In Praise of an Unsung Hero

John D. Bassett III

John D. Bassett III

by James A. Bacon

Nearly 40 years ago I moved from the big city to a place had I barely heard of, Martinsville, Va., to embark upon my journalism career as a cub reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Compared to Washington, D.C., where I had spent most of my time growing up, it seemed a hard-scrabble place. Little did I know, those were the glory days.

Martinsville was reputed to have more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in Virginia. (Those were the days before the rise of Northern Virginia’s high-tech industry sector.) There was poverty, to be sure, but the region had pride. As the headquarters town for three major textile and apparel companies, Martinsville claimed to be the Sweatshirt Capital of the World. In the days before off-shoring, the town dominated the global knitted fabrics sector. Martinsville and nearby communities of Bassett and Stanleytown also comprised one of the largest concentrations of furniture manufacturing in the country. There was a large DuPont plant there as well, and even a high-tech company started by immigrant Julius Hermes, Martin Processing, that manufactured advanced film coatings.

Other than DuPont, all the businesses were locally owned and operated. Martinsville was no branch-plant economy. The town had a strong middle class of middle managers and professionals. And even the poor weren’t destitute. Many workers lived on plots of land in the country, supplementing their factory wages with garden crops and, often, small plots of tobacco. To my recollection, the population was affluent enough to support four country clubs. The local delegate to the General Assembly, A.L. Philpott, was speaker of the House. Martinsville was small but it punched above its weight.

In just a few short decades, however, it all came tumbling down. America embraced globalization and open trade. It was something the nation had to do, and there has been a huge payoff to companies and their employees who could provide the higher value-added services where American was globally competitive. But free trade came at a cost — and the people of Martinsville were among those who paid it. First the DuPont nylon plant closed, for reasons that may or may not have been connected to free trade (I can’t remember). The textile-apparel sector was the next to go. Within a couple of decades after I had left, the entire sector had shut down, shuttering the huge knitting mills, as production moved to Asia. Then the furniture industry met its demise. That process was more protracted, and some of the companies survived. Although most production moved overseas, local companies like Bassett, Stanleytown and Hooker survived as furniture designers, marketers and distributors of Chinese-manufactured goods.

That’s all prelude to the purpose of this post, which is to highlight a new book, “Factory Man,” by Roanoke Times reporter Beth Macy, which received a rave book review in the New York Times. Macy tells the story of John Bassett III, president of Vaughn-Bassett Furniture, who fought the fight to preserve furniture manufacturing in Virginia and North Carolina longer and harder than anyone. As the NY Times recapitulates the story:

[Macy] went looking for mountain families who had spent generations working for the region’s furniture giants, until the whole industry was walloped by cheaper furniture imported from China. She found all that and more in the battling Bassetts, a feudal family of factory owners who controlled a string of these companies and the bank, hospital, school, clinic and housing their workers used.

Questions of how the business can survive weigh heavily on manufacturers’ minds.

The ’80s answer brings JBIII’s attitude into stark contrast with those of his fellow owners. Companies merge; Wall Street takes over; laying off workers and closing plants is seen as smart rather than damaging. And nobody much cares what happens to those workers except for JBIII, who can’t bear thinking of them “in unemployment lines instead of assembly lines.”

After leaving the Martinsville Bulletin, I worked for the Roanoke Times from 1979 to 1984. That was before Macy joined the newspaper. I did not know her, but my hat’s off to her for finding the color and the drama in Bassett’s largely Quixotic quest and for telling a story that truly deserves to be told. John Bassett will never be remembered as one of America’s great innovators, like Steve Jobs, or one of its captains of industry, like Jack Welch. Unlike them, he failed. He could not revitalize American furniture manufacturing; China’s economic advantage of cheap labor was overwhelmingly decisive. But he deserves America’s admiration as a businessman who cared about the people who depended upon him, who chose to follow the hard path rather than the easy one, and who gave it his all.

(Hat tip: Patrick Zilliacus)

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13 responses to “In Praise of an Unsung Hero

  1. Too many times these types of stories come forward. Although as a teacher of economics I support free trade and free markets, companies in the American furniture,textile and so many other industries just cannot compete.There is currency manipulation and non tariff barriers that make it difficult to export. In developing countries labor is just so much cheaper .The rise of Walmart and excessive rise of financial manipulation all combined to make things difficult for industries such as furniture. How to recover is a debate that never gets solved.

  2. we have Martinsville…and Eastman Kodak in Bristol, and then we have Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Oracle and interestingly enough all the stuff that these new companies make – goes on foreign-made electronic devices.

    perhaps there’s a moral to that story.

    for one thing – look at the average education level between high tech and manufacturing…

    The US – grew up – Lazy. We believed that our destiny was a mediocre-educated, middle class that would have life-long careers at manufacturing companies.

    but Martinsville is one of those weird “places” that seems to be a bit off the beaten transport path – not like Roanoke or any of dozens of cities and towns that are essentially transport hubs where roads and rails meet and merge.

  3. James A. Bacon wrote:

    (Hat tip: Patrick Zilliacus)

    Thanks, Jim.

