From left, Rebekka Pace, Suyoon Lee and Breanne Wilson talk about their experiences living in Whirlpool Corp.’s Real Whirled condos in St. Joseph during an interview Wednesday afternoon. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)
By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
ST. JOSEPH — For three times each year, a condo along Broad Street in St. Joseph is home to eight people and a special program that has benefited various Whirlpool Corp. employees.
Among those eight people this year is Suyoon Lee. The St. Louis native recently graduated from the University of Michigan and loves to cook.
He is in training to become a sales development representative at the home appliance maker. However, he is taking part in a special program called Real Whirled. Like the MTV show known as “Real World,” he is put in a home to live with seven other people for an extended period.
Unlike the show, an overwhelming majority of participants remain friends.
Through a hands-on learning approach, participants complete sales skills training and gain insight into Whirlpool products by using them every day in the condo apartment. All this comes before they are then assigned to a U.S. metropolitan sales territory as a sales development representative – or SDR.
Lee said he enjoys the program because it’s a way to learn with other people.
“We learn a lot within those 10 weeks,” Lee said. “The best part about this program is you get to learn about these appliances while meeting others who have gone through the same thing.”
Ashley Czubak runs the Real Whirled program, which was created in 1999.
Czubak, who is the early sales program manager, went through the same program as Lee did in 2007 and was part of its 25th class.
Whirlpool’s sales department was looking for a way to bring younger talent into the corporation when the MTV show was at its peak.
“The program itself was supposed to be a spinoff of the show,” Czubak said. “Eight young sales individuals come and live together and learn about the product.”
Over time, the program has developed and grown. The company has absorbed more brands since the turn of the 21st Century and has extended its reach to nearly every continent.
Whirlpool always brings in eight individuals for each group or “class” that stays in the condo for 10 weeks. There are three classes that inhabit the condo between January, June and September every year.
With about 24 participants each year, Czubak said they’ve had more than 400 workers cycle through the program.
By the beginning of 2017, Real Whirled will welcome its 57th class of participants.
The current class in Real Whirled is No. 56.
Joining Lee in the September class is Alyse Wilson.
Wilson, who recently graduated from Michigan State University, said a lot of her friends have become curious with what she does at the Real Whirled condo.
“Just from posting stuff that we’ve been doing on social media, a lot of our friends are asking us what we’re doing,” Wilson said. “We get to cook, use the washers and dishwasher. We make different smoothies with the blenders, we’re putting gross things on plates and putting them in the dishwasher and seeing how they turn out.
Rebekka Pace, Suyoon Lee and Breanne Wilson talk about their experiences in Whirlpool Corp.’s Real Whirled condos in St. Joseph. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)
“It’s a fun program. We’ve become junkies with these appliances.”
The candidate pool for the program’s participants normally includes former interns who have graduated college within the last three years.
Rebekka Pace, another SDR in training, said the program brings the appliances to life.
“It’s applicable to everyday life and people don’t really notice that a lot,” said Pace, a Grand Rapids native.
The bulk of the work comes when they move into the house. Czubak said communication skills and product study become an everyday practice.
Throughout their 10-week training program, participants check in with Czubak. She has ownership of recruitment hiring, curriculum development and management of the program.
“I have a weekly check-in with them,” Czubak said. “We have lunch for an informal opportunity to ask questions. We also have a formal assessment process.”
Participants can bring as much stuff as they want to keep in the condo. However, much of it is already taken care of.
The condo is fully furnished and was retrofitted to include eight bedrooms and eight bathrooms on two floors. There are four kitchens and four laundry rooms scattered around a commons room for participants to hang out.
From granite countertops to stainless steel appliances, each kitchen is outfitted to any chef’s liking. All that’s needed is clothing and personal items – along with a few groceries.
Whirlpool worked with the condo association to refit multiple condos for these eight participants. The four kitchens and laundry rooms allow participants to use Whirlpool and Maytag products, along with a kitchen and laundry room that house a mixed-bag of appliances from assorted competitors.
“It allows us to see what we like and don’t like for comparison,” Pace said.
There’s also a classroom feel to the Real Whirled condo.
One of the kitchens in Whirlpool Corp.’s Real Whirled condos in St. Joseph is pictured Wednesday afternoon. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)
The walls on the second floor are tapered with large sheets of paper with contact information and calendars to mark significant events. There are even a few Post-It notes with expectations stuck along the walls.
Last week, participants traveled for a territorial visit. This was where they will move to as an SDR after completing the 10-week program.
Pace is moving to Atlanta and Wilson is heading to the northern region of Indianapolis, where both will cover nearly 40 different stores that range from Home Depot to Lowe’s.
Lee, who favors the east coast, is heading to Fairfield, Conn.
“I’m really excited to get to work there,” Lee said. “I liked how they took my suggestion under consideration. Everyone was so friendly on my visit.”
Wilson won’t move as far as the others, but she admitted she is hesitant to leave the shared condo.
“We’ve become a family here in a short amount of time,” she said. “Plus, I’m going to be moving to this one-bedroom apartment without all these appliances that we’ve become accustomed to.”
After the program, each participant will move into that role as sales development representatives for their region. But after that, there’s a chance they return to Benton Harbor and make their way up the corporate ladder.
“I think the program will continue to evolve as our sales organization evolves,” Czubak said when asked about the program’s future. “It will continue to be our talent pipeline for our sales organization. We have a 50 percent retention rate and many of the program’s alumni go on to do great things.”
Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Oct. 23, 2016)