BENTON HARBOR — Whirlpool Corp., known first as the Upton Machine Co., has played a prominent role in Southwest Michigan as it grew from a small local operation to a major international corporation.
On Nov. 11, 1911, the state of Michigan issued incorporation papers for the Upton Machine Co., whose first product was an electric clothes washing machine.
Nearly 108 years later, Whirlpool has become the world’s leading manufacturer, by market share, of major home appliances.
The company that would become Whirlpool was founded by Louis Upton and his uncle, Emory Upton, who were soon joined by Louis’ brother, Frederick Upton. Called the Upton Machine Co., it set up shop in a tiny, triangular building in downtown Benton Harbor.
Stephen Upton, Frederick Upton’s son and Louis Upton’s nephew, said he was often told of how tough Whirlpool’s early years were.
“The first couple years they didn’t pay themselves. Lou was very much an entrepreneur, and Dad was steadier in some regards. They made a great pair,” said Stephen Upton, 94, in 2011. Stephen, who worked at Whirlpool for most of his life, retired as senior vice president of consumer affairs. “Neither of them ever went to college. They worked so well together all their lives.”
As proof of these difficult early years, at a special meeting Oct. 1, 1912, it was determined that Emory Upton would be paid 50 cents an hour, and Louis Upton would get a salary not to exceed $15 a week.
Frederick Upton drew no pay until 1914, when he was given 234 shares of company stock in lieu of back wages.
Of course the Upton Machine Co. and the subsequent versions of the company has been extensively covered for more than a century by The Herald-Palladium and its predecessor newspapers.
The first mention in The News-Palladium of the new Upton venture came on Aug. 8, 1911, under the front-page headline: “Laundry device is to be made in B.H.” A subhead mentioned that Emory Upton, well-known locally then as a machinist, had patented the device.
Noted the article: “The Upton Machine Co. is this week to make their first shipment of the home laundry electric washer which has been designed by Emory Upton of this city and Louise C. Upton of Chicago, and which has been constructed at their factory on West Main Street.”
The story also mentioned with pride that, “the machine will wash and wring the finest of laces and the heaviest of blankets and rugs without the least damage.”
A toy gun as savior
The company’s first setback came in early 1913 when Federal Electric Co. told the Uptons that it would no longer buy machines from the Upton Machine Co. Instead, Federal Electric began to make its own.
The Upton Machine Co. found itself without a customer. The Uptons realized in order to survive, they would have to buy another company.
Today, Whirlpool owns appliance brands like Maytag, Jenn-Air and KitchenAid that help drive sales across the globe. In the company’s third year of existence, it was a BB gun that helped the company grow.
A small factory known as the American Tool Works across the street from the Upton Machine Co. was doing poorly and was put up for sale. The company made the Sterling air rifle.
The owner, Frank Graves, made a deal with the Uptons for them to take over the company by assuming a $25,000 mortgage, plus paying $25,000 in Upton stock.
Throughout 1914, the Uptons worked to improve the air rifle and, since the Sterling name had a poor reputation, renamed the product The Upton. By 1915, annual washing machine sales were at $18,000, while the rifle business totaled $62,000 in sales.
“The BB gun saved the company,” Stephen Upton said. “If not for the BB gun, the company would never have survived.”
While the BB gun allowed the Upton Machine Co. to stay afloat, the Uptons were able to focus on fine-tuning its washing machine.
In April 1916, Louis Upton received the company’s first order for a few washing machines from Sears, Roebuck & Co. The selling price was $85, and sales were by catalog only. The air rifle business was still carrying the company’s financial load.
In June 1920, Sears ordered 15,000 washers that were to be built as soon as possible. The Upton Machine Co. building was too small to produce the order, so in 1921 Sears loaned the Upton Machine Co. $87,500 to add a building next to the original washer plant.
But before any machines were built, the economy slumped and Sears canceled its order. The Upton Machine Co. now owed Sears $87,500 and had no way to repay it. Sears agreed to cancel the loan in exchange for shares of stock in the Upton Machine Co. – a transaction that forged a strong tie between the two companies.
A washer plant addition was completed in 1924 and equipped to make 100 washers a day, including at least 50 a day exclusively for Sears. In 1925, Sears agreed that the Upton Machine Co. would be its sole provider of washing machines.
The long partnership would last nearly a century, ending in 2017 as Sears hit upon hard times.
Finding its footing
The Upton Machine Co. slowly grew, and a report dated July 1, 1926, showed a net profit of $43,638 for 1925.
More space was needed, so the company expanded.
In 1927, the company sold the air rifle business for $25,000 to All Metal Products Co. of Plymouth, Mich., and turned its entire focus to developing and making washing machines.
Although the year 1929 is infamously known for the stock market crash, it proved to be one of the most important years in the company’s history. Business was good with Sears, which wanted the Uptons to move production to the Eastern Seaboard.
In 1929, Upton Machine merged with the Nineteen Hundred Washer Co., which had been founded in 1898 in Binghamton, N.Y. The merged company used the name, Nineteen Hundred Corp., until renaming itself Whirlpool Corp. in 1950. At the time of the merger, the company’s headquarters were in St. Joseph.
In 1932, Tom Behan, president of the Nineteen Hundred Corp., wanted to centralize all offices in the Binghamton plant. This would have left the St. Joseph location only as a manufacturing unit.
