156: Pushing the Limits of Luxury Appliances with JennAir

Written by Rob Stott

February 21, 2023

independent thinking podcast jennair luxury appliances

JennAir is a company founded on the idea of challenging conventional norms in the appliance industry. That way of thinking hasn’t changed over the past 57-plus years, and it’s helped the brand continue to stand out as a true innovator of luxury appliances. We dive into all that JennAir has to offer with Nathan Puplis, who leads up the buying group initiative for the company.


Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking podcast. It’s always fun when you can have conversations and reconnect with old friends and colleagues on the podcast, and we’re doing that today. Mr. Nate Puplis, who leads up the buying group initiatives over there for the JennAir brand, part of the Whirlpool Corporation. Mr. Puplis, colleagues not too long ago. If you don’t know his background had almost a decade, I want to say maybe even over a decade, within the Nationwide Marketing Group organization, part of the sales team here and the Site on Time team. Nice to have you back on the podcast, man.

Nate Puplis: Thanks, Mr. Stott, great to see you too. Thanks for having me.

Rob Stott: Not a problem at all. How’s everything going over there?

Nate Puplis: We’re having a lot of fun. It’s a great time to be in luxury appliances, and a great time to be part of Whirlpool, so it’s a lot of fun.

Rob Stott: Obviously, the buying group side. Well, you’re still working with buying groups, right? How’s it been different adjusting to being on the manufacturing side of the business?

Nate Puplis: It’s a good question. I mean, there’s different challenges and opportunities on each side. From the buying group perspective, you had X set of initiatives and then goals. And on the vendor side you’ve got a lot of those same goals it’s just a different lens that you hit them with. It’s a lot of fun. There’s never a dull moment, as they say.

Rob Stott: Every day keeping you on your toes over there.

Nate Puplis: That’s right.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Well, we appreciate you jumping in. We talk about your recent background, obviously, over there and we’ll dive into what you’re doing today. People that don’t know Nate Puplis, give us a little background of yourself and path through the industry.

Nate Puplis: Of course. Appreciate that. I think you could probably say I’m an old penny, I’m always turning up. I’ve been in the industry for quite a number of years. Started with Maytag, believe it or not, back in 2006 prior to the acquisition with Whirlpool. And then with that acquisition had just a number of roles there between central fulfillment, did inside sales, even worked in a call center when I first started. And then started with Mega, Mega Buying Group, in 2011 with Rick Bellows, had a lot of fun there. That was through the acquisition from Nationwide. That was 2017 I think.

Rob Stott: ’17, ’18 in that range.

Nate Puplis: ’17, ’18. And for anybody keeping score, that’s two acquired companies both starting with M and having two syllables.

Rob Stott: I mean-

Nate Puplis: It’s a track record.

Rob Stott: Right. That’s interesting. I mean, cool to see that. Well, also a coming home for you too I guess. In an essence going back-

Nate Puplis: Very much.

Rob Stott: To the Whirlpool brand and the JennAir side of the business. Obviously, an iconic brand in this industry, a steep history. I was reading up on it a little bit too about how it got started and just the way … I think the pitch on the website is how it was the rebel mindset of the brand and everything behind it. For those who may be unfamiliar, the elevator pitch on JennAir and what you guys are doing there in the luxury game.

Nate Puplis: Appreciate that. Thanks for doing your homework. If I start to get into this, the truth actually might blow you away. And yes, that was a downdraft joke. You’re welcome.

Rob Stott: I see what you did there.

Nate Puplis: Thank you, thank you very much. You go back in time and you’ve got the early 1960s, right, and you’ve got a guy whose name is Lou Jenn, he’s big with heating and cooling. This is a guy that always sees the next three steps, right, so he looks at this, and he’s looking specifically at some of the innovations that the 1950s to the 1960s kitchen introduced and one of those was a kitchen island. Something that a lot of folks, myself included, take for granted today but that wasn’t always the case, right? He knew how air moved and he wanted to make the kitchen island different, and, of course, this is the inception of the downdraft blower as we know it. Instead of pushing the air and steam up, it pulls it down and then out underneath the house or by your toes.