    Am going to purchase this book, with or without Amazon. Hopefully it is not printed in China!

    One thought for you and everyone else that visits here – would you rather purchase furniture manufactured in China or furniture manufactured in Virginia or some other state in the United States?

    For me, it is a no-brainer. I do not approve of the mercantilist policies of China, and prefer not to purchase their products, but frequently there is no choice.

  4. I saw the Times piece on what seems to be a very good book. One noteworthy thing about the book and the review is how it offers an counter-argument for globalization. The idea that we are all one and everyone’s boats rise (CHina’s ours, etc.) was really the craze in the 1980s and 1990s. Everybody bought into it. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Bill CLinton. I was working at BusinessWeek then, sometimes overseas, sometimes inNew York and globalization was dogma.
    Finally, I went back South and saw what globalization had done. I had done some writing for Business North Carolina after I left Virginia Business and learned that one of their younger editors had gone off to study Columbia. One lecturer was a starry-eyed globalist who had been my boss in New York. I understand the young Tar Heel took him apart.

  5. I would argue that free trade is the way to go, if we want to sustain our long-term competitiveness as a nation and grow our overall standard of living. However, there is a downside to free trade and we are fools not to acknowledge it. Globalization creates losers as well as winners. The unskilled and semi-skilled workers of the textile and furniture industries were big losers.

    • Globalization does create losers, and so does China’s policies of currency manipulation and theft of intellectual property. One can be for free trade and still oppose China’s trade policies.

      While I don’t necessarily oppose government-sponsored retraining, individuals need to take responsibility for their own education. How many students aren’t students? How many drop out of high school or refuse to take advantage of taxpayer-provided public educations? And, of course, we open our borders to vast numbers of illegal, unskilled workers to keep employers and the professional caring class happy.

      • re: taxpayer funded retraining.

        what’s the purpose of traditional taxpayer-funded public education?

        for myself – the only legitimate justification for taxing people for education is to create an employable workforce that pays taxes and doesn’t need entitlements.

        In the fast evolving world that we are in these days – it’s not that hard to believe that the traditional K-12 education + even higher ED will not provide you with a never-need-to-be-updated lifetime education.

        for me, it’s a simple calculation for those thrown out of work from globalization – do you want to pay for their entitlements for the rest of their life or do you want to invest in re-training that will take them off of entitlements?

        I don’t see the immigration issue as pivotal but rather a bit of an excuse to do nothing until we “secure the border” – which would make the border patrol bigger than the FBI, NSA and CIA put together… all paid for by taxes.

        and in the context of the world’s poor taking our jobs – why doesn’t that work for Mexico? Are they not getting their share of the jobs that globalization is taking away from us?

        but we don’t need to secure the borders anyhow. If the folks who cry the loudest about immigration would put that passion into passing a law that would put out of business – anyone who employs illegals – no excuses – the problem they cry about so loud – would go away overnight – like it has in Canada where businesses who hire illegals experience severe enough sanctions, it can endanger the viability of the company.

        so the so-called “follow-the-law” folks only focus on the illegals – not the folks who hire them. That does not sound like a serious effort to fix immigration but rather just a hypocritical excuse to raise hell about immigration and not really want it fixed cause then they’d have nothing to raise hell about.

  6. If you are an American though – and you know that free trade creates losers, why would you still advocate for free-trade alone and not a comprehensive strategy for free-trade plus re-education?

    the downside is more than the folks directly affected – it affects our economy when we have to pay entitlements for those affected and we build longer term generations of mal-educated/low-skilled people that have kids – that need entitlements.

    If we are truly concerned about “welfare” and entitlements and their impact on deficit and debt – do we take the free-trade and pretend the other stuff is a separate issue that is the fault of those receiving the entitlements?

    that seems to be the view of many who espouse free-trade – do the free trade – blame the workers.

  7. do the free trade, blame the workers for being 4o or 50 with a HS diploma, and advocate against entitlements and even better schools if other parts of Va have to pay for it.

    Compare what we do – to what Europe and Japan do with regard to free-trade and globalization – and education.

    Do we hear that Europe and Japan have globalization-displaced workers who lack sufficient education to compete for 21st century jobs?

    honest question. I’m not a traveler of the world but why does it seem that
    it’s ONLY this country that is adversely affected by globalization and stranded rural workers?

  8. On second thought, I realize that Jim wouldn’t praise a book that didn’t have a White Guy boss as hero. Also interesting is his idea that a little town having FOUR country clubs is somehow a valuable measure of success and respectability.

  9. well.. I’d give white guy entrepreneurs a certain amount of credit.

    there are always those whose life goal never gets beyond wanting a job provided by someone else and those who set their sights higher and end up doing something – that not only gives them work – but gives others work also.

    I wonder if – beyond core academic things if teaching kids how think entrepreneurially might be almost as valuable.

    we have a ton of folks who not only don’t think entrepreneurially, they think in terms of the government helping them if they can’t get a job.

    there I said it. I expect a medal of some kind from Bacon.

    😉

  10. Pingback: Still Making Furniture in Virginia - Bacon's Rebellion

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