St. Joseph schools to send funds, water to Flint

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Several area schools and agencies have stepped up to help residents involved with the Flint water crisis.

St. Joseph Public Schools’ staff and students are among the school districts working to collect and donate water and funds to the American Red Cross.

The effort began when St. Joseph High School’s boys swim coach and science teacher Paul Hirn – who has family in Flint – emailed administration in search of what could be done. From there, the school’s staff began engaging their respective service groups and student senates.

At the high school, Principal Kevin Riggs said because they had finals to worry about last week, the school will begin raising money through the first week of February.

“We will be raising money during lunch time Monday through Friday,” Riggs said. “Students can donate and if they donate more than $5 they will be entered into a raffle at lunch for gift cards.”

Principal Chad Mandarino sent emails notifying all Upton Middle School students and parents on what the school had planned for the upcoming week.

Last week, middle school staff could wear jeans for $3 a day or pay $10 for every day of the week. Come Tuesday, Upton Middle School students can pay $1 and wear a hat, while students can wear pajamas for $1 on Thursday.

“Pajamas are a big deal at the middle school,” Mandarino said. “We’re going to assess what we collected at the end of the week, and our student council might kick in some money from their Activity Fund to boost it a little. They have talked about this in social studies and have been following it in class.”

At E.P. Clarke Elementary School, Principal Michelle Allen said they held a “Fill Flint Day” last week where students could pay $1 to wear a hat, and teachers paid $5 to wear jeans.

The school raised $840 and collected water that was later contributed to the Bridgman Elementary School water drive.

“The kids were so proud to be part of a solution,” Allen said. “Our parents were very supportive. We also learned we had some family connections in Flint.”

Mike Wagner, principal at Lincoln Elementary, said students collected $682 last week during a one-day pajama event.

“It’s always nice to teach kids to think about others even if the community isn’t right here,” Wagner said. “They really exceeded my expectations. I was really proud of them.”

Tracy McFall, who served as student council advisor and fourth grade teacher at Brown Elementary School, said students decided two weeks ago to get a large water jug that is normally used for a cooler. Students flipped it upside down so hallway pedestrians could donate loose change.

The philanthropic venture also proved to be an educational one for the students involved.

“Today as I was walking by, I saw a custodian drop some change in,” she said. “I have a grandmotherly volunteer who also dropped some change in the other day. We also looked up what lead is because while the kids were making posters, a lot of them were wondering what it was.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 31, 2016)


Financial Report: Whirlpool doubles earnings in fourth quarter

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Earnings exceeded expectations and sales fell short in Whirlpool Corp.’s fourth quarter of 2015, the company revealed Friday.

The Benton Harbor-based home appliance maker reported quarterly net earnings of $180 million or $2.28 per diluted share, more than doubling the net earnings recorded for the same prior-year period of $81 million.

“Our strong operational execution delivered another year of record revenue and earnings per share along with strong free cash flow,” Jeff Fettig, Whirlpool’s CEO and chairman, said in a conference call with investors Friday. “These record results demonstrate that our strategy and larger global operating platform continue to create substantial levels of shareholder value even in a year of unprecedented volatility in global markets.”

Net sales in the quarter were $5.6 billion compared to $6 billion during the same prior-year period. Excluding the impact of currency and driven by acquisitions in other regions, sales increased 4 percent.

“As planned, we delivered significant dividends in the fourth quarter,” Fettig said. “The majority of margin growth took place in the fourth quarter.”

Whirlpool’s stock closed Friday at $134.39 per share on the New York Stock Exchange, a 1.8 percent increase from the day’s opening price.

Ongoing business operating profits for the fourth quarter totaled $468 million – about 8.5 percent of sales – compared to $456 million last year.

For the full year, net sales for 2015 were $20.9 billion, compared to $19.9 billion in 2014. Excluding the impact of foreign currency, sales increased by 18 percent.

Operating profit totaled $1.3 billion, compared to $1.2 billion in 2014. Net earnings per diluted share increased to $9.83 compared to $8.17 for 2014.

During Friday’s conference call, Whirlpool officials told shareholders to expect to see earnings per diluted share of $11.25 to $12 for the full year of 2016 and ongoing business earnings per diluted share of $14 to $14.75.

For the full year 2016, Fettig said the company expects to generate free cash flow of $700 million-$800 million.

“Our plans to create long-term value for our shareholders remain unchanged, and our strategic priorities remain focused on profitable revenue growth, leading consumer innovation and best cost structure,” Fettig said. “We will continue to be decisive and disciplined in managing operations around the world.”

