By Robin Hocevar
New York has its flower district, Chicago its Restaurant Row and Henry County, Va., may be well on its well to being known as the last bastion of American furniture manufacturing.
The concept would’ve seemed like a huge stretch a year ago. The image of rural Virginia as a furniture manufacturing center was implanted in Americans’ collective consciousness last July when The Factory Man was published, highlighting John Bassett III and his quest to keep his factory operations from moving to China and 700 local residents on the payroll.
Critics have likened the book to Seabiscuit and it’s taken the No. 4 spot on the New York Times hardcover and Wall Street Journal business book lists. Great excitement was generated in the community when it was announced that Factory Man is in development to become a HBO miniseries, starring Tom Hanks. Hanks seems a natural fit for the role after Tweeting: “Factory Man is great summer reading. I give it 42 stars. No, I give it 142 stars. Yeah, it’s THAT good.”
Henry County’s Plight
Though nowhere near the size of the mammoth Vaughn-Bassett Furniture Co., SleepSafe Beds share a unique geographical history with its neighbor in Galax, Virginia.
“In the 60s, Martinsville, Virginia, according to the author, had more millionaires per capita than the rest of the country,” stated Ed Hettig, marketing director at SleepSafe Beds, LLC. “Because of globalization, and heavy duty recession after the factories closed, that’s all disappeared. Stanleytown, just two miles away and once the headquarters of Stanley Furniture, is nothing but vacant rows of old factory buildings now.”
In Galax, Va., home of the now-famous and only remaining Vaughn-Bassett factory, the U.S. Census Bureau reported a median household income of $24,059 and 28.3% poverty rate from 2008-2012. Yet, Hettig is optimistic that the publicity surrounding the area and noted, “Towns do come back. It just depends who sticks around.”
The company was located in Upstate New York until 2007, when it moved to Virginia.
Currently, the karma surrounding the area is positive and residents have great faith in the talents of their neighbors and co-workers. “Probably half the people who live here don’t even know about the book,” commented Hettig. “They may just go to work and watch their shows at night. But they just light up when they hear about it, because everybody has family who’s worked at Bassett, many for 30+ years.”
When SleepSafe Beds moved to Bassett in 2010, Hettig said their new location proved advantageous because the pool of local furniture craftsmen available who were laid off due to factory closings. Among SleepSafe’s craftsmen and engineers are harvested from defunct Stanley, Lane and Bassett operations “with expertise you can’t find anywhere else in the world”.
Inventive Management Style
In 2001, when the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD) responded to Greg Weinschreider’s prototype for a bed that would prevent falls and entrapment for patients with physical and cognitive impairments, he found himself looking, almost immediately, at a new market. The SleepSafe® Bed was born.
“Frankly, we didn’t have a whole lot going on at the time so we decided to put a bed together for the state,” Weinschreider recalled. “The state liked it so we continued to improve our beds. We didn’t have any preconceived notions of hospital beds per se when we started the SleepSafe project. I’ve always done carpentry, cabinet work and home renovation. This fell in the same line. Our goal was something that was safe but looked great at the same time.”
Within a matter of months, SleepSafe began manufacturing beds that became the standard for the OMRDD’s safety guidelines. Every bed addresses the seven zones of entrapment research conducted by the FDA Hospital Bed Safety Workgroup.
Operationally, it’s a relatively small but close-knit workgroup.
“We have quite a bit of automation, including CNC equipment and robotic welders,” said Hettig. “We use a flat management style. Everyone works together to solve challenges.”
In The Factory Man, John Bassett III is described as calling managers day or night to pitch a new idea, save for Easter weekend or Yom Kippur. At SleepSafe Beds, employees feel similarly comfortable approaching Weinschreider with their opinions, a rarity in the industry dominated by tiers of factory managers.
“If you’ve got an idea and present it to (Weinschreider), he doesn’t trash it,” commented Kenneth Handy. “He listens to you and, if it’s a good idea, you’ll have the chance to prove yourself and it flies.”
It’s this constant focus on innovation helps ensure SleepSafe will never outsource their furniture manufacturing. “We really have an edge here in the USA. Each bed is custom made-to-order” said Hettig. It’s something offshore manufacturers would find hard to duplicate.”
The employees’ personal satisfaction in manufacturing a product to aid the very niche market of patients with disabilities, many of the children, get a good night’s sleep, is also unique.
“This job is very rewarding in terms of getting calls from parents about how the beds have helped their children,” said Laura Mosley in customer service.
Her colleague Donna Davis concurred, “The stories are sad but I love helping to find a solution.”