The Sub-Zero Story: The Rolls Royce of Refrigerators
Can a kitchen appliance really be an object of desire? Well, a Sub-Zero refrigerator just might be the answer to some people’s dreams.
“It’s like a piece of jewelry, really,” Sub-Zero CEO Jim Bakke said of the device’s grip. “You can get it as a freezer. You can get it as a refrigerator. You can get it as a wine storage unit.
The Sub-Zero fridge, owned by celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, starts at a low $9,000, but Bakke told CBS News correspondent Rita Braver the high price tag is “a good thing.”
“Quality has always been the cornerstone of Sub-Zero,” he said.
At the company’s sprawling 200-acre headquarters in Fitchburg — just outside Madison, Wisconsin — Bakke said the spectacular visitor center underscores the company’s upscale image.
“That’s what we’re selling here: a lifestyle, absolutely,” he said.
But there was nothing glamorous 77 years ago when the company started in a Madison garage.
Bakke said Westye Bakke, his grandfather and son of Norwegian immigrants, first worked as a salesman for another refrigerator company. But after doing custom work for famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, he founded Sub-Zero in 1945 – with just three employees, including his son, Bud, who is Jim Bakke’s father.
Company museum showcases Sub-Zero innovations: Westye Bakke was the first to manufacture an upright freezer with opening doors as well as the first to create separately sealed refrigerator and freezer compartments in a single unit .
“He could keep temperatures below zero, which was hard to do at the time, so he called his company Sub-Zero,” Jim Bakke said.
Since 2000, the company has also manufactured wolf ranges, but it’s their sleek refrigerator models that can be covered with almost anything that make them a favorite with interior designers.
Designer Mick Degiulio told Braver that he’s used Sub-Zero products in many kitchens.
“I took over the project 25 years later, and the Sub-Zero is still here,” he said.
And each of the devices is made in the United States, primarily in Fitchburg. About 2,000 of the company’s 3,000 employees work in this factory.
Each of the refrigerators is subjected to intensive quality tests with a specially designed computer program.
“It’s something that’s exclusive to Sub-Zero that we 100% test on everything we make,” Bakke said.
The company even grows its own lettuce to ensure it stays fresh after two weeks in a Sub-Zero refrigerator.
And while the company’s attention to detail seems frozen in time, says Bakke, it’s not about cash. He said the idea of selling the business would almost be like “selling one of my children”.
“My grandfather and my father gave me such a great opportunity,” he said, “and to sell it, to make more money, that doesn’t interest me.”