CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Whirlpool Corp.'s chief said Monday he was surprised when officials approached him in early 2009 amid the worst recession in decades about investing in a new plant here.
"I won't tell you what my first reaction was," said company CEO and Chairman Jeff Fettig.
But they talked the idea through and the result is a mammoth 1 million-square-foot, $200 million factory that's the company's biggest-ever plant project.
"We concluded this was the best decision for our people, our customers and shareholders," Fettig told several hundred workers and Bradley County officials inside the building that's the size of 28 football fields.
The Benton Pike plant will replace Whirlpool's existing Cleveland cooking appliance manufacturing facilities, a hodgepodge of buildings which the company plans to exit within a year as operations shift to the new facility.
Larry Venturelli, chief financial officer of Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool, said the company's Cleveland-made premium brands are some of its fastest growing.
While part of its business is tied to the housing industry, the economy is slowly coming back, he said.
"This was a very long-term decision to invest," Venturelli said.
One assembly line already is up and running inside the plant. Four more will be moved over in coming months, officials said.
Also on the property, work has started on a 400,000-square-foot distribution center with an exterior overhead conveyor to the plant. That facility is to be ready late this year, according to Whirlpool.
In addition, the company plans to begin work in the next year on a 41,000-square-foot facility for research and development and for engineering.
The company employs 1,500 people in Bradley and plans to bring on about 130 more due to the new plant.
Whirlpool workers said they're impressed by the factory, which was built to garner Leadership in Energy and Environment Design Gold status from the U.S. Green Building Council.
"It's mind-blowing," said Lacy Bain, a three-year employee from Cleveland.
Fellow employee Jill Culpepper of Cleveland said the plant is a win for the work force and the city.
"It's a great economic opportunity," she said.
Freddie Wilke, a 12-year employee, told other workers that the company's investment wasn't charity or a gift.
"You guys 100 percent earned this," he said.
Pam Klyn, Whirlpool's general manager for its North American cooking business, termed the plant "the largest and most efficient premium cooking factory in the world."
Whirlpool traces it roots back 101 years, and Klyn said Cleveland's cooking appliance history stretches back even further to 1879 when Hardwick Stoves started manufacturing.
Jeff Fewell, a team leader at the plant, said the back of the building can be extended outward to enlarge the facility if needed in the future.
He said the first products made at the plant are expected to be shipped in about a week.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.