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Furniture company's revival has global message

In this Friday, March 16, 2012 photo, Tony Rickman installs moulding on wooden chests in the assembly line area at the Lincolnton Furniture Company in Lincolnton, N.C. Five generations of Cochranes had been furniture makers, but by the mid-1990s the trade was moving to China, land of cheap labor. But earlier this year, Bruce Cochrane reopened with a work force of about 55, part of a small but growing trend called 'reshoring.' In this Friday, March 16, 2012 photo, Tony Rickman installs moulding on wooden chests in the assembly line area at the Lincolnton Furniture Company in Lincolnton, N.C. Five generations of Cochranes had been furniture makers, but by the mid-1990s the trade was moving to China, land of cheap labor. But earlier this year, Bruce Cochrane reopened with a work force of about 55, part of a small but growing trend called "reshoring." (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
By Sharon Cohen
AP National Writer / April 7, 2012
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LINCOLNTON, N.C.—When Bruce Cochrane's family furniture company became an empty factory, he wouldn't drive by the building, even though it was just a short ride from home. There were just too many memories of what was -- and what he was sure would never be again.

Five generations of Cochranes had been furniture makers, starting with his great-great grandfather, William, who built church pews in the 1850s. By the mid-1990s, though, the long, proud family tradition appeared to be at an end. Like so many other American industries, the furniture trade was moving to China, land of cheap labor.

Cochrane headed there, too, becoming a consultant to furniture makers there, making occasional trips to offer advice. Back in North Carolina, he saw globalization taking its toll. First, fewer and fewer workers in the plants. Then, shuttered factories. But it took a while to grasp the scope of the loss.

"I didn't give that a lot of thought at the time," Cochrane says. "I was making so much money that I did not really dwell on the implications of what I was doing, of what other people were doing. ... Later on, I saw how sad it was to see a $50 billion industry move offshore and all the thousands and thousands of jobs that were lost. And I was part of it."

"That," he says, "probably bothered me more than anything -- seeing the jobs go away."

More than three years after the factory closed its doors, Cochrane reopened them for a new venture, Lincolnton Furniture Co. Earlier this year, a small work force of about 55 -- including several who'd toiled for his late father under the same roof -- built the company's first bedroom and dining room pieces, shipping them to stores with a flag-decorated "Made in America" tag.

Lincolnton is part of a small but growing trend called "reshoring" -- a reverse migration of U.S. manufacturers from the Far East (mostly China) to West. With rising labor and shipping costs in China, companies producing appliances, cookware, audio earphones, water heaters and other goods have decided it makes economic sense to move some (or all) of their operations back to U.S. soil.

Cochrane knows he's doing something risky, that some folks think he's a bit crazy and believe the furniture business in the U.S. is mostly gone. He's confident, though, this is a smart move, and not just because it feels good -- which, by the way, it does.

"To do something like this HAS to be a business decision," he says, "but it is emotional and it is sentimental to be able to come back and make something again and to impact people in such a positive way."

What happens in the cavernous factory on Cochrane Road could bring economic security to workers in a state that, by one estimate, has hemorrhaged tens of thousands of jobs to China in the last decade.

But what happens here could also offer larger lessons about U.S. workers in a global market, the appetite for American-made goods and the future of an industry decimated by foreign competition.

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Bruce Cochrane was in China, 8,000 miles away, when he first began thinking about reviving the family's business three years ago.

Over a decade of consulting, he'd witnessed dramatic changes in China's economy. Manufacturing workers' wages -- 58 cents an hour, on average, in 2001 -- were approaching $3. The once abundant labor supply was drying up. Shipping costs were higher because of rising fuel costs. Quality was suffering because of high turnover. It could take three or more months to get a piece of furniture after it was ordered -- compared with 30 days or less in the U.S. The clear-cut advantages of manufacturing in China were disappearing.

That same point was made in a 2011 report by The Boston Consulting Group that estimated that "reshoring" by companies could result in 2 to 3 million new jobs. About a quarter would be directly in manufacturing, and the rest would work for suppliers or service industries.

Furniture, the report said, is among the seven areas where this is most likely to occur. The costs of shipping bulky products and the ample supply of wood in the U.S. make it a prime candidate for domestic manufacturing; China has to import wood.

"The pendulum is swinging," says Hal Sirkin, the report's lead author. He says wages are rising 15-to-20 percent a year in China and U.S. workers are, on average, more than three times as productive

The report predicts that by 2015, these industries will likely reach a "tipping point" where the cost advantages of China will have shrunk to a point where U.S. companies may see it's to their benefit to return production or set up a new base here.

