Officials with Whirlpool Corp. have acknowledged a review of the Fort Smith refrigeration plant is underway, a change from previous denials that any significant changes were under consideration for the plant.
Two sources told The City Wire on Monday (Aug. 22) that two companies — possibly divisions within Whirlpool Corp. — have been or will soon be at the Fort Smith plant to bid on the equipment used to produce trash compactors and built-in refrigerators (BIR). The sources independently verified the move is a clear indication the lines are leaving the Fort Smith plant, leaving only side-by-side refrigerator production at the large manufacturing facility.
“Because we’d only be producing them (side-by-side refrigerators), we were told that those (side-by-side) units were in decline and that, and this is exactly what was written, ‘plant closure was certain,’” a source told The City Wire.
Whirlpool provided this comment when asked about the report of trash compactor and BIR lines being moved: "The declining demand for side-by-side refrigeration, and reduced forecasted production volumes for 2012, has prompted the company to initiate a study of options for the Fort Smith location. No decisions have been made, however the company will be reviewing asset utilization across its North American refrigeration operations. Current demand for all major appliances is at recessionary levels. We continue to monitor our business, and make adjustments as needed to deliver best cost and best quality to our customers."
Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool made production cuts and layoffs causing employment in Fort Smith to drop from about 4,600 in early 2006 to less than around 1,100 today. In 2010, the company cut about 850 jobs at its Fort Smith operation, which left the employee count at 1,020 hourly and 110 salaried workers at the end of November.
In late July, the company confirmed the reduction of 65 jobs, pushing employment to an estimated 950 hourly and about 85 salaried workers. Whirlpool employees in mid-August reported that another 300 job cuts are planned for January 2012. Whirlpool officials would only confirm 250 hourly and 20 salaried job cuts are being planned.
One source said the January job reduction may instead occur around mid-November.
Whirlpool noted in its second quarter earnings report that the company’s U.S. appliance shipments would decline by 1%-2% in 2011. The previous guidance was that U.S. shipments in 2011 would increase by as much as 3%.
Al Holaday, a former manager at Whirlpool’s plant and now the vice president of North American Manufacturing for Whirlpool, is in Fort Smith today (Aug. 23) and is expected to meet with senior plant management to discuss the future of Fort Smith operations. Whirlpool officials denied a request to briefly speak with Holaday during his time in Fort Smith.
A source who is an employee at the Fort Smith plant said morale is low because of the uncertainty.
“This is important to a lot of people here in this community. The people working here and in other plants in the area making parts for Whirlpool, they need to know this ... so they can get to planning for what they might have to do next. I think it’s kind of crappy for Whirlpool to be knowing this and not sharing it with the community,” the source noted.
Paul Harvel, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he has not heard anything from Whirlpool about consideration of a plant review or plant closure. However, he plans to contact company officials.
“I’m going to make another run at them and visit with them,” Harvel said.