Beth Macy first met John Bassett III in late 2011 while working on a feature story for The Roanoke Times as part of a series on the aftermath of globalization in Southwest Virginia. Her focus had been on Henry County and Martinsville, where nearly half the workforce in those localities was laid off due to offshoring.
In Galax, however, Macy came across Bassett, the third generation head of Vaughn-Bassett Furniture Company in Galax. While jobs were being lost elsewhere, Bassett fought for nearly 700 domestic jobs against outsourcing to China.
“During the course of the research, I found out there was this guy in Galax who was taking on China to keep his factory going, and that’s always a good story when someone does the counter-intuitive thing,” Macy said. “Once I dug in more and saw that he was originally from Bassett, I saw that I could tell the tale of these two towns and two companies that took two very different approaches.”
Macy published Bassett’s story in The Roanoke Times in February 2012, and then began working on turning that story into a novel later that year. That book was finally published earlier this summer as Macy’s debut novel, titled “Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town.”
“The plot is something about what had happened, why it happened, and to help understand why when you drive by Bassett Furniture Industries, it’s still there now, and what the people do now, and the impact was like on the rest of the town,” Macy said.
According to Macy, she wanted to share Bassett’s story as she has always had a love for personality profiles throughout her career as a journalist.
“He’s just a really interesting character,” Macy said of Bassett. “His story seemed to be one that you could tell was really important, but at the same time you sort of had fun with this larger than life character.”
The fact that he was from the largest furniture manufacturer in the world in Bassett, was also a factor that inspired Macy to spread the tale. According to Macy, Bassett’s grandfather was the first furniture maker in the south to operate on a mass scale, and there was an opportunity to look into the social history of business as well as a racial component early on, as his grandfather hired black employees to work at the factory when it first started in the early part of the 20th century.
“Ultimately, this book is about how we treat the people who work for us,” Macy said.
The history of Vaughn-Bassett Furniture Company seemed to support the worker-centric philosophy that Macy uncovered through her research. She learned about what Bassett was willing to do to stand up for his employees in the face of adversity, such as China joining World Trade Organization.
“Black cat, white cat, all that I care is that it catches mice,” Macy said, reciting a quote by Chinese politician Deng Xiaoping that is included in “Factory Man.” According to Macy, she ran across this quote throughout the course of her research for “Factory Man,” and it seemed to represent the ideals portrayed in the story as Bassett fought to keep his workers employed.
Macy said she grew up in a small factory town in Ohio, which had been affected by globalization as well. While she could relate to that issue portrayed in the book, she said one of the main points in “Factory Man” came from a woman Macy met at a nearby community college.
“She said ‘I’d love it if you’d go over to Asia and tell me why it is we can’t make it here anymore,’” Macy recalled. “That became one of the driving forces in the book – was there another way?”
In “Factory Man,” the story takes Macy over to Asia, where she learned about trade and manufacturing practices in China and Indonesia. Through learning about the industry on both sides of the spectrum, she was able to create parallels for the reader, and answer the question posed by the woman Macy met.
“If you think about the speed of globalization, it’s so much faster than it was when the factory here started out,” Macy said. “The workers in Asia were very aware that as their wages go up, the factories are more likely to go somewhere cheaper.”
Macy added that through the course of her research, watching Bassett take the steps necessary to keep the jobs at home, and speaking firsthand with experts in international trade and manufacturing, the process to create “Factory Man” was every bit of a learning experience for her. As Vaughn-Bassett Furniture Company is still operating with all jobs intact, the steps taken to beat that adversity are documented in “Factory Man.”
Since its release, “Factory Man” has been critically praised, and named a New York Times Number One Bestseller. It has also caught the attention of large public figures, such as actor Tom Hanks.
Macy has been traveling around doing book signings, readings and discussions to promote “Factory Man.” She has a few dates scheduled just up the road in the near future, including:
• Barnes & Noble at Tanglewood Mall in Roanoke, at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 13.
• A reading and talk at the Jacksonville Center for the Arts in Floyd on Sept. 21 at 4 p.m.
• Roanoke College at 7 p.m. on Oct. 1, including a lecture, Q&A, and book signing at the Colket Center in Salem.
For more information about Beth Macy and “Factory Man,” visit her website at http://intrepidpapergirl.com.