GALAX, Va. — 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.
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 vice president. A former Republican congressional staffer, he left Capitol Hill to help his brother and dad battle what they call the Asian Invasion.
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 brothers 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.