at the company's new Bench Made facility. Photo credit: Roanoke Times.
Tim Hairston, laid off in 2007 when Bassett Furniture shut down a factory, has regained employment at the company’s new Bench Made facility. Photo credit: Roanoke Times.

by James A. Bacon

At its peak in the 1980s, Basset Furniture Industries employed roughly 9,000 people, with the largest concentration in Martinsville and Henry County. One of the largest furniture manufacturers in the world, the company provided jobs not only for machinists and assembly workers on the factory floor, as one would find in any mill town, but middle-class jobs in furniture design, sales & marketing, and administration, as well as high-income executives. Bassett, a census-designated place of little more than 1,000, was surely one of the smallest communities in the United States to boast its own country club and golf course.

The rise of China and the advance of globalization decimated Bassett Furniture and its namesake community. Actually, “decimate” does not come close to describing what happen to the company. The word is derived from the ancient Roman practice of killing one of ten soldiers as punishment for the entire unit. Bassett shed more than nine of ten jobs, hitting bottom around 800 employees early in this century, as it dismantled its manufacturing operations and hung on as a designer, distributor, retailer and importer of mostly Chinese-made furniture.

Today, there are signs that the tide has turned, reports the Roanoke Times. Bassett’s emphasis on custom-built furniture, providing a choice of 1,000 upholstery fabrics, and free in-home design visits seems to be paying off. The company resumed manufacturing in Bassett in January, and announced plans to build an upholstery manufacturing center in Texas to produce sofas, love seats, sectionals and chairs. Total employment, including Zenith Global Logistics, a freight line, has rebounded to 2,400.

Bassett is illustrative of broad economic trends that portend better times for the American manufacturing sector and employment of blue collar workers whose livelihoods have been shattered by globalization and automation.

In the late 1970s, when I was cutting my teeth as a business reporter in Martinsville, furniture manufacturing was a low-wage, semiskilled industry. Bassett and other Virginia and North Carolina furniture manufacturers had gotten their start in the pre-World War II era by tapping cheap labor off the farm. The business strategy worked for decades — until China emerged as a global competitor with even lower cost labor. Furniture companies led the move to “off-shore” manufacturing operations overseas. Since then, American blue collar wages have stagnated while Chinese wages have soared, eliminating much of the labor cost differential. Now furniture companies are participating in the re-shoring” phenomenon — the shifting of manufacturing back to the United States. Fortunately, while the Chinese came to dominate the manufacturing end of the business, they never penetrated the U.S. sales, distribution and retail segments of the business. The preservation of those core functions has allowed American companies to rebound.

Meanwhile, Bassett has developed a mass-customization strategy that requires faster turn-around times than is possible with a 30-day supply chain leading all the way back to China. While some furniture parts still can be machined and shipped from China to the U.S., Bassett needs an operation closer to home that allows final assembly and installation of upholstery fabrics hand-picked by the customer.

The Roanoke Times article alludes to another niche that Bassett is building upon:

The company’s new Bench Made line of high-end dining furniture features pieces handcrafted in red leaf maple by about 25 workers in a 30,000-square-foot space once used as a warehouse in Bassett. The workers carefully antique the Bench Made pieces with wire brushes and add tiny holes that resemble natural wormholes.

There will always be a market for cheap, mass-produced furniture as well as semi-customized furniture for the working class and middle class with limited incomes. But the top 20% of the market increasingly is looking for furniture that is unique and distinctive, and that typically means hand crafted — the trend I described last week in “The Rise of the New Artisan Class.”

Do these trends portend a comeback for Virginia’s furniture sector? I think that’s a reasonable hope, although any enthusiasm must be tempered by the reality that job creation will be modest — advances in automation mean far fewer workers are required on the assembly line than 30 years ago — and far from sufficient to restore the economic fortunes of Southside Virginia. Still, anything that staunches the bleeding of jobs is a positive sign. And anything that actually brings even a few jobs back to the region is cause for celebration.

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13 responses to “A Furniture Industry Renaissance?”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Kinda odd that you go on about this without once mentioning the superb book on same — “Factory Man” by Beth Macy.

    This happens all the time on this blog. Someone in Virginia spends a few years researching a book on something, but the topic isn’t worth discussing until it shows up in some newspaper.

    1. Hey, Peter,

      In case you missed it, I plugged Beth’s book here, and again (can’t find the link) when I covered her presentation at the Library of Virginia. It was a great book, but its publication more than a year ago preceded the signs of the furniture-industry turn-around cited by the Roanoke Times article, so I didn’t see it as relevant to this particular post.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    So, I am supposed to have a mental database chock full of all the writings of James A. Bacon Jr.? I am expected to immediately call up a down-in-the-story cite from July 2014?

    They used to do this in the old Soviet Union — expect everyone to immediately cite anything in V. I. Lenin’s 55 volumes.


  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    This is important article. One suspects the potential beginnings of a trend here. So how to take maximum advantage? And do it both for this trade and for others similarly situated and affected, or potentially so.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      It is also a trend that could be acerbated by the radically changing demographics in China, the shrinking of their work force now increasingly hobbled by their earlier decades long one child per couple policy.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    Spent some time driving around rural NC in the days before Thanksgiving and observed once again the plight of rural America that used to have local manufacturing jobs for folks with marginal educations.

