LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – When General Electric finally offloaded its Louisville-based appliance-making business in 2016, many were relieved the buyer was not a domestic competitor who might slash jobs.
But the 2016 sale to Haier Group was also met with apprehension, as an American stalwart was now in the hands of a Chinese owner.
“Some feared this would be the end of GE Appliances,” Kevin Nolan, the Louisville-based CEO of GE Appliances, said Monday. “… It was frankly the opposite. GE Appliances got a new life.”
The company showed off the latest manifestation of its “new life” on Monday – a $60 million expansion of its Louisville refrigerator plant, part the sprawling Appliance Park manufacturing campus.
In recent months, GE Appliances added equipment and about 250 jobs to begin producing high-end four-door refrigerators, a complement to the three-door version also produced in Building 5 at Appliance Park. More products are on the way, executives said.
“This is only the beginning,” Dave McCAlpin, GE Appliances vice president of refrigeration.
The larger picture, as executives highlighted Monday, is that GE Appliances has steadily grown production and employment since the $5.6 billion, 2016 sale to Haier, which is the biggest player in the global appliance industry.
The Appliance Park campus – which factories making refrigerators, dishwashers and washers and dryers – now employs nearly 5,000 hourly workers, according to Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for GE Appliances. That’s up from about 3,600 at the time of the Haier sale.
The company also employs about 2,100 salaried workers – engineers, designers and corporate personnel – at its Louisville headquarters.
Haier has invested more than $1 billion into GE Appliances since taking over, including more than $400 million in Louisville where dishwasher and washer-dryer production has also been expanded, according to company figures.
Nolan added during remarks Monday that Haier’s philosophy of “zero distance between us and the customer” means the company has been able to bring work from China to the U.S. The four-door refrigerator line is an example, he said.
“We are committed to bringing manufacturing back to the United States, because it makes good business sense,” Nolan said.
GE Appliances WIllie Eddins door repairman Building 5 Appliance Park Refrigerator Plant 7-19-21 (7).JPG
Willie Eddins, a repairman on the refrigerator door line at Appliance Park, said he’s noticed a lot more workers in his building in recent years.
“I think it’s a great thing,” he said. “I am glad.”
The Louisville investments haven’t come without a few givebacks, as well as some tense moments with Appliance Park’s workforce, the only union shop in the GE Appliance umbrella.
In 2016 the company outsourced its finished-product warehouse operation to a third-party company, displacing about 200 union-represented warehouse workers; stopped producing a hybrid-electric water heater because of low sales; and moved production of a hotel-room air conditioner from Louisville to its Selmer, Tenn. plant.
As the pandemic took hold in March 2020, workers took the street outside the factory to protest being called back to work after a one-week layoff.
While GE Appliances implemented safety measures, such as temperature checks upon entry and plastic dividers between workstations, some employees said the company put production targets ahead of their health.
At Monday’s press event, the highest-ranking elected Democrats in Kentucky – Gov. Andy Beshear, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer – praised the company for persevering in the pandemic, adding jobs and helping with local workforce development efforts.
“For this investment to be made here is really special,” Beshear said.
Nolan wasn’t available for an interview following the event.
The president and vice president of IUE-CWA Local 83-761, the union representing Appliance Park workers, also couldn’t be reached Monday.
Aaron Little, a welder in Appliance Park’s plastic injection-molding factory and an assistant chief steward for the union, said the job additions are to be applauded, but workers face other challenges, like a “revolving door” of new hires who aren’t as invested in careers at Appliance Park and mandatory overtime shifts.
The starting wage of $15.50 per hour is higher than in previous years, but not enough to keep people in jobs that are physically demanding without climate-controlled buildings.
“We are in good hands in terms of the trajectory; that’s great,” he said. “At the same time, we are getting run into the ground because we are getting overworked.”