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John Wood looks around him at the remnants of the Canadian appliance industry.

In 1964, he said, 37 Canadian companies manufactured washing machines, stoves and refrigerators. Today, there are four. Workers in the industry used to total 10,000. Now, there are 2,500.

By next year, Mr. Wood said, he'll be looking at just three manufacturers.

"It's sad," said Mr. Wood, president and chief executive officer of Guelph, Ont.-based W.C. Wood Co. Ltd., the last Canadian-owned appliance manufacturer in the country. "We're the only one in North America that is still family owned."

He looks at a list of famous old brands. Inglis, Westinghouse, Kenmore, Beaumark, Admiral, Frigidaire, Moffat and McClary are either gone or made by a contract manufacturer, somewhere, anywhere in the world. And he wonders what will happen over the next year or so when two more companies pull back.

Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool Corp. -- owner of the Inglis and Admiral brands -- plans to close its stove plant east of Quebec City next year, which will extinguish 500 jobs. And Mississauga-based Camco Inc. says it may sell or close its refrigerator plant in Hamilton, Ont., cutting up to 1,500 jobs.

Camco is typical of the consolidation that has transformed the world appliance industry over the past 15 years.

The company, co-owned by General Electric Co. of Fairfield, Conn. and GSW Inc. of Toronto, builds dryers in Montreal and stoves and refrigerators in Hamilton under the General Electric, Westinghouse, Moffat, McClary and Hotpoint names.

Camco's plant faces shutdown because GE can buy refrigerators cheaper from outside contractors in the United States, Mexico and China, according to Neil Gartshore, Camco's chief financial officer.

It is a familiar story in the Canadian appliance industry. Camco "can't compete with China under any circumstances," said Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers. "I don't know what you do about it."

Mr. Wood agrees: "I can buy a [Chinese]five-cubic-foot fridge delivered in North America for $175. They pay their workers less in a week than I pay mine in an hour."

But cheap Chinese imports aren't the only problem. Competition is so intense in this low-margin business that North American, European and Asian manufacturers are abandoning their regional plants in favour of global operations that serve an entire continent.

"[The North American free-trade agreement]can work for you if you can find your niche," Mr. Gartshore said. "But if you supply only the domestic market, you are up against it."

Whirlpool, which has operations in 13 countries, is closing small regional factories and consolidating production in a small stable of global-scale plants located in key centres around the world, company spokesman Chris Wyse said.

Its Quebec plant is so small that it makes no sense to keep it open, Mr. Wyse said. Instead, Whirlpool is transferring production to its highly automated plants in Oxford, Miss., and Tulsa, Okla., and will supply all of North America by truck. Higher transportation costs will be offset by economies of scale.

Like other industry experts, Mr. Wyse pointed to South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., a highly aggressive company building a plant in Mexico to compete against Whirlpool and Camco across North America. Samsung is also building plants in Asia and Europe that will compete against Whirlpool in those markets.

"We compete against Asian competitors in every corner of the world," Mr. Wyse said. "We face a handful of well-managed global competitors in every market."

Mr. Wood said few manufacturers build an entire line of products nowadays. They fill the gaps in their line by what's dubbed "co-branding"; they buy from outside contractors -- even competitors -- who will build appliances under any brand the buyer wants to use. The practice is usually kept secret, making it difficult for consumers to tell which company or which country made the appliance.

"Very few appliance makers make everything they sell," Mr. Wood said. "They buy from competitors. They buy from third parties. It allows them to complete their line."

He said he builds under the brand names W.C. Wood and Danby. He also builds under the Kenmore brand and, like Camco, under a variety of department store, private-label and no-name brands.

Mr. Wood said he has survived in the Canadian market by building a mix of brands, for himself and other companies. He said he has a good, stable work force of 1,000, and, as a family-owned company, plows profits back into the business.

Heartland Appliances Inc. of Cambridge, Ont., a tiny operation with 80 employees, has a different strategy.

It buys refrigerators from major manufacturers, then upgrades them in a retro style that suits many aging baby boomers.

GSW chooses a third route. Andrew Ferrier, president and chief executive officer, said GSW can prosper by focusing on a narrow product line -- water heaters -- then reducing the labour component as much as possible. Using this strategy, GSW decided to automate its plants in Fergus, Ont., and Tennessee, specializing in water heaters, while maintaining its partial ownership in Camco.

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