Anchored by a flurry of activities throughout the year surrounding the launch of production in the 1-million-square-foot facility on Benton Pike, Whirlpool Cleveland Division’s opening of the cavernous structure easily cracked the Top 10 News Stories for 2012, as voted by editors and staff writers of the Cleveland Daily Banner.
The historic Whirlpool manufacturing milestone landed in a two-way tie for fourth place among the area’s Top 10 newsmakers. Sharing the spot with Whirlpool was the pivotal court ruling settling the longstanding sales tax dispute between the Cleveland City Council and Bradley County Commission.
Although two years of ceremonial steppingstones have led to this year’s factory opening — dating back to the original announcement by Whirlpool in September 2010 — the official launch of production at 6 a.m. on Monday, March 19, came quietly and with no pomp and circumstance.
Workers on Line 10 had actually already assembled the plant’s first wall ovens in early manufacturing runs a couple of days earlier in order to get a head start on filling the customer pipeline that stretches from Cleveland to all corners of the nation and hundreds of points in between.
After a brief stretching and warmup period on the shining concrete floor — part of the new Whirlpool culture at the state-of-the-art plant — assembly workers wasted no time grabbing their air guns and building the factory’s first wall oven units one work station at a time as the appliances slowly glided down the line from the chassis and insulation stages to testing and eventually to packout where the finished units are boxed and shipped to a warehouse.
Although photography was limited because some of the new appliance models had not yet been publicly unveiled, a Cleveland Daily Banner editor was allowed to roam the assembly line wearing the same protective garb that workers use — safety glasses, earplugs and cut-resistant arm bands.
During interviews with many of the Whirlpool associates who answered questions from their stations while working, it was quickly apparent the employees were gaga over their new daytime home and the detail that had gone into its design.
“I like it,” one worker stressed. “It’s a change from the old plant.”
Other comments, whose level of enthusiasm ranged from “happy” to “ecstasy,” included:
“It’s a better environment from the old plant.”
“It’s great! It’s well organized. It’s cleaner ... and it’s air-conditioned.”
“I love this new plant! Why do I love it? I’ve been here 25 years. That pretty well tells the story.”
“I love it here! This is a new way of life. It’s our chance to start over and make everything better. It is more organized ... not as much chaos.”
“It’s nice ... not too bad.”
Whirlpool turned heads around the world, especially in the U.S., when corporate officials from Benton Harbor, Mich., came to Cleveland to announce plans to build a new plant and to construct it in the same town that had hosted the existing facility for the past 100 years, and longer.
The initial announcement came Labor Day 2010. Two months later, groundbreaking ceremonies were held on Veterans Day — even as heavy earthmoving equipment worked in the background relocating tons and tons of dirt. Construction got under way a short time later with plans to open the LEED-certified facility sometime during the first quarter of 2012.
Under the leadership of general contractor Gray Construction of Lexington, Ky., and dozens of subcontractors from Bradley County and across Tennessee, the project never wavered. It did take a bump on April 27, 2011, when five tornadoes leveled 285 homes in Bradley County, seriously damaged hundreds of others and took nine lives. The Whirlpool construction site was not significantly impacted although two of the twisters grazed by on different sides of the building.
Still, the project was slowed in order to allow Gray Construction and various subcontractors to lend support to the community in helping to clean up debris from the devastating storms. At the same time, Whirlpool set its sights on helping employee families who lost their homes and loved ones in the 12 hours of tragedy.
As Bradley County’s largest employer, several Whirlpool families were affected. Whirlpool employs some 1,500 in manufacturing alone, and more than 2,000 total which includes the Whirlpool Cleveland Customer eXperience Center (call center) on 20th Street. As the crow flies, the new Whirlpool factory on Benton Pike is now a close neighbor to the call center.
Dicky Walters, plant manager at Whirlpool Cleveland Division, said he was elated to have the new factory up and running.
