Making It in America

A 12-Point Plan for Growing Your Business and Keeping Jobs at Home


By John Bassett

By Ellis Henican

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Everyone knows you can’t build things in America anymore. Everyone, that is, except John D. Bassett III. While one corporation after another exported their manufacturing to high-volume factories in low-wage locations overseas, Bassett’s traditional wood bedroom furniture manufacturing company has not only survived, but thrived, making premium products right here in America. When everyone else was rushing for the exits, Bassett bet on the talent, dedication, and uncompromising quality of American workmanship.

And he won.

In Making It in America, Bassett tells you the secrets that have made Vaughan-Bassett Furniture so successful doing what everyone said couldn’t be done. Drawing on rich life experience, including the everyday challenges running a traditional manufacturing company, Bassett constructs a 12-point plan to achieve successful leadership in any business. These steps include: Have a winning attitude, respect your employees, don’t panic, reinvest constantly, and make the best of the worst.

Bassett’s story is about how those values underpinned his personal success and how they can revitalize America itself. In the face of feckless leadership, crumbling infrastructure, and global competition, Bassett’s story is a blueprint for how America can revitalize its role as leader of the free world and how your success can be part of it.


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Stepping Up


I had never been inclined to turn away from struggle before. I wasn't about to turn away now.


I walked into the noisy finishing room at our sprawling factory in Galax, Virginia, and right away the conveyor belt stopped. Inside a furniture factory, silence is almost never a happy sound.

Uh-oh, I thought. What's the problem here?

All the workers were turning from their stations and were now walking toward me.

Was there a safety issue I hadn't heard about? Did somebody get hurt? Was there a problem with one of our machines? It had to be something fairly important. We'd worked hard to cut our downtime. In my long experience on factory floors, people don't usually stop working when the boss comes in.

Finishers do the messiest work in a furniture factory. The job requires speed, care, and genuine artistry. That conveyor runs fast, and if the stain is uneven or the lacquer's applied wrong, you've just spoiled the underlying craftsmanship. A sloppy finishing job is the first thing a dissatisfied customer will notice and complain about.

As the finishers crowded around me, I saw that no one was frowning. Nobody looked mad. Then a lady named Helen stepped up to speak for the group.

"John," she said, staring straight at me in her brown-stained coveralls. "We have something to tell you."

"Okay. What is it?"

"We see what you're going through," Helen said. "We see what you're trying to accomplish for us, and we want you to know one thing. You tell us what you need, and we're gonna do it for you. You tell us what you want, we'll get it done."

I heard her loud and clear. We were still struggling to save this factory and the seven hundred men and women it employed. Few people thought we'd be able to do it. We were the furniture industry's stubborn underdogs, hanging tough in southwest Virginia after most of our large competitors had shifted their production to new facilities overseas. Before Helen spoke, I'd been talking a good game but wasn't honestly sure we could achieve this long-shot American miracle. The moment she made that promise, I knew our competitors were the ones at a distinct disadvantage. We were absolutely going to survive.

I hugged the women, shook hands with the men, and said to them all, "Thank you. I know that. We can always count on each other."

After all we'd been through together—the reorganizations and the speed-ups, the sideways glances from the rest of the industry, the illegal dumping from low-wage foreign countries, all the new technology we'd implemented, the terrible sadness of watching neighboring factories close and good people get tossed from their jobs—I felt hugely grateful for the support I was getting from the floor. I knew Helen and the others weren't just blowing smoke or buttering me up. We were genuine partners here, the kinds of partners who were ready to take on the world together—and I meant that literally. I knew the employees had as much at stake as I did. Their whole futures were on the line.

"Okay," I said finally. "I have my first request."

"What is it?" they asked, as several of them stepped closer to hear.

"Get your butts back to work!" I said. "Let's get this line running! We gotta move some furniture!"

They laughed and clapped and quickly returned to the production line, moving freshly finished pieces of Vaughan-Bassett furniture out the factory door. As I headed to my desk upstairs to absorb what had just occurred, the workers were back at their stations and the finishing room was humming again.