    It was not only furniture, it was textiles, and assembly plants usually located next to a rail line or spur.

    Virtually all of those plants are closed. The only jobs available are govt and schools. Lots of adults hanging out during the middle of the week during the day even as their kids are in school.

    These folks are tied to their land – the land that’s been in their family and they exist on the margins economically, without any real prospects for employment, much less health care …

    One does wonder what exactly the kids are being taught that will provide them with the ability to get a job in the more urban areas because the jobs are not coming back …

    What’s going on in Martinsville is the exception and it’s mostly due to the efforts of the owners who are committed to going the extra mile to keep jobs for their employees – far more than most 21st century employers will do.

    I don’t think hoping for a “renaissance” is realistic and certainly not something to put all the eggs in the basket in.

    The bigger question is what are we going to do with rural Va/NC/WVA in terms of jobs and the economy for the 99% who are not lucky enough to work for Bassett?

    and it’s not like we can just wash our hands of it – either.

    I’d bet a Virginia map of entitlements and MedicAid that dominate the Virginia budget – would be revealing in it’s geography …

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Right on, larry. Bacon and reed are clueless

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    If Beth Macy’s book isn’t “relevant,” I guess this piece from Forbes in February isn’t either:


  7. Thanks for the citation to Forbes. A strong addition to the original piece. I see it as truly “relevant” though I didn’t see that anyone labeled Beth Macy’s book as “irrelevant.” As often happens, (perhaps) Ms. Macy was ahead of her time in understanding the forces which “mainstream media” wasn’t up to comprehending without the fore-runner book??? This might be the latest, literary Catch 22?

    I’d suggest that Mr. Galuszka’s book on the Masey mine disaster might be another such case — as the trial is just happening. (Please excuse any misspelling!) Most, I submit, were certainly “clueless” about the issue prior to Mr. Galuszka’s writings. And perhaps Mr. Bacon’s book on population/consumption is another example? Ditto that most were, and probably still are, “clueless.”

    In our complex but twitter-obsessed world, perhaps long-form actually printed material is the only way to lay out the depth and background of any given issue, any given idea? But perhaps twitter, or internet commentary, is a conceivable method of pointing the “clueless” towards that long-form discussion?

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      That is a great observation, salz.

      I am reminded of two elaborations:

      Amazon / ABE – the ability to buy books (old, new, out of print at lowest price anywhere worldwide) with a click, with a library of the World at your fingertips, as aided by the amazing search tool within Amazon showing what other purchasers of that book were also reading. This changed our world.

      The I-Pad – now lying on your back, looking up, you can flip instantly between magazines, newspapers, kindle books, blogs, encyclopedias, maps, images, videos, lectures, tying together otherwise huge worldwide threads of facts, information, knowledge and ideas, into a tidy knots at home on your tiny hand held screen. This changed the world.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    Of course one of the big questions here is HOW do we want to PAY for the needs of those who live rural and have no jobs?

    what do we want to pay – and for what things?

    just TANF, Food Stamps, mobile charity clinics and MedicAid – status quo – continue to pay for it through the succeeding generations?

    I wonder what a map of such entitlement usage would show for the geography of Va?

    here’s an interesting map:

    Medicaid recipients in Virginia House of Delegates districts


  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I appreciate your points. Anyone who has taken the time and exerted the sweat (including Jim B.) to write a book knows that you are typically performing without much of a net. You have to force yourself to dig deep into the issue with no clear payoff in sight. Beth Macy must have done the same on Bassett because writing a book is at least a two year commitment. It is extremely frustrating to have your effort diminished by a Twitter item or a blog posting or a way-after-the-fact news article. I especially hate it when I have the New York Times waved in my face when they are the ones late in the game, typically.
    Thanks again.

  10. Yeah, my books ended up frustrating me too…my “ahead of game” thinking drives me crazy and I often wish I couldn’t “see” so clearly (about the things I care about). So I think I understand your frustration. I sympathize anyway, even if I’m misunderstanding your frustration.

    I don’t twit (or tweet) or anything like that because it’s the “depth” that I argue our country NEEDS. But, as you no doubt know, few are reading even newspapers, the Times or not, today and even fewer read books. And even fewer read non-fiction books. Magazines seem only to tell us about what some celebrity idiot is up to. Broadcasting, sigh…

    I submit that we, the people, are way too clueless about way too many issues and, it seems to me, we are getting worse. My opinion obviously. But witness today’s two political frontrunners. One, who couldn’t find subpoenaed files for two years when they were on her dressing table (and many other “no rules apply to me” issues) and the other a total buffoon who seems to be literally shouting “Is there a limit to poll respondent stupidity!” (I’m terrified that “poll respondent” will become “voter.”)

    Let me please say that I hope you can change the word “diminished” in your note above, at least mentally, to “promoted” because I think it’s the only manner to emotionally survive today when one is — as you were on the mining safety issue — ahead of the game (and probably are on many other issues).

    I hope you get satisfaction out of your Post and Style work. And I’m sorry you quit doing much with this web page* as I rarely electronically read any Post material and no longer live in Richmond to pick up Style. I submit that you bring an insightful, and needed, perspective.

    *But I completely understand the “no pay” reason. “All pain and no gain” has no possibility of being a smart choice.

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