Whirlpool winds down 53 years

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 29, 2009

OXFORD (AP) — It was more than a half-century ago that the Oxford-Lafayette County community buzzed with the news: A ‘‘stove factory’’ was coming to town.

‘‘Most people were very excited about the factory jobs coming here,’’ said Max Hipp, president of the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation.

Growing up in Oxford back then, he witnessed the community’s warm welcome of what would become Whirlpool Corp. His own uncle became one of the company’s first employees here.

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‘‘I think it was difficult for some locals to adapt to manufacturing,’’ Hipp said. ‘‘But most people who were accustomed to working with their hands and had a good work ethic did very well.’’

As Whirlpool prepares to shut down its operation here for good this summer, it’s wrapping up some 53 years of history in the local community.

What became known as Whirlpool began in 1956 as the Chambers Corp. In 1986, Whirlpool bought out the KitchenAid division and ever since, the Oxford plant has produced cooktops, built-in ovens, slide-in and freestanding ranges, and the KitchenAid Pro Series under the Whirlpool and KitchenAid brands.

In 1996, Whirlpool invested $20 million to expand the Oxford facility, to improve the productivity and quality of the plant. About 475 employees worked at the plant throughout the 90s until 2001, when Whirlpool announced a new Pro Line that would add jobs in Oxford.

A $10 million expansion of the plant completed in 2004 added about 150 new jobs to the area’s economy. Whirlpool grew from 600 to 750 workers in Oxford. The move came at the loss of another plant elsewhere, consolidating Whirlpool’s efforts into three plants in North America instead of four.

Employment at the local plant has since risen and fallen with demand for cooking appliances, an industry closely tied to the housing market. Whirlpool’s local employment has peaked at around 1,000 workers in recent years, plus an additional 250 workers.

Oxford was spared any direct effects from a 2006 announcement in which Whirlpool said it would cut 4,500 jobs and close three plants. That move came in the wake of Whirlpool’s $1.8 billion acquisition of Maytag, extending its lead as the nation’s biggest appliance maker.

Local officials had worked hard to facilitate Whirlpool’s 2004 expansion, with hopes that the company’s investment would boost its commitment to the local operation.

Last year, as company officials shared the possibility that a broad corporate restructuring could mean closing the local plant, Oxford and Lafayette County sought ways to convince the company to stay. When last February’s tornado struck a building Whirlpool was using north of town, the city worked out a deal to lease the old armory to Whirlpool as a temporary warehouse.

Oxford Mayor Richard Howorth said Whirlpool was valuable to the community not only as a large employer, but also for the quality that defined it — both in the products people made here and the way the company treated its employees and the broader community.

‘‘Whirlpool executives will be the first to tell you that the Oxford plant has always excelled in performance compared to other corporate locations.

‘‘It is well-known that Whirlpool employees regularly lead the community in giving to the United Way. For all these reasons there is a great sense of appreciation for the company, and disappointment that it is leaving town,’’ Howorth said.

Whirlpool’s departure will also mean the loss of an estimated $20 million annual payroll to the local economy, Howorth said last summer in a joint statement with Hipp and Lafayette County Board of Supervisors President Lloyd Oliphant.

Whirlpool employed about 750 people in Oxford when the plant’s impending closure was announced in July 2008. By January, most of the remaining 600 employees were officially given the end date of Thursday for the final clocking out.

The first layoffs took place this past week. A sizable group of employees will remain until operations officially end April 9. A skeletal crew will stay on after that to tie up loose ends.

Corporate officials have said that the decision to close had nothing to do with the quality of work it received from Oxford-area employees. Barbara Bora, vice president of the global cooking division, noted the work ethic of employees here during a visit to the Oxford plant in June 2007.

‘‘I’ve been in a lot of manufacturing facilities in my life and there is something different about Oxford,’’ she said. ‘‘It revolves around the people … passion, engagement, flexibility, competence.’’

The company often gave back to the community particularly with a fervent dedication to United Way, as the second-largest giver to the campaign behind the University of Mississippi. In 1997, Whirlpool and its employees gave 29 percent of the donations to the campaign, and the Whirlpool Foundation distributed $10,000 to four local agencies making $100,000 raised in just one year.

‘‘The leadership of the employers who have occupied the plant have always been involved in the Oxford-Lafayette community,’’ Hipp said. ‘‘They have occupied positions of community involvement and have made our community a better place because of that.’’

Efforts impacted by Whirlpool’s charitable giving include the Exchange Club Center, the Lafayette County & Oxford Public Library, the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, University Museum and local schools.

In 2008 Whirlpool gave $81,648 to United Way, $4,300 to the Diabetes Foundation and more than 1,200 employee hours in community service. The company also held canned-food and coat drives, as well as adopting over 75 Angel Trees at Christmas.


Information from: Oxford Eagle, http://www.oxfordeagle.com