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BLACKSBURG — Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. Chairman John D. Bassett III, head of America’s largest bedroom manufacturer, spoke recently about leadership, his battle against globalization (“the Asian Invasion”) and how the Galax-based company managed to be the last furniture maker standing in a region that used to teem with more than 20 factories.
In a recent freewheeling speech to staffers at Virginia Tech, part of the James D. McComas Staff Leadership Seminars, the third-generation furniture maker boiled his principles for competing in the global marketplace into five points. His company fell back on the principles again and again, he said, as it fought “the double tsunami” of globalization and the 2008 financial crisis.
Bassett used a combination of legal moxie, factory efficiencies and grit to keep his 700-plus factory workers employed. Here are the five principles that he believes can be applied by any business struggling to remain competitive:
1. Attitude is everything.
Why accept excuses for failure rather than demand reasons for success? Bassett, 74, believes American companies need to embody the spirit of football coaches rather than bean counters.
“If you’re the coach of a high school football team and you’re playing the past state champions, and you’re the 14-point underdog, what do you tell the guys in the locker room before they go out on the field? That ‘If you only lose by 10 points you beat the spread?’ If you think you’re going to lose, I can damn guarantee you, you’re gonna lose.”
Bassett said he purposely telegraphed confidence to his employees as, one after another, five of the six furniture factories in Galax closed down around him. He continually reassured worried employees that they were not going down next.
Only his Vaughan-Bassett now remains, plus the former Webb Furniture plant the company bought in January and is bringing back to life.
2. For lessons in leadership, study Winston Churchill.
When England stood alone at the beginning of World War II after the battle of Dunkirk, Hitler offered the country a separate peace if it recognized the German domination of Europe. That’s when Churchill stood in the House of Commons and gave his famous “We Shall Never Surrender” speech, which Bassett can recite by heart (with a combo Southern drawl and British accent).
“When he took over as prime minister, Churchill said, ‘I promise you nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’” Bassett said. “That’s a helluva damn program to run on. Have you ever heard of that [bold truth] from a politician?”
In other words, when times get tough in business, don’t run screaming from the building or hide in your office. Be the kind of leader who will stand up and communicate the hard reality to your employees.
3. Be willing to improve and change, again and again and again.
Also, know your enemy — and capitalize on his weaknesses.
“My father had a saying when he ran Bassett Furniture Industries, and it was at its peak: ‘Getting on top is hard; staying on top is harder.’
“America’s too busy catching up all the time,” Bassett said. “Why can’t we come up with new ideas and new efficiencies and techniques? My employees know not to walk in my office and tell me they can’t do something. It is going to be an extremely unpleasant conversation. ... We are gonna get eyeball to eyeball.”
Bassett gives copies of the best-selling business parable “Who Moved My Cheese?” to supervisors, exhorting them not to be the people looking for the cheese — or old ways to solve problems — but the ones coming up with innovative ways to not just catch up with the competition but to leapfrog it.
When Bassett realized he was competing against cheaper labor in China and scant environmental regulations, he capitalized where he could, by offering a speedy delivery model that the containers sailing over from China in six weeks could not match.
To confront rising health care costs, company managers devised a primary care clinic that is free to employees and their relatives. Designed to discourage use of the company’s traditional insurance, it kept overall costs flat.
4. Don’t panic.
When factory after factory shut down and began importing goods instead of making them, the saying was, “The dance card’s filling up.” In other words, if you didn’t sign up with a factory in China soon, you might miss the opportunity to.
“I have never seen a good business decision made during a panic, Bassett said. “Don’t procrastinate, but figure out what you alone need to do, keep your ears open, inform your people and pull your organization together.”
5. Foster collaboration and teamwork.
“Guys, one person can’t do this. Everyone from the person at the top to the last person hired have got to buy in,” Bassett said.
That message is also underscored at Vaughan-Bassett during times when employees have been asked to do more with less, he said. Executive salary increases are not more than the assembly line workers’. If production bonuses have to be cut, he said, executive bonuses are slashed first.
At a plant he used to operate in Sumter, S.C., Bassett said he cut his own salary entirely when he asked employees to take a 10 percent cut with the knowledge that, if profits picked up, the 10 percent would be reinstated — and so would the missed back pay.
“When that happened, I invited them in one at a time and gave their money back and said, ‘The happiest man in the office is me, because I get 100 percent back.’”
Participants kept Bassett on his toes during the question-and-answer session that followed his May 3 speech.
Just one question stumped him. In fact, it made the aging patriarch something he rarely is: speechless.
“Mr. Bassett, will you run for president?” one participant wanted to know.
BOOK WILL FOCUS ON BASSETT'S BATTLE
Roanoke Times’ reporter Beth Macy has sold a book proposal to publisher Little, Brown & Co. about John Bassett III, the iconoclastic Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. CEO who decided to fight the Chinese import invasion.
Macy’s book will expand on the story she wrote about Bassett earlier this year, reprinted in The Gazette as a three-part series, examining the impact of global trade on the manufacturing industries in Southside and Southwest Virginia.
Bassett III, chairman of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. in Galax, has fought back against imports from China and continues to manufacture furniture in Galax. In January, the company announced an $8 million expansion that is expected to add 115 jobs over the next three years.
The working title of Macy’s book is “Factory Man.”
Starting in mid-June, Macy will take a yearlong leave from The Roanoke Times to complete the book.
Macy has written for The Roanoke Times since 1989. She’s won numerous national and state awards and served as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University during the 2009-2010 academic year.