My name is John D. Bassett III. Some call me JB3. I'm a third-generation Virginia furniture man. With my sons Doug and Wyatt, I run the largest wood bedroom furniture manufacturing plant in the United States. Which is kind of like running the busiest Chick-fil-A on Mars—there aren't too many others. But one, I keep discovering, can be a very powerful number. I've been described as driven, demanding, dedicated, profane, charming, iconoclastic, generous, and stubborn. Especially stubborn. Over the past three decades, our little company has been at the center of one of the epic battles of modern capitalism. We have weathered globalism, ever-changing technology, a crippling fiscal crisis, and profound industrial change. We stayed in America as virtually all our competitors rushed for the exits, shifting their production to high-volume factories in low-wage locations overseas. We were under enormous pressure to join the panicking stampede. But we refused to budge. We stuck with our people instead—their talent, their dedication, our history together, and the uncompromising quality of American workmanship. It's never been easy, but I am extremely glad we did.

It's the awesome power of one.

Our big bet on America has caused quite a stir in our industry and beyond. Some people are still shaking their heads at us. They can't imagine why we didn't just roll with the tide. But to many, our company has come to symbolize the strong fighting spirit that still burns inside the American worker, despite all the forces busily trying to snuff that spirit out. People say we're a much-needed antidote to all the defeatist talk they keep hearing. The way I see it, we are living, breathing proof that dedicated management and loyal employees, working together as a team in this great country of ours, can hold their own against anyone anywhere and achieve just about anything!

That's the story of our company, our furniture, and our dreams. Born in America. Made in America. Stayed in America. I don't think we should ever have to leave.

If I sound patriotic, it's because I am. America has been hugely generous to me and my family. American workers and American consumers made "Bassett" one of the most famous names in furniture and turned many of my relatives into multimillionaires. I wasn't about to walk away from that legacy and that long-standing debt. Growing up in the time and place that I did, I was taught values that have always stuck with me: The worth of a dollar. The joy of quality workmanship. The need to look out for those less fortunate. The importance of treating people fairly and decently. Those lessons were reinforced by my experience in the United States Army serving on the German border. The call of duty and honor. The need to apply myself. The fact that America is still worth defending. The knowledge that our freedoms and beliefs stand for something special all around the world. I had never been inclined to turn away from struggle before, and I wasn't about to turn away now.

How we are pulling this off—finding the right strategy, getting the best out of our employees, building a product that people find desirable—is an important story and an inspiring one. It features some wonderful characters and some unexpected twists. It couldn't be more timely than it is right now, as America is readjusting to an increasingly dicey international terrain and a rapidly changing world economy.

To get to where we are, we had to ignore the constant prodding of respected experts. We stood up to sweeping business trends no one thought we had a chance against. We beat a fresh path through a thicket of obstacles and obfuscation while others gave up.

The results have been immensely gratifying. We rescued an American factory. We saved an American town. We preserved hundreds of jobs in a proud American community—jobs people really depended on. We doubled down on America just as others were boarding Air China flights to Beijing. We kept building well-crafted American furniture at a time when fewer and fewer people even tried.

We had something all the top experts and their holy spreadsheets could never quantify. We had people on our side. Decent, hardworking, dedicated people who simply refused to fail. The most underused asset in America today is not technology. It's not political power. It's not the Internet. It's people working together as a team. We've all got to learn to energize our people and get the most from everyone.

With the right kind of leadership, one company really can change the world.


In her bestselling book, Factory Man, author Beth Macy told the story of the rise and near-collapse of American furniture manufacturing and the bold path followed by our feisty firm. (She did call me an "asshole"—twice on the first page of chapter 1! I've chosen to overlook that because, on the very same page, she also described me as a "larger-than-life rule breaker who for more than a decade has stood almost single-handed against the outflow of furniture from America." I guess that's what writers call "a balanced portrayal.")

Making It in America is the story of how we managed to accomplish all this—in step-by-step, practical detail. In the pages that follow, I will reveal exactly what it took. Relying on my decades of business experience, I will take you inside our private thinking and our fresh leadership approach. I will describe the heartfelt values and modern business tactics that helped us surprise everyone. Most important, I will explain how you can apply our people-first leadership to any competitive challenge you confront. For the first time, I will lay out my Twelve-Point Plan for Growing Your Business and Keeping Jobs at Home. These are principles that have guided us from beginning to end. I don't know where we'd be without them, and I'm certain you'll find them valuable, whatever business you are in. They are battle-tested and clearly understandable. They are flexible, scalable, and ready to go. They are effective whether you're managing a smoothie stand in a strip mall or a far-flung conglomerate.

