Furniture Company's Revival Has Global Message

SHARON COHEN

LINCOLNTON, N.C. (AP) — 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."