Planet Earth’s largest premium cooking products plant — owned and operated by Whirlpool Corporation at the junction of Benton Pike and Durkee Road in Cleveland — continues to pump out residential and commercial appliances, but the move into the state-of-the-art facility from the old King Edward Avenue complex has slowed.
That was the case in February and remains the case six months later, but it’s not because anybody is doing anything wrong or that relocation strategies aren’t working out. It’s because product demand is keeping Whirlpool Cleveland Division leaders focused on existing assembly lines while aligning a product redesign with a Whirlpool sister plant in Tulsa, Okla.
Currently, only four assembly lines remain in the Whirlpool Cleveland manufacturing facility known as Plant 1 (on King Edward Avenue) which is divided into East Plant and West Plant. A neighboring factory at the corner of Third Street and Euclid Avenue, known as Plant 2, has sat empty for several months.
“The timing of some of the move to the new plant [on Benton Pike] has changed from the original plans for several reasons,” said Richard “Dicky” Walters, plant manager. “The latest timing indicates that we will have most of our employees at the new plant by this fall; however, there will be a few employees at the old plant through 2014.”
Originally, plant leaders had hoped to have the physical relocation of all operations, processes, assembly lines and employees completed by mid-2013, but earlier this year growing demand for Whirlpool cooking products made it apparent the factory would need to focus on production instead of completing the complicated move.
“This is a good ‘problem’ to have,” Walters told the Cleveland Daily Banner in mid-February. “We have made the adjustments to meet the demands, including preparing to add a shift to one of our lines this spring.”
Since February, shifts have been added, and more workers and lines have been transitioned to the $200 million facility. But some of the move has been left undone although this is expected to change soon.
In Cleveland, Whirlpool manufacturing operations produce premium cooking appliances; primarily, these are built-in products like wall ovens, cooktops and slide-in ranges, as well as the popular Gemini freestanding range which established a new niche in the cooking market several years ago with an innovative double-oven design.
Over the past several months, Whirlpool engineers have worked to redesign the slide-in products. This has stalled the Cleveland relocation because the new unit will be manufactured in Tulsa.
“As was announced last fall to our employees, the redesigned slide-ins will not be redesigned for a Cleveland chassis, and therefore production of slide-ins [will] eventually leave Cleveland,” Walters said. “At that time, it was also announced that we would continue to build our current slide-ins for some time and, as always, continue to evaluate other opportunities and products that could be made here in Cleveland.”
Due to the new plant’s size, modern features and flexibility, the 1-million-square-foot factory is a likely landing spot for added products.
“Cleveland is Whirlpool’s premium cooking [products] plant; as a matter of fact, it is the largest premium cooking plant in the world,” Walters noted. “As always, Whirlpool consistently looks for ways to maximize our manufacturing footprint. Cleveland is currently looking at additional products to bring into this plant, but nothing is definite at this time.”
The new factory, which launched production in March 2012, is expected to soon be certified as a LEED Gold facility. LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a rating system for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of green buildings, homes and neighborhoods.
Established in 1998, LEED standards have been applied to more than 7,000 projects in the United States and 30 countries, covering more than 1.5 billion square feet of development area. Once the LEED Gold distinction is made official publicly, the Whirlpool Cleveland Division plant will be the only LEED-certified industry in Bradley County.
The massive Whirlpool construction and relocation, which represents the largest investment in a single location in the corporation’s history, has been completed in phases.
Phase 1 was the completion of the cavernous factory itself which serves as the heart of Whirlpool Cleveland manufacturing production. Phase 2 was the development of the neighboring Factory Distribution Center (warehouse) that sits behind, and parallel, to the factory. Phase 3 was the construction of the plant wing for the Global Product Organization. In the Whirlpool world, GPO is a reference to engineering, research and technology.
“Phase 3A was completed in late 2012, allowing the GPO organization to move part of their testing labs and the employees to the new plant,” Walters explained. “Phase 3B was just completed recently. This area houses the GPO model shop, a pilot assembly line and some additional testing capabilities for our product.”
The Whirlpool plant, FDC and GPO employ about 1,500 workers. Not far away on 20th Street, Whirlpool Cleveland Customer eXperience Center (call center) has some 500 employees, meaning that the total Whirlpool workforce in Bradley County exceeds 2,000.
Walters said he is still thrilled with the new plant’s performance.
“The product produced at the new plant continues to sell well and we have added shifts to some assembly lines in order to increase production capacity,” he cited. “Our product is also being recognized by a major consumer magazine [Consumer Reports] as being best in many categories.”
Although 2013 has been busy as well, Walters said he will never forget the historical impact of 2012. In a Cleveland Daily Banner interview for the 2013 Progress Edition, which was themed “A Future In Review,” Walters described the year as huge.
“It  was the biggest transition year in Cleveland Division history,” he stressed then. “It was definitely a year filled with ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experiences from ceremonies with VIPs to seeing our new wall ovens hold all ‘Top 5’ slots with ‘Consumer Reports,’ and our new cooktops taking the ‘Top 3,’ all the while maintaining full production.”
When Whirlpool opened the new factory in Cleveland, the corporation took pride in its growing theme of “Invested in America.” Nothing has changed since then, Walters said. He repeated a point he has made in prior interviews with the Banner.
“We are proud to continue manufacturing premium, built-in, cooking products here in Cleveland in our new home,” he sad.
Walters, who held manufacturing leadership roles for Whirlpool divisions in Evansville, Ind., Oxford, Miss., and Tulsa, Okla., before coming to Cleveland about six years ago, also pointed to the company’s prior commitments to working with local government and Chamber of Commerce officials in determining future uses of the old manufacturing site once all its buildings are empty.
An organization called the Southside Redevelopment Task Force, previously named by Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland, is expected to begin its work full throttle when the Whirlpool transition is completed.
One of the old manufacturing site’s most historic structures is the Plant 2 facility. Formerly operating as Hardwick Stove Company since 1879 before it was acquired by Maytag Corporation in 1982, followed by Maytag’s merger with the Magic Chef Company four years later, the final day of production at Plant 2 was Dec. 21, 2012.
The Plant 1 facility dates its history all the way back to 1916 when it operated as Dixie Foundry. The name was later changed to Dixie Products and then to Magic Chef Company. In 1986, Maytag Corporation acquired the Magic Chef operation and the local plant became known as Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products. When Whirlpool Corporation purchased Maytag in March 2006, the local manufacturer became known as Whirlpool Cleveland Division.
An unsung part of the old manufacturing site was the factory previously known as Plant 3 which was an assembly, fabrication and finishing operation for Magic Chef, Maytag and Whirlpool. In its early years, the Plant 3 structure was known as the Cleveland-Tennessee Enamel plant. It originally served as a supplier to Hardwick Stove and was later acquired by the Hardwick operation.
Plant 3 was closed shortly after the Whirlpool acquisition of Maytag. Shuttering it was a $5 million savings for Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products which had been challenged by Whirlpool to slice $24 million from its operating budget and to do so within seven quarters.
Maytag Cleveland leaders later themed the sitewide campaign “24/7.” Achieving the cost reduction helped to assure Whirlpool would maintain former Maytag manufacturing operations in Cleveland. A short time later, Whirlpool closed its own cooking products plant in Oxford, Miss.