1. Learning on the job

2. Assessing the competition

3. The power of a winning attitude

4. The importance of treating people like something more than numbers

5. Transparent leadership

6. Facing the tough decisions

7. The willingness to change (again and again and again)

8. The refusal to panic

9. Communication, teamwork, and why they fuel each other

10. The need to keep investing in the future

11. Making the best of the worst situations

12. The huge impact of buying American

If you can get your head around these concepts and follow the steps I describe, they will change your business life forever, as they have fundamentally changed mine. It's not just Vaughan-Bassett. It's not just the furniture industry. It's any business, anywhere. We're making it in America, and so can you!

If taken to heart, our approach will save jobs, lift profits, enrich communities, boost the economy, and expand opportunities for everyone—from the shop floor to the tech lab to the office cubicle to the service center to the executive suite. If we can do it in our company, you can do it in yours. Whatever challenges your business is facing, whatever resources you have at your command, you just need the right people and the right approach with them. If we can all just pull together, there is no limit to what we can achieve.


I am often inspired by the wise voices of history. I spend a lot of time listening to them.

As I was starting on this journey, some special words were planted firmly in my head, focusing me, energizing me, and reminding me of how much I owed the country I loved.

They were the words of a young president, delivered January 20, 1961, a frigid Friday in Washington, D.C., as I was away in the U.S. Army. John F. Kennedy had just taken the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and was addressing the American people for the first time as their president. Everywhere you looked, the world was facing danger at least as severe as today's. The rush of the arms race. The height of the Cold War. An increasingly bellicose Soviet Union. People had much to feel anxious about. Whatever the new president said that day, it had to be strong.

His message arrived on tall shoulders. Kennedy's speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, had been studying President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the oratory of other presidents at especially perilous times. Since election night, the president-elect had been consulting with some of the smartest people he knew, including former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II and Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. But historians say his real inspiration came decades earlier during the future president's prep school days at the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, where the importance of giving, not just taking, was the credo of longtime headmaster Seymour St. John.

The speech that day was one of the shortest inaugural addresses ever delivered by a U.S. president, thirteen minutes and thirty seconds from the first word to the last, not counting the long ovation at the end. But the president's remarks quickly took their place among the greatest orations of American history. It was Kennedy's belief that America could no longer rely solely on its military might to keep the world safe and prosperous. A strong military was vital, he believed. But America also had to lead with diplomacy and help lift other nations in need. Sometimes, he was convinced, it was crucial to do right for the sake of the common good.

"In the long history of the world," he said that day, "only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger." Notice the optimistic spin? These aren't burdens. These are opportunities. We have been "granted" this special role. Kennedy's goal, as mine would later be, was to motivate Americans, not to frighten them.

"And so, my fellow Americans," the young president finally declared, "ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

I was moved by those words the first time I heard them while serving in the army in Germany. They have stayed with me ever since. But what do they mean exactly? What is it we owe this country of ours? Our freedom isn't free, of course, and America isn't America without the support and commitment of its citizens. We can't just take from our country. We also have to give.

This land we live in is the greatest democracy ever and the most admired country on earth. What are our responsibilities in return? Frankly, on most days we aren't asked to do much. Pay our taxes, follow the law, and not much else. We enjoy an extraordinary level of freedom. We live fairly comfortable lives. We have to work for a living, and many people do feel pressed financially—given the cost of living today and the lifestyles we seek to maintain. But we have a history of long prosperity, the benefits of amazing technology, and the pleasures of nearly endless diversions and entertainment. We have no military draft anymore. In our country, people are not forced to serve if they don't care to. When I grew up, my three brothers-in-law and I all went into the military. One went to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. The other three of us went to civilian colleges, but we all started our adulthoods in uniform. Some American families still have that connection to the military, but the vast majority do not.

As a business leader, it seems to me we have to do something more than reduce labor costs, avoid taxes, produce as cheaply as possible, and maximize our margins regardless of the human cost. What kind of legacy is that? Running lean and earning profits are certainly important business aims, but they aren't the only goals great leaders have. We must owe something more to the country that has been so generous to us. As President Kennedy reminded us more than half a century ago, we also have to give. We have to produce valuable products. We have to create decent jobs. We have to support the communities we live and work in. We have to boost the nation's economy, lift the tide for everyone, and willingly pay our fair share. You don't hear so much about that anymore from today's bottom-line consultants and business school experts. But those are the values that made America a great place to live and gave us the strongest economy the world has ever seen.