Regional efforts

Whirlpool North America reported fourth-quarter net sales of $2.9 billion, which were up slightly from the $2.8 million recorded in the same prior-year period. Excluding the impact of currency, sales increased 6 percent.

The North America region reported an operating profit of $340 million compared to $255 million in 2014.

For the fourth quarter, Whirlpool Europe, Middle East and Africa reported net sales of $1.5 billion compared to $1.7 billion in the prior year, a decrease of 11 percent – excluding the impact of currency, sales actually increased 8 percent.

The region reported an operating profit of $88 million, compared to $41 million in the same quarter last year. Whirlpool expects full-year 2016 industry unit shipments in the region to be flat or increase up to 2 percent.

Marc Bitzer, president and chief operating officer, said this figure was achieved despite a poor performance from Russia in 2015.

“During the fourth quarter, strong execution of our integration plan and ongoing cost productivity mostly offset $45 million in unfavorable currency and a significant industry decline in Russia,” he said. “Last year, we saw an unusually strong fourth quarter in Russia, as consumers bought heavily before devalution.”

Whirlpool Latin America reported fourth-quarter net sales of $800 million, compared to $1.3 billion in the prior year. Excluding the impact of currency, sales decreased by 8 percent.

The region reported a $58 million operating profit, or 6.8 percent of sales. This fared in comparison to the $147 million operating profit from last year. Improved product price and the benefit of cost and capacity reductions were offset by unfavorable currency and a weaker demand environment in Brazil. The company expects full-year 2016 industry unit shipments in Brazil to decrease by about 10 percent.

Whirlpool Asia reported fourth-quarter sales of $312 million, compared to $282 million in the prior year. Excluding the impact of currency, sales increased 15 percent. The region reported an operating profit of $5 million, compared to an operating loss of $22 million in the prior period.

The company expects full-year 2016 industry unit shipments to be flat.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 30, 2016)

Gustafson to stay as CEO at Kinexus

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Todd Gustafson will remain the chief executive officer at Kinexus.

Gustafson, who has been CEO of the Benton Harbor-based economic development organization for more than 10 years, announced his plans to stay on with Kinexus after he had expected to leave at the end of January.

“I appreciate the opportunity to continue to serve the team at Kinexus and the community,” Gustafson said. “We’ve accomplished a lot as an organization over the last 10 years. The team, which includes the board of directors and the staff, is very talented and passionate about making a systemic and sustainable impact, and I am proud to continue that effort.”

It was first reported back in October he was leaving to become a partner with Lead Star, a leadership development firm based in Washington, D.C. Gustafson previously worked for the United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

Since Gustafson wasn’t officially scheduled to leave his position until the end of January, he remained on staff throughout the interview proceedings this month.

The decision for Gustafson’s return became official last Friday.

According to a press release from Kinexus, an “opportunity arose” that resulted in the continuation of Gustafson’s leadership as the nonprofit’s CEO. The decision came after the board conducted interviews to find his replacement.

There were 158 candidates who applied for the position.

Kinexus Board Chairman Christopher Randall released a statement in response to the board’s decision to bring Gustafson back.

“We knew we had great candidates before us, each bringing something different to the table,” Randall said. “The board committee deliberated and unanimously decided that Todd would continue to lead the organization. We are excited he will be staying in Southwest Michigan and continue to lead Kinexus in the years to come.”

Randall went on to say that through Gustafson’s leadership, Kinexus has become nationally recognized for its staff, initiatives and entrepreneurial approach.

Kinexus is a nonprofit organization that invests millions in funding in Berrien, Cass, and Van Buren counties through business, workforce and community development.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 29, 2016)

Engineers submit changes for Marriott Hotel in Benton Township

 Two construction workers walk to the bottom of the foundation for the Marriott Hotel in Benton Township, while a cement-mixing truck gets ready to pour Wednesday. Changes had to be made to the hotel’s foundation and footings to coincide with the township’s ordinances. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Two construction workers walk to the bottom of the foundation for the Marriott Hotel in Benton Township, while a cement-mixing truck gets ready to pour Wednesday. Changes had to be made to the hotel’s foundation and footings to coincide with the township’s ordinances. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — There have been a few changes made to the Marriott Spring Hill Suites Hotel being built in Benton Township.

Building Inspector Tom Baldwin said engineers had to redo some of the footings and foundation of the hotel at 1255 Cinema Way because they did not fall within the township’s ordinances. Baldwin said the project has not been set back, as workers finished installing the underground infrastructure before the ground started to freeze.

