Over the years I’ve learned that a combination meticulous research and great story telling can take almost any subject and make it not just readable, but downright fascinating. I’ve read books, for example, over the past decade or so on subjects as esoteric and ostensibly dry as rum, oysters and the global shipping industry that turned out to be page-turners.
And who can forget author Laura Hillenbrand’s riveting best-seller Seabiscuit, a non-fiction history book offering the inside dope on, of all things, a splayed, overweight and undersized racehorse foaled over 80 years ago?
That’s why I am so excited to have recently picked up Factory Man, the first-ever book by Beth Macy, a reporter for the Roanoke Times. According to a New York Times book review, which I stumbled upon a few weeks ago, Factory Man is the (at times) riveting story of a handful of Appalachia-based furniture companies, among them, one time industry leader, Broyhill.
And the book apparently slowly and dramatically weaves together the unlikely story of the birth of the global furniture industry in Appalachia, its salad days, its slow decline in light of growing globalization, modernization and a glut of cheap Chinese knockoffs, and, perhaps most importantly, under the stewardship of the innovative, resourceful, principled and ferociously stubborn titular character, its ultimate reinvention and renaissance.
It also tells the tale of the feuding Broyhill scions, two highly competitive brothers who married two sisters and who settled on either side of an Appalachian peak named (what else) Broyhill. The two rival Broyhills eventually owned so much of the area that they became robber barons of the highest order and were able to leverage the skilled and dedicated local workforce to their own personal gain.
That titular character mentioned above is John Broyhill III, the grandson of Broyhill’s co-founder and his namesake, who in the eighties slowly evolved into the family’s black sheep. Because it was John Broyhill III who, as mergers, Wall Street takeovers and mass layoffs were becoming more and more the order of the day, began telling people that such quick fixes were short-sighted, corrosive and imprudent long range strategies.
And it was JB III (as the book calls him) who at the peak of the Chinese invasion of the mid-nineties, took the bold step of traveling to China and walking right into the lion’s den by visiting a factory near Dalian that was churning out massive quantities of exact replicas of his very own furniture.
But rather than taking the easy way out (as so many others in his shoes might have done), entering into an agreement to partner with the owners of the Chinese plant, closing his factory back home in Virginia, and simply retailing the cheap and plentiful Chinese knockoffs throughout the U.S. at well below market prices, he does the exact opposite.
He declares war.
And according to the Times, that’s the moment at which Factory Man goes from being just another non-fiction account of just another David vs. Goliath tale and transforms itself into something almost Capra-esque, becoming a page-turner of the highest order.
Without giving away too much, I’ll simply say that using some little known but powerful World Trade Organization regulations, the bound and determined “Factory Man” starts to gain a foothold in his epic battle against offshoring and cheap Chinese knockoffs and slowly but surely sets into motion a series of events that will, quite literally, keep his small town alive and save it from being swallowed whole by some toxic combination of fate, circumstance, time and geography.
What I find most comforting (and alluring) about the prospect of spending the next few days reading Factory Man is the fact that the story at its core is one many of us in our sector (regardless of our industry) have lived first hand these past few decades.
Regardless of what we produce, regardless of our size, for almost a quarter of a century many of us found global competition exploding all around us. But the good news was, that as our competition continued to increase exponentially, so did the size of our marketplace and, more importantly, our selling options.
And as a result, only the most near-sighted and close-minded of us spent those days obsessing about the former. The rest of us geared up for the latter, jumping out of our shoes at what turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go global, to exponentially expand our businesses and to brighten our futures.
I can’t tell you any more about the book than that now, if only because I’ve yet to even start it myself. But I urge you – especially if you are someone who, like me, comes to work every day, opens your tiny manufacturing plant in some industrial corner of Anytown, USA, and, much like John Broyhill III, proceeds to take dead aim on the rest of the world – pick up Factory Man.
My sense is you won’t be disappointed. After all, it’s our lives in hardcover. (Then, at some point, let’s compare notes, OK?)
Happy summer reading!