Somehow or another, those of us in business have to protect and nourish this national miracle of ours—and still make profits as we do.

When I'm gone, I want to be known as someone who cared about his people. I want everyone, not just those at the top, to do well. I want to leave the nation I love with stronger communities, better jobs, greater companies, a keener work ethic, and more security than when I arrived. The only way that will happen is if we focus more on each other's needs and achievements. That's where my principles really kick in.

It's never easy, but that is what this journey of ours is all about. Each of us has the power to make this happen. Stick with me here. The rewards can be extraordinary.

Chapter 1

Learning to Lead


I absorbed the most important thing the army had to offer a young officer like me: a chance to lead. The officer I admired most was my captain, Ray Teel. "Learn the principles of leadership," he told me. "Learn discipline. Learn that once an order is given, it's time to execute. Don't just sit around. Get it done!" He was a real mentor to me. A couple of things quickly became clear. Don't ask someone to do something you aren't willing to do yourself. If you want a young soldier to get up out of a foxhole and charge into battle knowing he can get his butt killed, you'd better be there beside him.


I wasn't a born leader. No one is. I squeezed the lessons of leadership out of life's experiences one by one across the decades. I've been learning to lead since I was a child. My family gets credit for some of it. The U.S. Army gets credit for more. And the wrenching struggles of a great American industry taught me some dangerous pitfalls to avoid. I'm not always the quickest learner, but I learn.

Growing up as John D. Bassett III in Bassett, Virginia, I could never just blend in. Not when the Bassett family was so deeply rooted in the hills of southwest Virginia. Not when the Bassett Furniture Industries was the lifeblood of the local economy, not to mention a major American manufacturing concern. My grandfather, the original John D. Bassett, ran the company. Then my uncle Bill took over, and my father after that. I was surrounded by Bassetts everywhere. Anything I did, from the day I climbed out of the playpen and toddled across the room, was immediately known by everyone.

We were a good Baptist family and attended the Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church, named after my grandmother, Pocahontas Bassett. In the Baptist church where I grew up, we didn't even have wine for communion—it was grape juice. The local Baptists had a rigid sense of right and wrong, and no one ever seemed confused about the difference. While I have since become an Episcopalian (they have more fun!), I still have my mother's voice bouncing in my head: "To whom much is given, much is expected in return. You have an obligation to this community."

I didn't quite know quite what she was driving at then, but I could tell she was talking about me.

They had a similar attitude at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia, where I was sent for three years of prep school, skipping John D. Bassett High. Situated on beautiful Lake Lanier in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, military school was supposed to instill some discipline in me. My parents thought I was on the road to delinquency. How delinquent could I have been? I lived in a town where everyone knew me. I worked every summer in the family business, up at 5:15 a.m. and straight to the factory floor. I wasn't into drugs or alcohol or any of that stuff. I recognized where the line was, and I never got caught on the wrong side of it. But my parents had their concerns, so there I was, 350 miles from home, in a neatly pressed uniform, marching with a rifle in the blazing Georgia sun. We were expected to make our beds and put our rooms in proper order. Everything else just flowed from there. We had to file our rifles. We had close-order drill. We were required to show up on time. We learned to follow orders and live to a certain standard because that standard was right. The school was all about order and discipline. Some of the instructors there made the hometown Baptists look like liberal-minded Unitarians.

Not surprisingly, that kind of upbringing had a real effect on me. It gave me a sense of belonging. It made me accustomed to getting along in a tightly controlled environment. It also taught me that wherever we come from, we are all judged by what we do. After Riverside I went off to college at Washington and Lee University. W&L is a wonderful institution of higher learning. Nestled in Lexington, Virginia, there is glorious history everywhere you look. Founded in 1796 and endowed in part by George Washington, the school was renamed for the first American president and General Robert E. Lee, who served as the college president until his death in 1870. I wish I could have a do-over. I didn't pay much attention the first time around. College was where I discovered alcohol and girls and the many ways a young man can have fun. I did join the ROTC. After military school, I knew I could handle that. I spent the summer after my junior year at Fort Knox, Kentucky, returning to campus in time for my senior year. Immediately upon graduation, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army.