You look at it as a whole. JennAir has been a disruptor in terms of just innovation, and that’s cooked into the DNA of what this brand has been doing for this many years. You look at the 1960s and you’ve got certainly the downdraft. If you look at the ’80s … And Rob, this is fascinating, I don’t know if you have ever seen these. It’s the module, some people call them cartridges. Are you familiar with any of those?

Rob Stott: I can’t say that I have.

Nate Puplis: Okay. Picture this. Instead of a cooktop you’ve got just an open bay of three different spots. And so let’s say that you need some burners so you pull out your burner cartridge and you stick that in.

Rob Stott: Oh, wow.

Nate Puplis: And oh well, instead we want to grill so let’s indoor grill. So we pop the grill thing and put the grill in. It’s fascinating.

Rob Stott: That’s incredible.

Nate Puplis: I mean, completely different than nearly anything else that’s out there. Unfortunately, not in production anymore. But what I would say is they’re still around. Literally, I have dealers that are still … They can get parts for them, they still work. It’s crazy-

Rob Stott: That’s awesome.

Nate Puplis: That they’re still out there.

Rob Stott: So, obviously, something that had the support, or at least … It’s almost like a cult following nowadays I guess.

Nate Puplis: I would say that’s fair. That’s very fair. I don’t want to say there’s Facebook groups for cartridges but there certainly could be I suppose.

Rob Stott: Wouldn’t surprise me.

Nate Puplis: So you fast forward … Oh sorry, go ahead.

Rob Stott: No, it wouldn’t surprise you.

Nate Puplis: Right. You fast forward to the 2010s, and this is something that’s been out there that I don’t think we get enough credit for, and I say that candidly. Look, the Culinary Center, so this is on your phone, this is the JennAir app. It connects the Wi-Fi, it connects the app, and it connects the appliance. There’s a lot of folks that have an interface like that first, but really just calling out … JennAir was the first to the table with this, and this is something that’s really the assisted cooking side of things. Been out there for quite a while. Fast forward then to 2019, and this is really a seminal point in the history of JennAir. You’ve got the introduction of RISE and NOIR so those are our two visual aesthetics. Heavy, heavy detail-focused. Those replace the old Pro and Euro. But right as they launched the pandemic hit.

Rob Stott: Right? Interesting timing.

Nate Puplis: Well, there’s a lot of insights you can glean from the pandemic, and really have companies including Whirlpool and Nationwide have really mitigated those risks. Look, the thought here is you’ve got a heavy investment from the Whirlpool Corporation to really do it and do it right. As we fast forward to even today, it’s the launch of the group program with Nationwide. We’re really looking forward to all of the really cool tactical things that Nationwide can bring to the table specifically like PrimeTime, retail finance, web, and digital. I mean, there’s just so many cool things that are tools in the toolbox now.

Rob Stott: We’ll dive into those a little bit deeper in a minute. There’s another thing too. You mentioned RISE and NOIR, they’re the relatively newer brand new in 2019 so what coming on three, almost four years now? What is it the signature pieces or the new pieces that have that smoky, the brushed bronze look?

Nate Puplis: Oh, you’re talking about the statement pieces. Sure.

Rob Stott: Statement pieces, there we go. The other S word that I was looking for.

Nate Puplis: I get it. You got to be careful with Signature.

Rob Stott: Then the refrigerators that open up, and you got the burgundy interiors, and the snakeskin smoke tower. Or the air towers in the back. Talk about those a little bit. You say push the envelope. It’s a brand that clearly does that from a design perspective. The statement is absolutely the right word I think for not even just that specific line but the products across the portfolio there for JennAir.

Nate Puplis: I appreciate that. Within the brand itself we’ve got really two different statement pieces. And the first of which is called Smoke & Brass. This is at first pass a commercial range. But you dive in and it’s … Rob, it’s absolutely gorgeous. So these are only one-of-a-kind units. They are rise aesthetic but we put a hand-done patina on them to make them completely unique, completely bespoke. There’s only 50 of them out there.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Nate Puplis: There’s only 50. It’ll make your jaw drop. I’ll give you a funny example. This past weekend I saw a friend that had a 1963 Impala fully restored. I mean, certainly, he would say, “Oh I need to put the cap on this and I need to put the trim on that” and whatnot because that’s how a lot of these folks that do the restorations are themselves. I don’t want to say otherworldly, but there’s just something unique and at the heart of our core that you experienced these things.

