story by Michael Tilley
Whirlpool Corp. recently bought a full-page newspaper ad in the Tulsa World touting the appliance maker’s commitment to creating U.S. jobs by saying it is: "Building the best in the world right here at home."
The advertisement presents an unavoidable irony for Fort Smith and Arkansas considering Whirlpool's departure from Fort Smith and sending most of the production to plants in Mexico.
In June, Whirlpool closed its refrigeration production plant in Fort Smith, ending more than 45 years of Whirlpool operations at the plant. The move resulted in about 1,000 lost jobs when the plant closed. However, Whirlpool, which employed more than 4,500 at the Fort Smith plant in 2006, moved production out of the plant for several years prior to the closing. Most of that production was moved to facilities in or near Monterrey and Ramos Arizpe, Mexico.
The loss of the about 1,000 Whirlpool jobs in Fort Smith is estimated to result in the overall statewide loss of almost 1,550 jobs and a labor income reduction of $61.15 million, according to an economic impact model prepared by Gregory Hamilton, senior research economist at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, for The City Wire.
Whirlpool employs about 900 in Tulsa at a plant that makes gas and electric ranges.
Language in the ad notes: “For 101 years, we’ve been committed to designing, engineering and assembling the best appliances bar none, and 80% of those sold in the U.S. come from our U.S. factories.”
“Every day, the 22,000 men and women we employ devote their skills to moving this country forward by building products that improve lives, one home, one family at a time. Whirlpool Corporation is proud to be a part of what makes this country great.” (A full image of the ad is posted at the end of this story.)
An official with the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce declined to comment.
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders, who retired from Whirlpool, was not reluctant to comment on Whirlpool’s ad.
“I think they left out some words. After that last sentence, after the part about ‘what makes this country great,’ they need to add, ‘except in Fort Smith, Arkansas,” Sanders said.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said Whirlpool’s commitment to keeping jobs in the U.S. is “not the experience we’ve seen with our workforce in Fort Smith,” said Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe.
Whirlpool did not respond to requests for comment.
John Riggins, president of the central Arkansas-based The Riggins Group, suggested the Whirlpool advertisement was developed and placed to “prepare the groundwork for something later.”
“Obviously their message is not targeted to the people of Fort Smith and western Arkansas,” said Riggins, who spent 10 years with Little Rock-based Acxiom before launching his marketing strategy firm. “They have some other stakeholders they want to influence, maybe it is state or national legislation they want to influence. … I would presume that what they are doing is part of a longer term strategy.”
With an increase in media reports about a possible rebound in U.S. manufacturing jobs, it’s also possible Whirlpool is trying to position itself favorably if the early signs become a trend.
“It is certainly not going to be to the extent it was,” Riggins said of a possible return of manufacturing jobs, “but that is something they (Whirlpool) could be looking at.”
Riggins also advised people in the Fort Smith area to not worry about Whirlpool messaging.
“Personally, I wouldn’t spend time thinking about it. I would focus my energies on what to do to build Fort Smith and the surrounding area,” Riggins said. “Yes, it’s just natural to feel upset … but my recommendation is to just keep moving forward and focus on what Fort Smith does really well.”
Whirlpool also used the ad to direct people to a section of their website on which the company touts what it is doing to defend U.S. jobs, lobby for fair trade and champion its investments in U.S. operations.