Michael K. Dugan’s new book is certainly a fascinating and compelling read for anyone who has had anything to do with the American furniture industry in the past 50 years. Writing with extensive knowledge and an insider’s insights (Dugan was president and CEO of Henredon Furniture Industries for 17 years), he catalogs a long chain of events that have led our domestic furniture industry to its current state. But the story may not be what you expect nor what you are looking for in a book that is subtitled “How America Lost a Fifty Billion Dollar Industry.”
Dugan explores in great detail -- and with more mixed military metaphors than you can imagine – decades of warfare between furniture industry insiders, mostly in the South, trying to protect their turf from invading outsiders, mostly from the North. For most of the book is about this civil war, with the outsiders largely characterized as incompetent and lacking in key knowledge needed to succeed in furniture. Apparently the contention is that good Insiders (Dugan’s capitalization) were so weakened by decades of battling the misguided efforts of the Outsiders that the Chinese and other offshore competitors could just walk right over the industry when the time was right.
Serious issues such as the failure of many American manufacturers to update factories and manufacturing practices are almost lost in the blizzard of tales of corporate infighting and maneuvers. One detects more than a few sour grapes in Dugan’s descriptions of some of the players. And his opinions seem to change with the context. For example, Dugan several times offers derisive descriptions of “Outsider” attempts to introduce lean manufacturing techniques. But when he finally gets to the Asian invasion in the second to last chapter, he suggests that the industry probably needs to adopt such techniques to survive.
At the end of the book, I was left with the profound feeling not of having been told the story of a war so much as having read the inquest transcript for a sad, long and painful suicide. To put it another way, reading this book is as compelling as watching a car wreck – you can’t take your eyes away even though you fear what you might see. This serves as a good post mortem for the industry’s failures, but what is missing is an equally compelling battle plan for how the industry could redeem itself.
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