I mean, I experienced this car and I thought of things like what were my parents doing in 1963 when they would’ve seen this car on the road? What were the innovations needed? Power steering, for instance, wasn’t around in this particular model. So that goes into the design of the wheel and just the overall buildout. The point I’m making is you don’t just look at a car like this you experience it. Well, I’ve only seen Smoke & Brass once and I would say it’s an experience like none other. I mean, it is truly what could be the future of really the luxury space. That’s Smoke & Brass, that’s the range.

The columns are something else. So columns we knew when we redid the brand in 2019 we would need to have and we would need to have really good ones. Fortunately, we hit a home run, our columns are second to none, it’s fantastic. Looking at where we could go as an insight, we settled on burlesque. All of our columns that are available to our trade customers have what we call the DARING OBSIDIAN INTERIOR. And this is just a beautiful black, it’s something else. You ever go to a grocery store and you see the produces against a black background? That’s by design, right? You can see the colors that makes them pop. It’s something else. We wanted to elevate that so we came out with burlesque which is very much a champagne, more of a reddish interior. Yes, they do have the snake skin on the air towers but that’s to replicate back the leather cuts on the front.

So leather cuts is something we’ve had a lot of fun with. Folks think, “Well, I would never have something like that.” Well, I’ve seen some of the customers out in the West, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado that have had some of these saddle cuts on with deer stag antlers that are just absolutely exceptional. It’s pushing the envelope of what could be. Now, are these units that are available at any given time? Potentially, but you’re not going to sell 50 Smoke & Brass, you might sell 50 of the commercial ranges. I don’t know if I would call them a concept car but it’s very close to that thought.

Rob Stott: And let’s just remind everyone, we’re talking about ranges and the interiors of refrigerators. Not even the attention to detail but just how … Listening to you describe it and the emotions that get drawn out of you thinking about these products. They’re appliances and they’re refrigerators and stoves but just the experience. It is that experience, right? And that’s the type of clients, and the type of customers, and how you have to pull that out of that. That’s what they’re looking for, right, in sort of their experience of not … Not even just the experience of going and looking for what they want in their kitchen, because it’s probably part of a large project or something that they’re doing, but that experience after the fact. Every time they open it that’s how they’re thinking about it. What do I want to experience every time I open my refrigerator to get a glass of milk out or whatever it is that they’re doing? It is such a different way of thinking. And cool to hear you go about it.

Nate Puplis: You know what’s interesting? You look at the built-in refrigerator marketplace, right? Rob, it’s fascinating. I mean, you look at these things and they’re designed to be invisible, right? So most of the luxury space is all panel ready, right, so it’s going to match what the cabinet looks like. The question then is how can you innovate and do something unique and really special within the confines of that? And that’s where DARING OBSIDIAN came in. That’s where the glass, and the metal, and the mixed metals, and the quiet stories come in. I mean, it’s not white and it’s not plastic and that’s really where we think the future of this is at.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome to hear. And like we said not too long ago, that it’s a brand that pushes the envelope, and neat to see how you guys continue to do that in so many different and unique ways. I almost feel silly following it up with such a simple question. We’re here at the start of the year as we’re doing this so it feels right to ask. How is business as we get into 2023? And we’ll dive in again to the program and everything you guys are going to be doing that excites you about the membership working with Nationwide members. Just looking at the luxury space right now, what are some of those areas of opportunity? And as we get the year ’23 kicked off, what are you looking to take advantage of?

Nate Puplis: Sure. No, that’s a completely fair question. I think if we were to really answer it, it’s important to know where we’ve been. There’s been a lot of lessons learned during the pandemic. Well in this case confront reality and really address that. As a core business unit, really it’s made us stronger, it’s made us leaner, and it’s really helped us to focus on what we think is most important. At the pinnacle of this, within specifically the luxury game, availability is king. Right now it’s the name of the game. Within JennAir we’ve got top-tier prioritization within Whirlpool family of brands. I’m happy to give you the sound bite, which you probably want to edit that part out later. We are the strongest availability in the luxury space across any vendor. We are the strongest availability.

