When Westye Bakke fired up his Harley-Davidson in 1925, fully loaded with his wife, two young children and worldly possessions, and headed from Rice Lake to Madison, 230 miles south, could he ever have envisioned what lay in store for him?
“Starting in a garage in Madison, Wisconsin and getting to where we are now – with Sub-Zero being an international brand – I think would bring a big smile to the faces of my father and my grandfather,” says Jim Bakke.
Within a week after arriving in Madison, Westye landed a job as a salesman for the Frigidaire Company. He also began experimenting with refrigeration – in part to find a better way to store the insulin his young son Bud needed for his juvenile diabetes. In 1943, Westye built his first freestanding freezer out of scrap metal in his basement, bending the coils bare-handed and improvising whatever materials were lacking due to wartime shortages. In 1945, just as the GI’s came home to start a baby and building boom, the Sub-Zero Freezer Company swung into production.
“When my grandfather started the business in 1945 there were many, many refrigeration manufacturers throughout North America,” says Jim Bakke. “His strategy was always to build the best, highest-quality refrigeration, because he knew if he did that, he had the staying power that the other people didn’t. They were trying to base their companies on price and volume. He never did that once in his lifetime. It was always on quality, making a fair profit, and keeping customers. That’s something we still do today, and it’s why we are still the only privately held, high-end appliance manufacturer in North America – the last one standing.”
Westye concentrated on the commercial side of the refrigeration business. Jim explains what happened next: “My dad Bud took it out of the commercial sector and into the residential sector, and that’s when the company really started to grow.” It was Bud who helped shift the company’s focus to built-in refrigeration, which tied in with “the total kitchen concept” that cabinet companies began promoting in the 1950’s. Not just kitchens, but bar counters, credenzas, living room end tables could all have refrigerators built into them – what could be handier at cocktail time? The idea was a smash hit with Mad Men-types on Madison Avenue and the Hollywood set in California. Dinah Shore even did the kitchen segment of her popular TV show using a Sub-Zero refrigerator, and viewers saw the logo every time she reached for butter or eggs.
Innovation and quality drove the company’s success. Following the built-in line that put Sub-Zero on the map, the company developed its stunning integrated line known as “anywhere refrigeration.” In tandem, Sub-Zero has worked to enhance the preservation qualities of all its refrigerators adding dual refrigeration, NASA-inspired air purification, magnetic door seals and much more, and it continually works to improve product today.
In the late 1990’s, Jim Bakke realized that Sub-Zero needed to move beyond refrigeration, if it was to compete successfully with full-line appliance companies, so he made the bold move of developing Wolf, an in-house cooking brand.
“You sometimes say two plus two equals four,” says Jim. “Well in this instance, two plus two equals ten. It just mushroomed, and bringing Sub-Zero together with Wolf, a company with over 75 years of experience in commercial kitchens, has created a huge opportunity for us. We were able to take a few existing Wolf models, complement them with a new, full line built to the standard of quality we've always instilled, and in doing so we created the ideal kitchen soul mate for Sub-Zero.”
Today the company Westye started, that Bud and Jim have grown with the help of so many dedicated employees and partners, is the premier luxury appliance brand in the world. Sub-Zero and Wolf can be found in the finest homes and residential developments, from London to Dubai to Shanghai and back. Thousands of owners are savoring the good things in life with the help of their Sub-Zero and Wolf appliances.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that we always have to have innovation in our blood,” says Jim. “We always need to keep our products moving forward, ahead of the competition. Whether it’s with design, whether it’s with technology, with performance, reliability, customer service – you’ve always got to keep innovating and moving forward. That’s what makes our future so bright.”