"It's still early," Sirkin says. "We don't know all this is going to happen, but companies are starting because the economics are starting to look favorable. I was surprised to see it happening as quickly as it is."

It is happening at a time when Americans -- historically proud of the nation's manufacturing might -- are showing frustration with the migration of those jobs to China and elsewhere. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in February found that nearly 75 percent of those surveyed favor raising taxes on businesses that move manufacturing jobs overseas.

In January, President Barack Obama hosted a White House forum on in-sourcing, featuring small and large companies that have invested in the U.S. And in his State of the Union speech, Obama called for an economy "built on American manufacturing." He said the resurgence of the U.S. auto industry "should give us confidence."

A March trade group survey found expansion in 15 of 18 manufacturing industries, including autos, steel and furniture.

The president's Republican rivals, meanwhile, also have touted the value of manufacturing and talked tough about China. Mitt Romney has vowed to declare China a "currency manipulator" and impose tariff penalties. Rick Santorum, who has emphasized his blue-collar roots, proclaimed he wants to "got to war with China" to create the best business climate for America.

But predictions about a rebirth of manufacturing and muscular rhetoric about resolving trade imbalances are met with understandable skepticism.

Consider the numbers: More than 5.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost from 2000 to 2011, though there has been a modest recovery in recent years, There are economists who say some jobs are gone forever because of productivity and robotic gains. And U.S. multinationals eliminated more than 800,000 jobs in the U.S. while adding 2.9 million overseas from 2000 to 2009, according to federal figures.

The trade deficit with China -- $295 billion last year -- has cost nearly 2.8 million U.S. jobs from 2001 to 2010 and almost 70 percent have been in manufacturing, according to a 2011 report by the Economic Policy Institute.

The report's author, Robert Scott, found that about a third of all displaced jobs were in the computer and electronic parts industry; other areas include textiles, apparel and furniture. North Carolina's loss of nearly 108,000 jobs ranked it among the top 10 hardest-hit states.

Reshoring "is not only a drop in the bucket ... it's not making a dent in the growth of the trade deficit," says Scott. "It's a classic example of counting trees instead of focusing on the forest. You may see a few trees popping up but the forest is still falling down."

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Bruce Cochrane started learning the furniture trade as a teen. He worked with his father, Theo -- also known as Sonny -- who ran the company with his brother, Jerry

"He always instilled in me that it was OK to take chances," Cochrane says. "He'd always say, `If you aren't fishing, you aren't catching anything.'"

Cochrane remembered those words when trying to decide whether to take the plunge. "I actually had a dream of him telling me that and he was in his fishing gear. At that point, I said, `Yep, I'm going to do it.'"

That decision came more than a decade after the Cochranes got out of the business. In 1997, the family sold the company to another U.S. manufacturer; the factory remained open and the workers continued to make furniture with the Cochrane name. Over the years, though, more and more work was done in China. The plant finally closed in late 2008, the building was sold and the equipment auctioned off.

Cochrane carefully developed a business plan, and by 2011, he was ready -- thanks, in part, to financing from a local bank. The president turned out to be a former company worker.

Last spring, Cochrane -- who has two partners -- walked into the empty 300,000 square-foot factory.

He soon added family touches, among them an oil painting of his father, hung on the lobby wall. With their silver hair and Clark Kent glasses, father and son share an uncanny resemblance. His eyes mist when he mentions him. "I think about how much he would love this," he says.

Starting over, Cochrane also looked to the past, recruiting former company workers.

When he phoned the first two -- both weren't working -- he heard doubt in their voices.

"Both of them said, `I don't think I can do that anymore,'" he recalls. "They had lost their confidence. It (joblessness) puts people in such despair. They think there's something wrong with them rather than the circumstances."

Karen Padgett was one of those first calls. She'd worked her way up from the shipping department to human resources manager, spending 35 years with Cochrane and its successor. When the factory closed, Padgett was adrift.

She was in her 50s, jobs were scarce and a lifetime of working with folks who'd become good friends was suddenly gone.

"It was such a loss," she says. "If you have a death in the family, you feel like you just can't pick up and go forward. That's how I felt. ... I knew I needed to work. I knew I was still vital enough to do something, but I didn't know what I would do."

Jerry Cochrane had urged her to return to school, so she enrolled in a nearby college to polish her skills.

She was just starting to scope out job prospects when Cochrane called. She knew immediately she wanted the job, but had a moment of hesitation. "Being out of work strips you of your confidence," she says. "I felt, `Oh, gosh can I do this?' I just needed somebody to reassure me."

