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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Georgia Governor Brian Kemp speaks in a meeting prior to a tour of GE Appliances' Roper Plant Friday, Sept. 20, 2019 in LaFayette, Georgia.

CORRECTION: Lois Crandell's name was corrected in the fourth paragraph at 10:54 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. A previous version of the story erroneously stated "Crandall."

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LAFAYETTE, Georgia — Gov. Brian Kemp on Friday checked out GE Appliances' sprawling oven and cooktop manufacturing plant, where the company is spending $43 million to launch new products.

"Rural Georgia is ripe for investment and economic growth," said Kemp, as he toured part of the Roper Corporation facility that's bigger than Hamilton Place mall and already makes 1 million cooking products annually.

Kemp also spent time with Roper officials talking about the future.

Lois Crandell, the president and plant manager, said GE Appliances has plans to grow, and it wants to convince leadership that LaFayette is the place where the next big investment should take place.

"You grow or you lose share ... and disappear," she said.

BY THE NUMBERS

* 62: Acres in Roper’s LaFayette campus

* 1 million: Cooking products made at the plant

* 1.4 million: Square feet at the factory

Source: GE Appliances

The Roper plant, located less than 10 minutes from LaFayette's picturesque town square, already employs more than 2,000 people and is Walker County's biggest employer at a single site, according to the company.

The newest $43 million investment, slated for completion by mid-2020 and adding 100 jobs, is going toward equipment to manufacture more of the cooking products that has made parent company Haier the No. 2 appliance maker in the United States following Whirlpool.

China-based Haier Group purchased General Electric's appliances segment in 2016 and the company is aiming for the top spot.

"It's exciting being part of a company that wants to win," said Crandell. "Haier's No. 1 focus is appliances."

Scott Brown, Roper's manufacturing operations director, agreed, saying that "they want us to win in the marketplace."

Brown said the plant makes a large range of products with costs varying from $500 to $5,000 each.

According to the company, the the company has launched more than 300 new appliances over just the past two years at the Rope plant, ranging from free-standing electric ranges to wall ovens to cooktops in differing finishes and designs. It makes products under the Monogram, GE, GE Profile and Cafe brands.

Brown said that touchscreens have become popular among buyers, connecting the cooking products to the internet via smartphones or smart speakers. He noted he preheats his oven on his way home from work from his phone to save time.

Crandell said that having controls on the front of the oven rather than the rear is "a huge seller in the marketplace."

"We try to figure out what models the consumer is interested in," she said. "We try to make sure we've got inventory to meet demand."

Crandell said that this year is expected to be better than 2018 for Roper, and she expected 2020 to be flat or a little higher for the business.

"We have to stay one step ahead of the competition," she said. "It's a hyper-competitive market."

The plant manager said Roper is hiring as it tries to find personnel in the low-jobless market, particular those with skills in maintaining and fixing the equipment in the factory.

"We continue to have open posts," Crandell said.

GE Appliances spokeswoman Julie Wood said the plant recently hired its first female apprentice in the equipment maintenance area.

"We think we provide some of the best jobs in the county," she said.

Crandell said it has some suppliers from China, with a lot of electronics made in that nation.

Brown said the company tries to project into the future, though it's hard to make a business plan when trade talks are taking place which could limit the availability or raise the price of imported goods from China.

The Trump administration imposed import duties of 15% on about $112 billion of Chinese imports on Sept. 1 and has proposed higher duties later this year on many Chinese imports.

"Hopefully, things will get resolved," he said.

In addition to the investment in LaFayette, GE Appliances is plowing $32 million more in nearby Murray County for a Southern logistics center near the inland port. That investment, too, is creating 100 jobs. Additionally, GE Appliances is spending $55 million in Jackson County, Georgia, on a "smart warehouse" and creating 100 jobs, according to the company.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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