“Obviously, running the first salable product is a big milestone for the new plant,” Walters told the Banner on the day of the factory opening. “I’m delighted to see the new product and look forward to begin moving the rest of the plant.”
The March 19 “official” opening was just a first step. Throughout the rest of the year, and into the first half of 2013 as well, remaining equipment and processes are being — and will be — transitioned from the old King Edward Avenue site to the new Benton Pike location. It is expected the move should be completed by mid-2013, although Whirlpool will still require additional months of work to clear all the existing old buildings whose predecessors over the past century have included Dixie Foundry, Dixie Products, Magic Chef Company, Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products and Hardwick Stove Company. Hardwick’s roots are the deepest with a production startup dating all the way back to 1879.
In a year filled with activities surrounding the plant’s opening, Whirlpool hosted a preliminary dedication on March 5 that was dedicated to two groups — the 2,000 Cleveland-based employees whose work ethic launched the dream and the Bradley County community that made it reality.
Several weeks later, Whirlpool hosted a ribbon cutting that lured a keynote speaker from Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of Commerce John Bryson, who serves in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, came to Cleveland to help snip the ribbon and to praise an American manufacturer for its role in reinvigorating U.S. manufacturing.
“I want to congratulate all the people at Whirlpool on 100 years of making things here in America,” Bryson told a large contingent of government leaders, community guests and employees. “Today, CEOs both in the U.S. and abroad are seeing places like Cleveland, Tennessee, and they’re saying, ‘That’s where I want my next factory to go.’”
The White House guest added, “They see our R&D, our supply chains, the quality of our products and our talented workforce. There is simply no comparison. American competitiveness and American innovation are full speed ahead.”
Also on hand was the Whirlpool leader who made the final decision to recommend the new Cleveland construction to the company’s board of directors.
Jeff M. Fettig, Whirlpool chairman and CEO, graded the company’s innovation, its new products and the new Cleveland plant with a “WOW!”
“We think we have the best workforce in the appliance industry,” Fettig stressed. Although Whirlpool is a global manufacturer, the CEO pointed to the company’s commitment to its American homeland.
“We are proud to have more U.S. manufacturing employees than all of our major competitors combined and today’s ceremony further signifies Whirlpool Corporation’s confidence in the Cleveland, Tennessee, workforce and in U.S. manufacturing in general,” the longtime corporate executive stated. “The advanced production here supports the growth of our premium cooking products business which includes some of the most innovative ranges, ovens and cooktops in the marketplace.”
Fettig was adamant in his assessment of the total strategy — from start to finish — to bring the new factory to Cleveland.
“This is the fastest ‘decision to production’ I have ever seen in U.S. manufacturing,” he stressed. Fettig added, “There is no doubt I think this is a world class manufacturing facility ... with great innovative products that give us great confidence to continue investing, both in U.S. manufacturing and in our people.”
Later in the summer, the Whirlpool plant also hosted an open house strictly for employees and their families.
Even as the company continues its move from the old King Edward Avenue site to Benton Pike, Phase 2 of the construction project is nearing its completion. A 400,000-square-foot Factory Distribution Center (FDC warehouse) is scheduled to be finished by year’s end on the same site.
Phase 3 is also getting under way. This project is the construction of facilities — inside the new plant — for the Global Product Organization operation. GPO is the Whirlpool equivalent to research and design, known to most as R&D.
A full-page ad that Whirlpool has been sponsoring in the Banner to close out the year speaks to the company’s commitment and its future.
Under a heading of “Building The Best In The World Right Here At Home,” the ad reads: “For 101 years, we’ve been committed to designing, engineering and assembling the best appliances bar none, and 80 percent of those sold in the U.S. come from our U.S. factories. We spend over $7.4 billion annually in our U.S. facilities in Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Iowa. Every day, the 22,000 men and women we employ devote their skills to moving this country forward by building products that improve lives — one home, one family at a time. Whirlpool is proud to be a part of what makes this country great.”