Cochrane described his plans to build American-made furniture. "He said, `I really believe it's coming back and we can make some money doing this and we'll have a good time, I promise.'"

Padgett is now on the other end of the job search, fielding calls and conducting interviews. She's received about 1,400 applications for what eventually will be about 130 jobs. (Starting salaries range from $9 to $16 an hour.)

One caller had a particularly poignant story: He said he wanted to work for the company because as a boy, he'd lived down the road from the old Cochrane factory. His single mother had struggled to provide for her six kids, he said, and when times got tough, Sonny Cochrane made sure their utility bills were paid.

The man was eventually hired.

About two-thirds of Lincolnton workers have experience in the furniture industry. North Carolina lost nearly 60 percent of its furniture jobs from 1999 to 2010, as the percentage of imported furniture sold in the U.S. doubled.

It has been a slow-motion economic disaster. Padgett says everyone noticed how one factory, then another closed, and yet "it was like we just woke up and it was swept out from under us. It kind of slapped us in the face when it was all gone."

It was so traumatic that when Cochrane asked Pat Hendrick to return as purchasing manager, she was thrilled but had one question: "`Will you be importing anything?' I didn't want to be involved with anything like that," she says, "because that's how I lost my job."

To Hendrick, her job offer was an answered prayer. Literally. Every day while she was unemployed, she says, she'd pray she'd find work. One day, she tried something a little different:

"I said, `God, I'm tired. You're going to have to drop a job in my lap that you know I can do and have people there that I can get along with and work with. I'm just leaving it in your hands.'"

Cochrane called at 8:59 a.m. the next day.

Driving back into the parking lot for the first time, Hendrick says she felt as if she'd never left. But two years of unemployment aren't easily forgotten.

"After losing your job of 32 years," she says, "you do have reservations. I'm comfortable here, but I don't think I'll ever have that same sense of security that I thought I had."

Dean Hoyle understands uncertainty. After nearly 30 years at the factory, he found himself out of work, too, scraping by doing yard work and mowing lawns.

His situation, he says, was even more agonizing because he was still recovering from the death of his wife from breast cancer, and work, he says, "had been a rock to me." After 14 months, Hoyle was hired at another furniture company, only to be laid off last year.

Hoyle, who works in the packing department, is struck by how much has changed since he first walked into the factory as a fresh-faced Army veteran. "These places were all up and running when I got out of school," he says. "Where are all the people going to go now and what are they going to do? Not everybody can be a computer programmer."

Hoyle's ruddy, mustachioed face breaks into a wide smile as he recalls going to the bank to deposit his first paycheck from the new job.

"I'm 57 years old and soon to be 58, and I've got enough sense to know this area is not full of opportunities for someone like me," he says. "If I could sum it up in one word, it would be grateful."

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In January, Lincolnton's first piece of furniture -- a cherry-wood nightstand -- came off the line. All the workers signed it.

That same month, Bruce Cochrane had two dates in Washington, D.C. The first was the White House conference on insourcing, where he met Obama. The other was an invitation to sit in the first lady's box at the State of the Union speech, where the president spoke of a manufacturing renaissance. (For the record, Cochrane says he's never voted for a Democratic president.)

Cochrane thinks there's an appetite for U.S.-produced goods. He attaches a "Made in America" tag to each piece of his company's furniture, with a message: "We take immeasurable pride in the fact that our furnishings are made of select solid American hardwoods," he wrote, appending his name.

"I think people realize that made in America means jobs in America," Cochrane says. "And they have experience with a loved one or a family member or a friend who lost a job so it becomes more and more personal to them."

Bud Boyles, owner of the Carolina Furniture Mart in Lincolnton (where the nightstand is displayed), senses a similar mood.

"Timing is everything and he's definitely got the timing right now," Boyles says. "It might be a hard first year for him but people are saying, `We're going to have to take a look at what we're doing. We have to go back to our roots and help our neighbors.'"'

There have been small moments of satisfaction these first months, such as touring the factory with a friend, who said he thought he'd never again smell that earthy scent of fresh-cut wood. "It's nostalgic," Cochrane says.

But there have been problems, too. A malfunctioning machine needed fixing and the plant had to be rewired, a costly project. The technology has become so efficient that Cochrane says he'll need half the workers he first expected -- though of course that's a mixed blessing, given the area's struggle with unemployment.

Within three years, Cochrane hopes to do $25 million in business a year. For now, he's determined to prove the naysayers wrong.

"People in this industry still don't believe this can be done," he says. "I don't have any doubt at all."

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Sharon Cohen is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in Chicago. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.

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