Survivors: Galax industries hanging on

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By April Wright, Reporter

Even in a sluggish economy, Galax-based textile mill Blue Ridge Crest and Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. are managing to run all out while their operations employ nearly 1,100 combined.

“When the factories were closing a few years ago, my goal would have been to survive,” said Wyatt Bassett, executive vice president of Vaughan-Bassett. “But now, we’re beyond that, and as soon as the economy will allow it, we’d love to start growing again.”

Bassett said business is as challenging as he has ever seen it, but business tactics allow the plant to rank as one of the largest manufacturers of adult wooden bedroom furniture in the U.S.

The company is part of Bassett Furniture Industries, founded in 1919. It is managed by chief executive officer John Bassett and his sons Wyatt and Doug. Its plants operate in Galax and Elkin, N.C.

Last year the company brought in more than $108 million in revenue in a drop from past years. It employs 1,050 people, including 600 in Galax.

This year shows a 6 percent drop in sales, but the company will still take in over $100 million. During one July week, reports showed that Vaughan-Bassett generated $2.1 million in sales.

The best years were the late 1990s. But by 2001, imports of wooden bedroom furniture from China began to flood the U.S. market. Chinese producers copied U.S. furniture styles and offered them at much lower prices. The industry lost enormous sales volume to cheap imports from China.

Furniture Slump

But now, Chinese manufacturers are seeing import sales down by 24 percent. John Bassett said the slowdown in furniture has little to do with imports.

Rather, it is a result of the overall economy, including the housing slump, consumers facing credit crunches and high costs for energy and food because of the rise in fuel prices. All are affecting disposable income essential to buying furniture.

“People who were buying pickup trucks just to be buying pickup trucks won’t be buying them in the future,” John Bassett said. “Instead, they’ll buy hybrids.”

Speaking about staying ahead of competitors, Wyatt Bassett said, “In this business, you never pat yourself on the back and say you’re finally there. You have to keep adapting and changing to survive.”

Vaughan-Bassett has had to adjust to defy the downfall in the economy, and has invested millions of dollars in high-tech equipment that has been a major factor in its success.

Most of the business is operated by computers, such as a machine than can accurately slice lumber, keep track of volume and explains how to get the most out of lumber.

With technology rapidly changing and improving, Vaughan-Bassett is in the process of buying an even newer cutting system.

“If there’s any equipment in the world that will improve our operation, make a better product and make us more competitive, we’ll buy it,” said John Bassett. He said he has the support of shareholders and directors to do so. We look everywhere for something to improve our quality.”

Another advantage is the company’s quick delivery to dealers along the east coast. Ten years ago, it would have taken nearly 45 days for a piece of furniture to reach its dealer. Today it takes only seven days from time of order to when Vaughan-Bassett furniture reaches a dealer’s floor.

“We think about what we can do to be successful. We try to get very good at what we do and concentrate on that, and if we can make the furniture here, we will.”

Ninety-six percent of Vaughan-Bassett furniture is produced in Elkin or Galax. The other 4 percent is based on items that the company is unwilling to produce, such as dining room chairs and bunk beds.

As Wyatt Bassett held up a Sharpie highlighter, he described what makes the company’s product line competitive. “Take a Sharpie for instance. They produce the best highlighter for the best value, and that’s how we feel about our furniture.

“Our furniture has exceptional value when you talk about its styling, quality and delivery and what you get for your money, and that’s why we’re a stronger competitor than a few years ago.”

Most furniture manufactured at local plants consists of wood solids and wood veneers grown and harvested in the Southeast.

Pine, oak, maple, cherry, ash, poplar, birch and beech are the primary species used in Vaughan-Bassett's bedroom and dining room collections Ninety-nine percent of the wood comes from within 500 miles of the plant, and 80 percent is from within 200 miles.

Not Sitting Around

Even during slow times, Vaughan-Bassett will turn to producing from its lower-profit “Barn Burner” collection to keep the factory operating.

These high-quality items end up on the floors of discount stores such as Wal-Mart and are sold in large quantities.

“We don’t just sit around and do nothing,” John Bassett said. “These ‘Barn Burners’ generate enough reason for the dealer to buy our products, which is good to generate business, good for our employees, good for suppliers, good for stockholders.”

But when the company is running at capacity, that collection is phased out, and emphasis is placed on the leading designer line “Authentically American” by Alexander Julian as the main source of profit.

Complete bedroom sets — including a dresser, shadowbox mirror, queen bed and nightstand — retail for $1,799-$1,999. Pieces from this collection produced in July will be on retail floors by August.

Vaughan-Bassett and Julian teamed to introduce the collection at this year’s national furniture market in High Point, N.C. The line offers a casual, fresh style as a bedroom furniture series featuring oak solids and oak veneers.

Although equipment and strategies are always changing within the company, its leaders say the one thing that will never change is the commitment and ingenuity of the workers.

Wyatt Bassett offered the example of some who have adapted to disruptive change by learning to operate new equipment — even if it means going back to school — after working in a routine for years in one department.

“We can’t pick a community in the world that we’d rather be in to make bedroom furniture. We’re sitting in the best one there is.”

Wyatt Bassett cited the company’s pride in providing a free general health clinic (located near Twin County Regional Hospital) to all of its employees and their families. There is another clinic in Elkin.

This year the company began its “1-4-1” program, in which for every tree used in making furniture, Vaughan-Bassett gives out seedlings for companies, organizations and individuals to replenish the forest. More than 150,000 tree seedlings were contributed last year to the Virginia Department of Forestry to replace trees that the company used.

Blue Ridge Crest

Blue Ridge Crest has also had its fair share of struggles as a textiles manufacturer that once had as many as 140 employees.

It began in 1982 in west Galax at Mountain Linen Service as Dominion Apparel and contracted with Hanes, Sara Lee and Tultex. In 1991 the business shifted its 95 employees to a new building in Galax when Sealy closed.

But after Hanes, Sara Lee and Tultex faced massive layoffs and plant closings through the years because of contract work transferring overseas, Dominion Apparel was forced to downsize to 48 workers.

The company lost all work with Hanes, Sara Lee and Tultex, but contracted some small business work with other companies.

The plant began working with Duke Athletic Apparel of Yanceyville, N.C., in 1998, to put together short-sleeved military shirts.

After the deaths of plant owners Al and Jim Zachary, silent partner Doug Vaught took over in 2003. Dominican Apparel changed its name to Blue Ridge Crest and downsized to 35 workers.

The plant is operating even more efficiently under Vaught’s ownership, according to plant manager Debbie Joines, who has worked there for 25 years. “Our operation can provide a quick turnaround, and we’ve worked steady for the past few years.”

Today, Blue Ridge Crest employs 50 and can produce as many as 30,000 garments in a week. Vaught said the company is fortunate to have the opportunity, which stems from a requirement that all U.S. military uniforms be made in the U.S.

“This would have been a different story if it hadn’t been for this military contract,” said Vaught. “We haven’t been laid off, but we are mindful that they could say ‘We don’t need this service anymore.’”

The plant has adapted over time to changes in the economy by cutting costs, cross-training employees and eliminating some positions.

“The hardest thing for me is to tell them they're laid off, but if I didn't to that, nobody would have a job,” Vaught said of the company’s evolution.

“We have real good employees, and we can’t say enough about them,” said Vaught. “We try to keep focused in providing a first-class product to our vendor.”

Although Blue Ridge Crest and Vaughan-Bassett have experienced some downtime in a slow economy, both companies remain strong and generally work full weeks.