“It has been addressed and they are continuing their work,” Baldwin said. “Some of the items in the building itself, as far as the concrete placement, were not within the township’s ordinances. That being said, they had to do some re-engineering to make sure the changes made to the hotel fell within those guidelines. It’s not unusual for something like this to happen.”

Baldwin said township officials “called a timeout” on the project after a few on-site visits were made in December. The township building department ordered the project’s engineers to revise and resubmit documents on what changes were being made.

Baldwin said work on the $8.5 million hotel began Dec. 8, nearly a week after the project received final approval from the Board of Trustees. Work came to a halt to review the foundation about three weeks later.

“I don’t think it was set back,” Baldwin said in reference to the hotel’s date of completion. “They still had all the sanitary, water and plumbing infrastructure put in before it got too cold.”

Harbor Hotel Investments, based in Farmington Hills, is the developer. The hotel will cover about 62,700 square feet and be four stories high with 92 rooms. The site is across the street from the Hilton Garden Inn.

The project has a new architectural firm, Etchen Gumma LTD, also based in Farmington Hills. Baldwin said there have been no changes to the hotel’s site plan above the foundation level, which were originally created by Bud Design and Engineering Services.

Township Clerk Carolyn Phillips said the township is glad the mistake was discovered before too much work was completed.

“The building department was on top of it and had to make sure they were following the ordinances,” Phillips said. “It was important our building officials interceded before they got too far into the project.”

The hotel’s expected date of completion is still set for August 2016.

The hotel made its way through the township’s Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Commission in November for a height variance, before getting final approval at the Dec. 1 Board of Trustees meeting.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 28, 2016)

Business owner seeks approval for event venue in Benton Township

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Christania Waggoner has plans for the 6.5 acres and two structures at 2251 Riverside Road in Benton Township.

Waggoner presented the plans Monday night to the Benton Township Planning Commission for what she calls Stonegate Manor – a venue for weddings and other celebrated events.

As owner of Sweet Dreams Baked Goods in Benton Township and the Sweet Dreams candy store in downtown St. Joseph, Waggoner was given unanimous approval for a special use permit from township planners. Her plans will be sent to the township’s Board of Trustees for final approval.

Having bought the parcel in October, Waggoner said the idea was to open a wedding venue. After looking over the property a bit more, she said they plan on opening a bed and breakfast on site in four to five years.

“I don’t live very far from the property, so when I heard it was for sale I went straight home and told my husband,” Waggoner said. “Initially, he said ‘no.’ It took a little more convincing. Then we spoke with Tom Nelson, who said he would assist. So, it’s the three of us acting as partners.”

Assuming the trio gets final approval, Waggoner said the plan is to begin work immediately to ensure it is up and running by June.

“I know we’ve missed the boat because brides book a year or two out,” she said. “But we can still get those stragglers that are coming that don’t have a wedding venue. We’ll also pick up other events because we are not exclusive to weddings.”

Improvements to the property will occur on the inside of the potential reception hall, which covers 3,600 square feet – when excluding outdoor seating.

The venue would be used from April through October each year and would include a full catering room, air conditioning and proper restrooms, Waggoner said.

Because of her two businesses, Waggoner said she has been in contact with several brides and grooms who are planning for the big day.

“With seemingly every consultation, it became clear there is a need for additional wedding venues in Southwest Michigan to handle this increasing desire to capitalize on the beauty of the region,” Waggoner told planners Monday. “We feel that this classic setting will become an instant hit with the types of couples who are increasingly seeking storybook settings and destination weddings.”

Benton Township Director of Inspections Tom Baldwin said the post-frame building, which will serve as the reception hall, sits on the property along with another nice house. The property is bounded by a stone fence at the front along Riverside Road.

John Olson, a representative of Merritt Engineering, told planners the intent is to have 57 paved parking spots, with additional parking space on the neighboring property being leased to Waggoner through Nelson – the third partner for Stonegate Manor.

Baldwin said the public hearing was necessary to allow residential neighbors to express their concerns. Two neighbors appeared in person for Monday’s public hearing supporting the project while posting questions about noise and lighting.

“The property is zoned agricultural, which under the permitted uses in agricultural zoning would not allow this type of venue,” Baldwin said. “A public hearing was needed to authorize the special use.”

The property had been the home of a House of David Museum under the prior owner, Chris Siriano.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 27, 2016)

KFC’s St. Joseph location shuts its doors

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — The KFC restaurant that has served St. Joseph residents for 40 years closed Tuesday.