It was 1959. The Cold War was going full blast, and I was sent to Germany with the Fourteenth Armored Cavalry Regiment—that means tanks. At twenty-two years old I began commanding a reconnaissance platoon. Decades later, the whole free world would celebrate when the Berlin Wall came down. I was there in 1961 when the Berlin Wall went up, a physical barrier dividing the communist east from the democratic west.


I loved being away. While in the army, I was out of Bassett, Virginia, in a place where the name John Bassett didn't mean anything to anybody. No one in Germany knew who the hell I was. The German girls found me charming, and I had friends from everywhere. What wasn't to like?

My father promised if I quit smoking for a year, he would give me two thousand dollars. The year was up, I was still in Germany, and he wanted to put the money in the bank.

"No, no, no," I said. "Send me the two thousand dollars."

I took the money, added some of my own, and bought a white Porsche with a red leather interior. In the summertime, the hardtop came off and was replaced with a black canvas cover. That automobile was almost an unfair advantage with the German girls!

Just fifteen years earlier, the German government had been our sworn enemy. Now many of its citizens seemed to cherish us as their liberators, grateful for how we'd helped defeat the Nazis and set the German people free. They also appreciated that we stood between them and the Russians.

Returning from maneuvers late one winter afternoon, one of our tanks broke down. We pulled up to a guesthouse, our full thirty-man platoon. A heavyset grandmotherly woman said we could leave our vehicles in the parking lot. She got on the telephone, and suddenly half a dozen other older German ladies arrived. They locked the gates of the guesthouse and began to cook. We had a huge meal of pork schnitzel, spaetzle, and applesauce before we all went off to bed.

After an eggs-and-sausage breakfast, I tried to pay for the fine German hospitality. She wouldn't accept anything. Her son had been in the German army, she said, and was captured by the Americans and held as a prisoner of war. After VE Day, he came back home, healthy and happy that the war was over. "He was wearing better clothes than when he left me," his mother said. "This is for taking care of my son."

My time in Germany wasn't all schnitzel and sports cars. The East German army, backed by the Soviet Union, had watchtowers on their side of the border and a ten-meter strip of land that was seeded with mines. Stationed twenty miles away, my squadron patrolled ninety miles of the hardened border with a forward observation post. We were required to have one officer there at all times. Since I was a bachelor, I ended up with a lot of that sentry duty, staring into the abyss of communism.

There was a constant flow of East German citizens willing to risk their lives to escape to freedom. Watching them try was a life-changing experience. I saw a father and young son manage to get across on a motorcycle. I helped a fleeing family get to the West German authorities and begin a new life. Another time, I was at my border post on a bright, crisp morning, when a teenage girl, fourteen or fifteen years old, came running toward the line. I could clearly see her coming, her eyes focused straight ahead. If that young girl had made it across the border, we could have protected her. But we weren't allowed to cross the line into East Germany, and she was stopped just a few yards shy of the border. The East German soldiers opened fire, and that girl collapsed in a bloody puddle on the ground.

I was never the same after watching that happen. "The only reason you are here is because you were born in America," I said to myself. "You are damn lucky." That's the moment I understood the army could provide me with opportunities to do more than flirt with blond girls.


I absorbed the most important thing the army had to offer a young officer like me: a chance to lead. The officer I admired most was my captain, Ray Teel. "Learn the principles of leadership," he told me. "Learn discipline. Learn that once an order is given, it's time to execute. Don't just sit around. Get it done!" He was a real mentor to me.

A couple of things quickly became clear. Don't ask someone to do something you aren't willing to do yourself. If you want a young soldier to get up out of a foxhole and charge into battle knowing he can get his butt killed, you'd better be there beside him.


On Sale
May 10, 2016
Page Count
272 pages
Center Street

John Bassett

About the Author

JOHN BASSETT III is a third-generation factory man who went up against the global market to save his family furniture business. He now employs hundreds of people at Vaughan-Bassett furniture.

ELLIS HENICAN is a long-time New York newspaper columnist, talk radio-host, and on-air commentator at the Fox News Channel. He has written two recent New York Times bestsellers, Home Team with New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, and In the Blink of an Eye with NASCAR legend Michael Waltrip.

Learn more about this author