MEMPHIS, Tenn . Production is heating up at the big Electrolux kitchen oven plant in Memphis, and officials said Thursday that they expect to eventually employ 1,200 people and produce 600,000 ovens annually.
Electrolux officials led Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and state and local politicians on a grand-opening tour of the 750,000-square-foot factory at an industrial park in southwest Memphis.
Using assembly lines, lasers and robotic arms, the high-tech facility is making Electrolux and Frigidaire cooking ranges and ovens to sell at major retailers. Production at the plant began in the fall, and the facility is now ready to increase its capacity.
Strongly backed by politicians and supported by taxpayer incentives, the factory carries high expectations as a long-term job producer.
Jack Truong, president and CEO of Electrolux Major Appliances North America, said 550 people are working at the factory, and about 650 will be added as production reaches top levels at 600,000 ovens annually within the next five years.
“This is a big deal for us, also because of the range of employment it’s brought, everything from entry-level jobs to high-tech jobs,” Haslam told reporters after the tour. “We want to show that in Tennessee we can provide that workforce no matter where you are on that spectrum.”
Electrolux said in December it would add 810 workers to its North American headquarters operation in Charlotte, roughly doubling the size of its operation in the city. The company also said it would invest $85 million to construct a six-story, 375,000-square-foot building adjacent to its headquarters on David Taylor Drive in the University area.
Haslam said the state is talking with high schools, technology colleges and four-year universities to ensure they graduate the type of worker that fits the needs of Tennessee’s companies.
“We haven’t done a good job of that In the past,” Haslam said. “The market’s real clear in telling us what they need. They need engineers and welders and nurses and truck drivers. That’s on us.”
During a similar tour a year ago, Truong said the first products to be shipped to customers would likely come off the line in May. But Truong said that didn’t happen until early October, because of the need for more product testing, Truong said.
Truong acknowledged there were times when products did not reach the company’s standards, and they had to be worked on and re-tested for quality.
“This new facility is our crown jewel in our company,” Truong said. “It’s sometimes better to be late than ship a product that we’re not satisfied with.”
Tax breaks play big role
The plant is the result of work involving the public and private sectors. The deal was forged near the end of former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s term and the early part of Haslam’s tenure about three years ago.
Memphis Mayor A. C. Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell worked together to bring the Swedish appliance maker to the area, helping secure $150 million in tax incentives. Electrolux itself invested $100 million in the plant.
The deal has been criticized by some who say the tax breaks are too high, especially as the city manages a tight budget. Other companies also are receiving tax breaks in return for building new plants in Shelby County.
The Electrolux headquarters was lured to Charlotte from Augusta, Ga., in 2009 by state and local incentives of up to $27 million. Those incentives were conditioned on grounds that the company would bring 738 jobs by 2015.
Truong said last month that the company has 760 employees in Charlotte, plus 145 contractors.
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