Behan wanted Frederick Upton to move to Binghamton, but Frederick refused, then soon resigned.
“After a couple months he came back. That problem was resolved, and all the Binghamton people were moved to St. Joseph,” Stephen Upton said.
The name “Whirlpool” was a brand name for a washing machine that was first used in 1906 by an Indiana company. Nineteen Hundred Washer Co. had acquired the brand in 1922.
The Great Depression did not appear to slow the growing company down all that much. It was big local news in December 1931 when an article noted how well the company was doing, and reported that an expansion was being planned. The article stated: “The Upton company is closing its books on the best year in its history. In the face of a business depression which has curtailed nearly every other industry in the country, the Edgewater factory has managed, through the institution of an aggressive sales program, to show a steady increase in production during these past 12 months.”
The same article also boasted of the “more than 100,000 electric washers were turned out” that year, then a company best.
The company – which stuck to laundry products through the 1940s – officially became known as Whirlpool Corp. on June 15, 1950.
A global reach
During World War II, Whirlpool made such items for the military as gun mounts and sights, aircraft components, a steering mechanism for tank retrievers and fragmentation bombs and bomb fins.
After the war, Whirlpool introduced its first successful automatic washer, starting with a Kenmore for Sears in 1947, and a Whirlpool-brand version the following year.
Whirlpool finally branched out from the laundry room in 1955, when it merged with the Seeger Refrigerator Co. and started selling refrigerators and freezers. From 1955 to 1957, the company was called Whirlpool-Seeger Corp.
This was the corporation’s first foray into the kitchen.
Room air conditioners and cooking ranges were added with the acquisition of the Estes range and air conditioner divisions of RCA, also in 1955. In 1956, Whirlpool moved its corporate headquarters to a new administrative complex on 100 acres in Benton Township, north of Benson Road. The global headquarters remains there today as the central building on the Lakeview Campus.
The campus has grown since then, adding three other buildings over the next 50 years. A child day care facility for employees to use is in the planning stage and should be up and running next fall.
Whirlpool’s first foreign venture was in 1958, when it became part-owner of Multibras S.A., a Brazilian maker of major home appliances. In 1969, it bought a share of Canadian appliance maker Inglis Ltd.
But Whirlpool remained primarily a domestic corporation until 1988, when it bought a 53 percent share of the domestic appliance business of the Dutch company, N.V. Philips. It bought the remainder in 1991. Also, in 1987 a joint venture had been formed, TVS Whirlpool Limited – with Sundaram-Clayton Ltd. of India – to make washing machines in that country.
There were wrenching changes taking place in the Twin Cities around that same time, as Whirlpool announced in August 1986 that most manufacturing of its products would be moving out of the Twin Cities.
The Herald-Palladium reported that nearly 1,100 manufacturing jobs would be lost locally, as most appliance production would be moving to other plants in Ohio, South Carolina and Canada. The decision, noted the paper, “sent shock waves through the community.”
It was a blow to the region’s blue collar union workers, and to the area’s then 75-year relationship between the community and Whirlpool. One 21-year Whirlpool employee said with bitterness that “I feel like we’re getting the shaft. ...They don’t care about us anymore.”
The controversial decision reflected the larger globalization movement taking shape in the 1980s. America’s Midwest felt this trend the hardest, as high-paying manufacturing jobs were being moved out of the union-dominated Rust Belt and often going to non-union shops down South, and eventually to other nations where labor is much cheaper.
However, Whirlpool’s global strategy soon flourished, allowing it to compete with the globe’s biggest appliance makers.
In 1994-95, Whirlpool formed four joint ventures in China to make refrigerators, microwaves, washing machines and compressors. In 1995, Whirlpool invested in a second joint venture in India, to make refrigerators. In 2006, Whirlpool closed on a landmark acquisition of Maytag Corp. after nearly a year of seeking regulatory approval. Maytag, which at the time was one of Whirlpool’s biggest competitors, had reported a loss of $9 million that year, prompting the company to sell.
Whirlpool agreed to buy the rights to Maytag for $1.7 billion. However, the deal wouldn’t close for another nine months.
“It was big for a number of reasons. It gave us the best brand portfolio you could possibly have in home appliance,” said former Whirlpool CEO Jeff Fettig. “We could essentially reach all consumers in every market.”
On Nov. 11, 2010 – 99 years to the day of the company’s official founding – Whirlpool broke ground on the beginning of what would become the Riverview Campus in downtown Benton Harbor. The final phase of the Riverview Campus was completed in November 2016.
There was a year and a half gap between the second and third phases of the campus because Whirlpool was also building the Benton Harbor Technology Center, across the street from the downtown campus.
Because the BH Tech Center was not planned in 2010 when campus construction was announced, what was already considered a large investment in Benton Harbor increased by another $33 million.
Whirlpool’s total investment in Benton Harbor between 2010 and 2016 for new and renovated facilities is estimated to be $155 million.
“(The final Riverview phase) was originally supposed to be about 50,000 square feet, but now it’s 100,000 square feet,” Lee Utke, a former senior director of Global Corporate Real Estate at Whirlpool, said in a 2016 article. “That was based on the opportunity to bring more of the North American operation under one roof. We wanted to go for the look and feel of a more collaborative environment.”
Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski