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Published: Sunday, 9/18/2005

Whirlpool shines in sudsy niche

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Jack Glick places an instruction manual into a finished dishwasher during final assembly at Whirlpool's Findlay operation. Jack Glick places an instruction manual into a finished dishwasher during final assembly at Whirlpool's Findlay operation.
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FINDLAY - In the past decade, the Whirlpool Corp. factory here has doubled the number of dishwashers it builds annually.

That's good, because an increasing percentage of American homes and apartments are outfitted with the machines that spit hot water and soap on dirty glasses, dishes, silverware, and pots or pans.

The plant, just outside of Findlay, is part of a seemingly thriving American industry. The factory makes nearly 3 million dishwashers a year primarily for customers in the United States and Canada, equivalent to about 40 percent of machine shipments in the United States.

"There's still growth for first-time buyers of dishwashers, which you don't see in some other appliances," said John Haywood, vice president of Whirlpool's Findlay division.

He added: "We'd like every home to have two dishwashers. I think that's a great idea."

As the company's only dishwasher factory in North America and one of three it has worldwide, the Allen Township plant makes not only Whirlpool brands, but KitchenAid, Kenmore, and five others, including some specifically for Costco and Ikea stores.

Parts are attached on the dishwasher door assembly line. Parts are attached on the dishwasher door assembly line.
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A key for consumers is sound, or lack of it. Whirlpool uses a number of products inside and around dishwashers to mask noises, an official said.

For Whitehouse resident Kim Miller, getting a dishwasher even quieter than her 12-year-old KitchenAid model and one that won't require as much rinsing is important. So is appearance, said Ms. Miller, who favors stainless steel models.

"I'm remodeling my kitchen right now, so I am concerned about what it looks like," she said recently while shopping at the Appliance Center in Maumee.

"They look much better. They're more streamlined. And I'm hoping they're quieter."

Sound-deadening features help increase the cost of the machines, however.

Some models have water jets to tackle tough pots and pans, and dishes don't have to be rinsed before being loaded into Whirlpool dishwashers these days, Mr. Haywood said. The kitchen machines made at the factory typically cost $300 to $1,200 each.

About 60 percent of American households have dishwashers, compared with more than 90 percent for refrigerators, clothes washers, and stoves, according to one industry group. Dishwasher shipments nationwide have climbed for a decade, to an estimated 7.3 million this year, said the National Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers in Washington.

The plant in Hancock County, with 2,200 employees, builds everything from plastic or stainless steel tubs to wire dish racks for the machine. It has dishwashers winding around on 26 miles of conveyors.

At the Appliance Center, dishwashers featuring taller tubs so that more or larger items can be loaded without the appliance taking up more kitchen space have become popular, said manager David Middaugh.

Whirlpool spent $20 million two years ago to add a second tall tub line to the Findlay factory, said Mark Buehrer, director of operations at the plant visible from I-75.

Consumers adding second dishwashers in their homes and the development of drawer dishwashers are among other recent trends in the industry, said a spokesman with the appliance manufacturers group.

Some people want two dishwashers in their kitchens so they can alternate between them and never have to put dishes away, or they put a second in the basement for items such as bar glassware, Mr. Haywood said. With two-drawer dishwashers such as those Whirlpool makes, meanwhile, consumers can run one small load or two different cycles simultaneously.

Recently, only the northwest Ohio-made appliances got the top dishwasher nod from Consumer Reports, a monthly magazine that rates various household items. Having minimal or no controls visible on the outside of dishwashers is another customer-driven development in recent years, Mr. Haywood said.

"There are more and more innovations," he said. "Ten years ago if you had a dishwasher, it probably sounded like a lawn mower in your house."

The local factory, meanwhile, soon could have a sister U.S. dishwasher plant. Whirlpool is in the process of trying to buy rival Maytag Corp. in a cash-and-stock valued at more than $1.7 billion. Maytag has one dishwasher factory, in Jackson, Tenn.

Whether Whirlpool would continue to operate two U.S. dishwasher factories is hard to say, one analyst said. The Michigan firm, which is a better-run company than Maytag, certainly will evaluate all factories and consolidate operations, said Eric Bosshard, who follows both appliance makers for FTN Midwest Research Securities Corp. in Cleveland.

The acquisition, pending regulatory and other approvals, is a good move for Whirlpool, he said. "Giving it more brands will give it more power in retail," he said.

The Findlay plant is one of four Whirlpool operations in Ohio, where the Benton Harbor, Mich. manufacturer has its largest concentration of employees, at 9,000.

It also has 3,000 employees in Clyde at the world's largest washing machine factory. The company is ranked as the state's 32nd largest employer.

The company has built other appliances in the northwest Ohio factory since it opened in 1967, including stoves and clothes dryers. Free-standing ranges were moved to a Tulsa, Okla., factory in 1997, creating room for more dishwasher production.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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