Monday, October 27, 2014

"Factory Man" a riveting read

Delighted to learn that Beth Macy's "Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local--and Helped Save an American Town" has been optioned as an HBO miniseries by Tom Hanks. The book, published in July 2014, is a formidable piece of corporate history, and it'll make for a superb workplace drama. It captures the "creeping small-town carnage created by acronyms like NAFTA and WTO and an impotent TAA, all of it forged by faraway people who had never bothered to see the full result of what globalization had wrought."

A reporter for the Roanoke Times, Macy chronicles John Bassett III in his battle to save his family's furniture manufacturing company, Vaughan-Bassett, from being swallowed up by cheap Chinese imports and the havoc they have wrought on American retailing. The man is a natural communicator--plainspoken, sharp, hardly a saint, spot-on whether you agree with him or not. Macy wisely gets him talking and then gets out of his way.

I confess that "Factory Man" didn't gain momentum for me until Chapter 10. The first 130 pages are packed with Bassett family history, almost so lurid as to be mistaken for a Faulkner novel. The internecine wars of various cousins aren't half as fascinating as the flat-out energy that JBIII expends--and the counter-energy of some in the industry who willingly give into globalization. I wish Macy had drawn more parallels to U.S. industries that lost out to cheap imports earlier, such as clothing and shoe making, but that might have doubled the book's length.

Macy is firmly on the side of the workers who are being displaced left and right. She sticks it to The New York Times's Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, noting that an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent is fine for Bethesda, MD, "where he lives in an 11,400-square-foot mansion with his heiress wife [.... But the 5.2 figure] comes nowhere close to capturing the truth of Martinsville and Henry County's double-digit unemployment and the problems that result, from the increasing need for food stamps and free school lunches and Medicaid to the rising rates of teen pregnancy and domestic violence." This is superb social history as well as business history (the two are intertwined far more often that we admit).

Here's one of my favorite passages, along with some representative quotes:
"...Rob [Bassett] reported back on the lack of safety measures in the Dongguan finishing rooms--no fans, no masks, nothing. Rob actually had a fondness for the smell of finishing material, but these fumes were so strong he had trouble catching his breath. 'How do they stand it?" he had asked the plant manager, choking as he spoke.
   "Spray two years and die," the manager said.
   At which point there would be twenty more lined up to take the fallen worker's place.

"More than a few Chinese friends have quoted to me the proverb 'fu bu guo san dai' (wealth doesn't make it past three generations) as they wonder how we became so ill-disciplined, distracted and dissolute." -- James McGregor, former Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China

"One of our biggest problems is turning the attitude around in this country, making people believe in us again. Does that mean we will never close a plant? If we're inefficient, we will close a plant. But I want to be able to say to everybody in my organization . . . to look them straight in the eye and tell them that I did everything in my power to save their job. I want a free and fair playing field, and I'm willing to fight for it. I am not gonna turn tail and run." -- John Bassett III