Furniture comeback draws attention of politicians

A bulletin board in Bruce Cochrane's office displays "thank you" cards for reopening his factory.

Bruce Cochrane (right) and Karen Padgett stand next to a portrait of Cochrane's father Theo "Sonny" Cochrane.

In 1996, Bruce Cochrane's family sold the furniture company they'd owned for four generations to another American manufacturer. Cochrane says they couldn't compete with lower-cost Asian imports.

"It was a difficult decision. It was probably a lot more difficult for my father and my uncle than for me 'cause they were people persons. And they really actually loved the people that worked here," said Cochrane.

But before long, the new owners moved the whole operation overseas. And by 2008 -- when the last Cochrane Furniture factory closed -- 1,300 workers had lost their jobs. But three years later, Cochrane decided to re-open that old factory in Lincolnton, N.C. There were sentimental reasons, but he says it also made economic sense. These days, it's not as cheap as it used to be to make furniture in China. In January, Cochrane started his new venture, Lincolnton Furniture.

Inside Lincolnton Furniture the factory floor is filled with the screech and whine of saws and routers. Cochrane shows off new, state-of-the-art equipment -- and his furniture.

"You can actually see into the finish, you can actually see the wood," he said.

Today Cochrane has 72 employees. During my tour, he introduces me to worker after worker he has hired back. One of those workers is Joe Rudisill, the plant manager. Rudisill worked for Cochrane's family for decades, just like his dad did.

"It meant a lot to me. This is all I ever done is work in furniture, and it's all I ever known. It meant a lot to me to come back to work here," said Rudisill.

Cochrane is proud of what he has done. Lincolnton Furniture, he tells me, "has a great story." And it's a story that had legs, especially after a recession. Months before workers finished their first dresser and dining room table, Cochrane was all over the local news. A local newscast promoted the furniture maker in an ad that said, "By early next year, you'll start seeing a new furniture brand: Lincolnton Furniture, in stores. That means jobs in a county that needs them."

Soon, Cochrane even hit the national news -- "Harry Smith visited a factory owner who sent his company's jobs to China, but then home called him back."

And he got fan letters. They are pinned to a big bulletin board in his office.

One of them reads: "You're building furniture in the USA, and I wanted to commend you for it. I believe the only way our country will survive is if manufacturing returns to our shores. I've been actively seeking made-in-America products."

Cochrane has become a poster boy for so-called "insourcing," or bringing jobs back to the U.S. The Boston Consulting Group estimates the U.S. will add between two and three million manufacturing-related jobs over the next three years, as higher labor costs make Chinese products less competitive.

Politicians also thought the Lincolnton Furniture story was a great story. And soon, those fan letters gave way to invitations to meet North Carolina's Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. Invitations to go to Washington followed. There's a picture of him with the state's Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. But Cochrane had actually traveled to D.C., to meet someone else -- President Barack Obama.

Obama brought Cochrane to the White House in January for the administration's "Insourcing American Jobs Forum." The president was planning a major manufacturing initiative, and Lincolnton Furniture was a company he could point to. Obama beamed as he talked about Cochrane's bio, about how Cochrane had traveled overseas as a consultant for companies that had outsourced manufacturing to Asia.

"While he was there, though, he noticed something he didn't expect -- their customers actually wanted to buy things, made in America," said Obama at the forum.

Two weeks later, President Obama unveiled a plan to offer tax breaks, to encourage insourcing, during his State of the Union address. And Cochrane? Well, he was right there, as a guest of the first lady.

"Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: 'Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed,'" said Obama during the address, eight months ago.

But when I ask Cochrane who he will vote for, his answer is Mitt Romney. Cochrane likes that Romney's background is in business and he says he has learned a thing or two about the way government works over the last year -- on both side of the aisle.

"You have a general willingness for the politicians to take credit for what we did," said Cochrane, who wants to make clear that his furniture company's success was not something politicians were helping to make happen.

Cochrane says that what he needed most when he was starting Lincolnton Furniture was access to capital -- loans to upgrade his factory. That money was hard to come by, and politicians didn't deliver on promises to improve that. This year he's hoping to double the size of his workforce. But even that would give him just a tenth of the people his family business used to employ.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

A bulletin board in Bruce Cochrane's office displays "thank you" cards for reopening his factory.

Bruce Cochrane (right) and Karen Padgett stand next to a portrait of Cochrane's father Theo "Sonny" Cochrane.

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