GE's Immelt says Appliance Park not for sale, dismisses Obama criticism


by WHAS11

Posted on March 20, 2012 at 12:25 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 20 at 10:31 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – Four years after GE's Chairman and CEO made plans to sell or spin off Appliance Park, Jeffrey Immelt was back in Louisville on Tuesday to celebrate 600 jobs moving back from Mexico and Korea, and the rebirth of American manufacturing.

It's not everyone who stands and cheers the unveiling of a new refrigerator, but 600 jobs moving back to America from is cause for applause.

"They're saying you can't bring jobs back to America, manufacturing is dead in America.  But, our CEO at least he's standing up and saying 'That's not right,'" Jerry Carney, Local 61 IUE-CWA President said to cheering workers.  "We can bring jobs back to America."

With production of the French door bottom freezer refrigerator a few weeks away at Appliance Park, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt came back to Louisville on Tuesday.  The manufacture of traditional style refrigerators has been moved from Building Five to Decatur, Alabama.

Just last month, Appliance Park began production of a hybrid water heater in the first new factory to open at Appliance Park since 1957. Both the water heater and the new refrigerator  are examples of 11 new products GE Appliances pledges to launch by 2014.

"We've got the door open to bring as many things back here as we can compete in," Immelt said.

Sixty years after the 900 acre Appliance Park opened, and 40 years after employment peaked at 25,000 workers, GE in Louisville now has 4000 employees, and it appears to be growing again.

Just four years ago, Immelt decided that GE would abandon appliances and Appliance Park would put up for sale and the corporation would entertain offers for a joint venture or spin off of the historic 900 acre facility.

How have things changed?

"I think the place looks great," Immelt told WHAS11's Joe Arnold.  "And the product is outstanding.  And, in the end, satisfying customers is ultimately the proof in the pudding and I'm thrilled to see where we are."

Immelt was asked whether Appliance Park is still for sale.

"No," Immelt laughed.  "The park has never had a better future than it has right now."

The refrigerator is the fourth new-product GE is launching in Louisville since 2009.

By 2014, GE pledges 11 new products and 1300 new jobs in Louisville.

"GE is a company that never stands still," said Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear (D).

The new jobs come at a price. $17 million in city and state incentives and a starting wage of about $13, or about half of what the previous generation of GE workers earns.

Is a middle class dream still achievable with those wages?

"Nobody has to explain to me the value of a middle class job.  Nobody.  I get it," Immelt said, himself the son of a lifelong GE worker.

"For 250 jobs, we got 10,000 applicants last week," Immelt said.  "And so, I just think we want to start where we know we can compete.  We want to invest in a way that gives these people a chance to win, and we want to do it at a fair wage with benefits."

Immelt, chairman of President Barack Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, did not answer directly when asked if he was satisfied with the direction of the U.S. economy under Mr. Obama's leadersip.

"Look, the President has been a great partner on the jobs council," Immelt responded. 

In Tuesday's New York Post, columnist Charles Gasparino wrote  that Immelt's friends describe him "as privately dismayed that, even after three years on the job, President Obama hasn’t moved to the center, but instead further left."

"The GE CEO." Gasparino wrote, "is appalled by everything from the president’s class-warfare rhetoric to his continued belief that big government is the key to economic salvation."

"I don't even know who these people..." Immelt began, "Look, I have every opportunity to speak in public for myself.  I have a thousand people who ask me questions, just like you have.  And, I am extremely respectful of the President and I'm also here to tell you that he has been a great partner on the jobs council."

Yet, does Immelt wish, as Gasparino suggests, that the President had moved more to the center on economic policy?

"Look, I'm going to leave that to you," Immelt said.