KFC franchise representative Richard Alford said the last day of operations for the KFC at 1666 Hilltop Road was Monday night. Workers began packing and clearing out the business’ equipment Tuesday morning.

Alford said there was nothing nefarious about the closure, as the decision was made for plans to relocate elsewhere in St. Joseph.

“We’ve remodeled that facility several times over the past few decades,” Alford said. “Instead of undergoing another remodel on the current building, we felt it best to focus our future investment efforts on building a new state-of the art, KFC restaurant in St. Joseph in the future.”

The KFC building was originally built in 1976 at Hilltop Road and Cleveland Avenue.

“It’s 40 years old and it’s been through four remodels,” Alford said. “We’re at the beginning of a remodeling cycle. We do them every 10 years. Instead of remodeling the current building, we’re going to relocate because at some point you just have to rebuild.”

Alford said there was no timeline or a planned location to be released yet.

All St. Joseph KFC employees will be retained and offered positions at neighboring KFC restaurants, Alford said. The KFC in Benton Township at 1957 M-139, will remain open and is one of the sites accepting these employees.

William F. Alford Co. Inc., is the franchisee in St. Joseph, in addition to 17 other KFC restaurants throughout Michigan and Indiana.

Other Michigan KFC restaurants owned by the same franchisee includes Benton Harbor, Niles, Three Rivers, Sturgis, Coldwater, Otsego, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Hastings, Albion and Charlotte. In Indiana, the franchisee owns KFC restaurants in Granger and South Bend.

According to KFC Corp.’s website, the company is based in Louisville, Ky., and is the world’s largest chicken restaurant chain with more than 18,000 KFC outlets in more than 115 countries.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 26, 2016)

New Cornerstone Alliance president is all smiles

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Serving as a liaison between businesses and local governments, Cornerstone Alliance President Rob Cleveland has an idea of what’s on the horizon for Southwest Michigan.

Cleveland, named president of the Benton Harbor-based economic development agency in late October, said this region’s job market is strong and will continue this trend through 2016. With 4.2 percent unemployment measured in November 2015, it’s the lowest rate Berrien County has seen since November 2000.

“That’s only one part of the picture as well. You have to look at the participation rate – the number of people in the workforce,” Cleveland said. “Between November 2014 and 2015, there were 1,300 more people in the (Berrien) County’s workforce. All across the country, that number is declining. It’s encouraging to see Berrien County residents are looking for jobs and are ready for work.”

The participation rate involves those who are employed or those applying for jobs.

Like this region’s economy, Cleveland said the manufacturing job sector continues to be strong by gaining 400 more people in employment last year.

“From an economic development standpoint in this area, most of the professionals focus on the automotive market,” Cleveland said. “We keep a close eye on the amount of vehicles that are being produced.”

Through the combination of cheap gasoline, a drop in unemployment rates and low interest rates, 17.5 million vehicles were sold in the U.S. last year – a 5.7 percent increase from 2014.

“We will continue to focus on the really high-skilled positions, like the tool and die industry,” Cleveland said. “That is not a job. Being a mold maker is not something you can learn how to do in a week. Continuing to make sure we have the infrastructure to support the tool and die industry in Berrien County has to be a focus for us.”

A year of goals

Cleveland inherited a three-year strategic plan now in its final year. He said the agency will make another by adding other goals throughout 2016.

One of the concepts Cleveland deals with is “filling the funnel.”

“The goal is to get as many projects in as we can because very few of those actually lead to new companies,” he said. “We responded to 50 new leads last year. One new company came from that, but that’s not an uncommon percentage. You swing and miss a lot in our industry. From a goal stand point, we want to continue to fill that funnel.”

Cleveland said two of the biggest components of economic development are business retention and expansion.

Because of this, Cleveland said he and other Cornerstone Alliance representatives have a goal of meeting with 120 Berrien County companies in 2016. Last year they visited 109.

Another economic aspect that came into play last year was creating new small businesses. According to Cleveland, Cornerstone Alliance had a hand in creating 19 new businesses last year in Berrien County.

“The small businesses are key to filling the downtowns,” he said. “I see nothing but positives for the downtowns of Berrien County. I was meeting with the team from St. Joe Today and the city of St. Joseph last week and they told me there was only one vacancy. I think people would be impressed to see how vibrant downtown Benton Harbor has become. And in a couple of weeks, I’m meeting with a few people in Berrien Springs to talk tactics because I know they have a few vacancies among their downtown businesses.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 26, 2016)