“Once in a reporter’s career, if one is very lucky, a person like John D. Bassett III comes along,” Beth Macy writes in her absorbing book “Factory Man.”
“JBIII is inspirational. He’s brash. He’s a sawdust-covered good old boy from rural Virginia, a larger-than-life rule breaker who for more than a decade has stood almost singlehandedly against the outflow of furniture jobs from America.”
To which we might add a humorous, folksy, verbal Artful Dodger who is, above all else, Churchillian. Winston Churchill is a hero of this post-World War II Army vet. And it was Winston Churchill who told the British people with their backs against the wall in the dark, early days of the war that “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
“That was tough talk. Imagine that,” Bassett muses. “You know, President John F. Kennedy said, ‘Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into war.’”
And that’s what Bassett does. Whether listening to his keynote speech at the Westchester County Association’s 2014 Fall Leadership Dinner or interviewing him on the phone, you feel as if you could and should conquer the world.
Bassett — who will speak at Westfair Communications and Bank of America’s “Transformations” event May 19, two days after his business book “Making It In America” is released — not only has this attitude. He has to have this attitude. He is an epic figure swimming upstream in a tidal river of imports, bringing some 550 employees of the Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. with him. The Galax, Va., company — which was founded in 1919 by J.D. Bassett Sr. and B.C. Vaughan, his grandfather and wife Pat’s grandfather respectively — makes mid-priced bedroom furniture in two factories in Galax and Elkin, N.C., from locally sourced ash, beech, birch, cherry, maple, oak, pine and poplar.
Which makes Vaughan-Bassett virtually unique.
With sales of $84 million, “the company is doing better,” Bassett says. “But it has been a struggle…. We still face difficulties…. With a strong dollar, our exports are being hammered.”
How Bassett came to Vaughan-Bassett — he’s now chairman — 33 years ago is a tale of two battles, one global; the other, familial and philosophical. Bassett isn’t just covered in sawdust. He’s got it in his veins. That’s his family’s name on the Virginia town where he was born during the biblical flood of 1937 and where future New York Yankee Phil Rizzuto led the Bassett Furnituremakers to the Bi-State League title. And that’s the family’s name on the Bassett Furniture Co., which once had sales of more than $500 million, making it the world’s biggest wood furniture manufacturer. Today, John Bassett says, Bassett Furniture — a publicly traded company that is not affiliated with his private one — buys products and parts from overseas, makes upholstery and is in the retail business with its Bassett Home Furnishings stores.
If life had gone differently, Bassett — scion of the family — would be running Bassett Furniture today. But two things happened to him. The first was brother-in-law Bob Spilman, who outmaneuvered Bassett for control of the company with the idea that his son Rob, now CEO, would eventually take over. In “Factory Man” — which Bassett describes as “ ‘Gone With the Wind’ meets ‘Peyton Place’” but which might remind you more of “Dallas” or “Dynasty” — Macy paints Spilman as something of a villain, a controlling manipulator who micromanaged everyone to death but was capable of quiet, individual acts of kindness and generosity. She writes that Bassett refused to open up about how he felt toward Spilman — the husband of his sister Jane — and a relationship that may have involved fisticuffs. Bassett in turn says he told Macy how he felt. She just never wrote it.
Let’s just say Bassett has chosen to stay classy.
“I wasn’t very pleased,” he says of his forced resignation with a hearty laugh. “But I put it behind me. People love to talk about the past. You look to the past, but you look to the past for one reason only: You’re learning to duplicate what works and not what doesn’t. You take your ego out of it.”
But if Bassett is still circumspect about his Bassett Furniture departure, he was about to become vocal over the rise of cheaper Asian imports and the closing of American factories. Under pressure from its shareholders, Bassett Furniture would go with the tide, closing its Bassett, Va., factories and importing wood products from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. But John Bassett was determined that this would not happen to Vaughan-Bassett. In 2003, he and the coalition he organized filed a petition with the United States Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission against China over “dumping,” or the practice of pricing exports to this country below the cost of their materials, which is illegal.
“It cost a great deal of angst and anger,” he says. “Many retailers boycotted us. It was not pleasant.”
Bassett was awarded $55 million on duties from the importers of record; the coalition, about $300 million. About 38 percent of his award went to taxes. He says he has spent $96 million on continually modernizing Vaughan-Bassett.
Bassett has learned two things from his experiences — well, more than two and maybe he’s always known them.
The first is the importance of real leadership. Whether you’re for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, he says, people are hungry for leadership.
And the second: “Numbers are important. But people create numbers. People are more important.”
JOHN BASSETT’S FIVE DESIGNS FOR MANAGEMENT
1. ATTITUDE. “If your team thinks it won’t win, it will lose. I hate the word ‘can’t.’”
2. LEADERSHIP. “A leader never shows fear.”
3. CHANGE. “You’ve got to be willing to change and improve. Again and again and again.”
4. DON’T PANIC. “People love to panic. I’ve never seen a good decision made in panicking.”
5. COMMUNICATION & TEAMWORK. “Communicate to your team. Work as a team.”