LIMA — When Jerry O’Connor founded Range Kleen Manufacturing Inc. in 1971 with six drip bowls and a philosophy of personal attention “from the president’s desk to the shipping dock,” he certainly couldn’t know that 50 years later his son would be forced to carry on the family tradition amid a nationwide health pandemic.
But that’s exactly what fate had in store for Patrick O’Connor, who purchased Range Kleen from his father in 2003 and took over the dual role of owner and president.
His father helped make Range Kleen the top-selling brand in range accessories, a standing the company holds to this day under Patrick’s leadership.
In keeping with the company’s mission statement that reads, “To serve others and create value with our people, products and processes,” O’Connor said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought immediate changes to the day-to-day operations at Range Kleen.
“In terms of people, we quickly invested in proactive health and enhanced safety protocols across the board — regular temperature screenings, acquiring PPE supplies, reallocation of work space to ensure a socially-distanced atmosphere — all focused on looking after the safety of our associates and their families while still fulfilling the business demands of our clients,” O’Connor said.
As more and more workers were either temporarily laid off or were forced to work from home as the pandemic gripped the region, people began to take stock of the household products.
“With the dramatic shift of people working from home we saw s significant increase in demand for products across our 11 categories — with our top-ranked brand Range Kleen range accessories leading the way, followed closely by our Taste of Home collections of cookware, non-stick bakeware, stoneware and cast iron,” O’Connor said.
“Among our Taste of Home followers across the USA, we saw massive increases in their desire to bake, which in turn caused the demand for baking sheets, spring form pans and loaf pans to skyrocket.”
O’Connor said one of the surprising trends was an enormous call for do-it-yourself parts within the company’s range accessories segment, such as surface cooking elements and replacement knob packs.
“That demand likely was the result of consumers discovering that their cooking and baking appliances were missing parts — broiler pans and grills — that were necessary to prepare new recipes.”
The pandemic also forced company officials to re-examine key manufacturing principles.
“In terms of processes, we quickly had to cull the processes that did not deliver on our renewed health/safety/fulfillment mantra and commit more resources in hiring and training to enhance and adhere to best practices,” said O’Connor.
While range components and baking supplies are key to Range Kleen’s success, employees at the Whirlpool Corp. facility in Ottawa have continued to churn out upright freezers, chest freezers, under-counter ice makers and compactors throughout the pandemic.
The plant has approximately 600 employees, making it Putnam County’s largest employer, and the manufacturer is currently looking to add even more line workers.
Gustavo Chohfi, plant leader for Whirlpool’s Ottawa operations, said the company took swift action when it became apparent the COVID-19 pandemic posed a serious health threat to the community.
“The safety of our people and the communities where we do business is always a top priority, so we quickly made sure our plant was as safe as it could possibly be. This included robust, proactive safety measures in accordance with local health and government authorities, including spacing out our production lines for social distancing, heightened cleaning protocols, on-site infrared temperature checks for employees upon their arrival to the plant, requiring all employees wear facial coverings and ensuring employees have proper sanitation equipment.”
Chohfi said company officials took their cue from cohorts in Europe, who were among the first to recognize the severity of the pandemic.
“Whirlpool Corporation is a global company with operations around the world. We have operations in China that were dealing with the pandemic early on, and our EMEA headquarters is in the Lombardy region of Italy and they also dealt with an early wave of COVID-19. We were able to see the impact of COVID early on and we started learning from our global colleagues who were already navigating life and work under these new circumstances,” he said.
Whirlpool has five manufacturing plants in Ohio, and Gov. Mike DeWine designated home appliance manufacturing as an “essential” business early in the pandemic.
As such, “our people have been working around the clock,” said Chohfi. “We have a commitment to our consumers who need our appliances to take care of their family. They are depending on our products more than ever … and we are working to ensure we can deliver.
“We are also an active part of the Putnam County COVID Defense Team — a group of local leaders who have come together at the request of the governor to make sure we are doing everything possible in the community to be safe,” Chohfi said.
“We are all in this together.”