OTTAWA — The Whirlpool freezer plant in Ottawa is an example of having an opportunity and making the most of it.
It could have been a story of failure, when in 2009 W.C. Wood shut down its freezer plant there, laying off its employees. Instead, Whirlpool came in, brought back some employees and continued to grow at a facility where its previous owner gave up.
It all comes down to the dedicated people there, said Jenni Hanna, 43, of Findlay, the plant leader for Ottawa operations.
“It’s amazing the collaboration and teamwork we see here because of the experiences these people bring,” said Hanna, who came to the Ottawa plant in April. “Their desire to do what’s right for the customer and for the company is just unmatched.”
From dark days
From those uncertain days in 2009 comes a success story in 2015. When the plant reopened as a Whirlpool plant in December 2009, it brought back 135 to 150 former employees, said Al Inkrott, 53, the human resource leader and an Ottawa resident. It felt like a new plant, with fresh paint and lighting throughout the building, including all the machines. By mid-2010, it started a chest freezer line to bring back another 50 to 60 employees.
Now, it has 400 to 450 employees, depending on the seasons, with 50 to 100 of them being temporary employees. It runs three shifts, with assembly on first and third shifts in its 530,000 square foot facility, which includes about 60,000 square feet of warehousing space.
The plant builds upright and chest freezers available for consumers under the Whirlpool, Amana and Maytag names.
“You see new lines coming in all the time,” said Patrick Feltman, 24, a process engineer from Elida. “We have room to grow here, and I know that’s the vision for this plant specifically, to continue to grow here.”
In September, the company began working on its “Project Alaska” platform of freezers, Hanna said. The project redesigned upright freezers to make them more energy efficient.
“They’re continuing to invest and build the next generation of lines here,” she said.
For Feltman, part of the fun of coming to work in a relatively small Whirlpool plant is his ability to make a difference in a lot of areas.
“You get involved with other assembly line projects to make jobs better for people,” Feltman said. “It’s a little bit of everything. I’ve touched every line in the plant so far in just a short time here.”
The company continues to look for more people in a variety of jobs.
“There are so many jobs and skill sets here,” Hanna said. “If you want to be an operator on an assembly line, an apprentice in maintenance or go to school and work in engineering, get into supervision, management and leadership, there are just so many different opportunities in Ottawa.”
The company worked with Rhodes State College for a two-year degree to put leaders on the shop floor and work with the apprenticeship programs for skilled trades, such as electricians and tool-and-die workers. It’s also improved the environment for line workers, Inkrott said.
“With our LEAN manufacturing, we’re made improvements on ergonomics and efficiency,” he said. “We still have people on the assembly line ‘shooting screws,’ as you say, but there are plenty of other opportunities here.”
The company takes pride in investing in its employees, Inkrott said. Whirlpool offers a tuition reimbursement program to help train employees. It’s building a pipeline of people in its apprenticeship employees to handle the retirements expected in the next five to seven years, which should cover the approximately 10 percent of its workforce expected to retire in that period.
Hanna urged potential employees, especially high schoolers, to give manufacturing a second look.
“Manufacturing is not your dark, dingy job where you go when you have no other options for a job,” she said. “Students don’t have to go off to college. There are so many opportunities in manufacturing, with so many different jobs and the opportunity for tuition reimbursement. It’s not what you might picture.”
Inkrott said the company’s wage scale is comparable to other manufacturers in the area.
‘Diversity with inclusion’
That includes bringing in a variety of people companies might have avoided in the past, people that might be considered “challenged,” Inkrott said. That includes people with learning disabilities and those rehabilitated after minor offenses, Inkrott said.
“They struggle to find a fit in the community,” he said. “We have identified some positions on our shop floor where those individuals can come in and work for us and earn a decent living.”
The result is hard workers who fill a need yet feel gratitude for the opportunity.
“Our workforce has opened their arms to these people,” Inkrott said. “It’s great. They’re treating them like their little brothers.”
That’s part of the company’s culture, Hanna said.
“We call it ‘diversity with inclusion,’” she said. “Everyone has the right to come here and do their absolute best. We’re big on being inclusive. It’s very exciting to see a team come together and do something great.”
Reach David Trinko at 567-242-0467 or on Twitter @Lima_Trinko.