By SHARON COHEN, Associated Press
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."
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.
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.