Furniture Factory Closes, Jobs Go Abroad

"It was unbelievable," said Styles. After more than 50 years, "I couldn't believe I was out of a job. I'd never had that problem before — never been out of a job, never been laid off or fired, never left a job that I couldn't go back to for work. So I was just devastated."

And, after decades working together at Hooker, many find they've lost more than a job. "That's probably going to be the hardest thing to walk away from, is the friendship and closeness we all had together," said former employee Terry Crotts.

Closing a Capital

Although Kernersville is the only one of 10 Hooker plants to be shut down, its North Carolina location makes its closing especially poignant. For more than a century, the state has been a furniture capital, thanks in large part to an abundance of Appalachian hardwood and relatively inexpensive labor.

Local saw millers first stopped sending their timber north in the late 1800s, and by 1929 had made their state sovereign in furniture making. Today, the town of High Point boasts a sprawling retail market, and twice a year hosts the nation's biggest wholesale furniture exposition, drawing buyers from the top retailers in the country. Yet if local furniture factories begin closing, the market could shift west, closer to the source at other plants.

Does history matter? If North Carolina no longer made furniture, would it change the state? If the United States let manufacturing jobs drift offshore, would it change the nation?

"In part, the answer to that question is, 'What sort of America do you see now?' " said local economic analyst Andrew Brod. "It's here already."

Reason, Risk and Remedy

Forced to close Kernersville in favor of cheaper Chinese labor, CEO Toms insists that the United States look in the mirror and draw a line. The Chinese, he said, "have millions of people that they're trying to have employed, so it's hard to fault them. But I think that at some point, this country has to think about what's best for us.

"You have industries and examples of predatory pricing," Toms warned. "That's a risk we run not just in furniture, but in any industry that we're letting leave this country."

But the American furniture industry has made matters worse. Unlike the Chinese, many American companies have failed to invest much in their own productive capital, ironically opting instead to funnel investments abroad, many to China itself, Brod says.

"Some have contracted with Chinese producers, but others have entered into joint ventures to establish new factories, to refurbish existing factories," he said.

Innovation Trumps Outsourcing

If the American furniture industry wants to survive in America, it will have to save itself, Brod says.

Comparing today's furniture industry to the automobile industry of the 1970s, Brod said that while Detroit then won trade restrictions on Japanese cars, "the only factor that pulled the American automobile industry out of the doldrums was not federal government action, but that Detroit really buckled down and improved quality and improved its production processes. It became more efficient, and may have gotten a little lucky — it found the minivan.

"The question for furniture is — what's our minivan going to be?"

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