If I look in my book of business, the longest lead time that I’m seeing right now is seven months and that’s only on a specific handful of products. If they’re looking for quality, if they’re looking for style, if they’re looking for innovation and they don’t want to wait two years, which that’s out there that that’s a thing, this could certainly be an option. I look past the availability, and really it’s the excellence of innovation. We talked briefly about the Culinary Center and the newest iterations of this, and where this is going, and the whole concept of assisted cooking.

You’ve got innovations like the DARING OBSIDIAN INTERIOR. Some classics like the chrome-infused griddle that will keep it shine for 10, 20, 30 years with minimal cooking and no abrasive chemicals. You’ve got things like the quiet story within our columns that are at 39 decibels. And our dishwashers themselves, right, the two top drivers are going to be cleanability and quiet. And we’ve got the cleanability story, we get that from some of the KitchenAid side that we’ve improved on and added some assets to. The quiet side, and we’re at 38 decibels. And I can legally say this. The quietest dishwasher in the luxury space. So we’ve got core innovation drivers.

Another big difference I think probably should be mentioned with some of the other luxury players. As part of Whirlpool, the mothership itself is US based. This is all we do, it’s just appliances. There’s no cell phones, there’s no brakes or windshield wipers, no vacuums. This is our house. We’re committed to excellence and we’re committed to the US manufacturing side of things, and also strengthening that portion of the US economy.

We need to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room and that is we have, as JennAir, no plans to go direct, right? So within the luxury space, there’s a number of systemic barriers that would probably prevent us from going to direct. And quite frankly we don’t see a value in going down that road. But maybe instead we talk about the value of the independent retailer, and that circles background to Nationwide, right? And this is the expertise, it’s the experience like you were mentioning, installation, representation. As a brand, I think we want to continue to provide tools, meaningful tools, top tier product program support for the independent retailers to really prevent a race to the bottom which I think everybody can see is certainly there. The Nationwide partnership and our investments within Nationwide are specifically a testament to that.

Rob Stott: No, no. I can turn around and say we appreciate hearing that for sure. I know there’s a bunch of listeners that will definitely … That their ears perk up when they hear that sort of stuff. But there’s also something else I want to say, and I think that Mr. Kuester if he’s listening, would appreciate you saying confront reality. A little speed of trust callback.

Nate Puplis: A little speed of trust callback.

Rob Stott: Nice to see that it sticks with you even after the fact. No.

Nate Puplis: Absolutely.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome.

Nate Puplis: I’ve got my trust cards around here somewhere except on my desk.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. No-

Nate Puplis: This is the first.

Rob Stott: Appreciate that update, and I think there’s a lot to definitely look forward to. Diving a little bit deeper. You mentioned the things that excite you about getting the JennAir program up and going here with the Nationwide family. Talk about that. What are some of those things that, as we formally roll this out to start the year that you’re looking forward to that you think our dealers could take advantage of or maybe some things they’re not thinking about right now that as this program gets going that they could leverage and lean into?

Nate Puplis: Sure. The first thing I’d think I’d start off with is this is not anything new, right? The buying groups within the scope of the US industry have done luxury programs before. JennAir even had a program with Nationwide back in 2012. It’s been around for a while but it never necessarily stuck. Kind of a circular peg round hole. You backtrack the last five years. And again, COVID, it’s just been such an interesting pressing thought. It really accelerated the need for this program. At this point, truly it’s very well dialed in. You guys do an excellent job.

I look as to the why of that, and truly it’s the program, it’s the place, and it’s the person within John O’Halloran. And John O’Halloran is just incredible. For those of you guys that don’t know, John O’Halloran is the director of luxury appliances at Nationwide. He’s not only great to work with but I really appreciate his vision of where all of this can go. And really the level of engagement and really … What’s the right word I’m looking for here? It drives so much value into the independent retail channel and I think that’s just huge.

If I look at Nationwide as a whole and the strengths, things like the digital platform is just so exciting. I hear you guys are working on version 2.0 and we’re just right there and ready. Even point of sale. Being able to see not just what dealers buy in but how we can help them through the sell-through is really just exciting to me. I think at its root, one of the things that most excites me, particularly about this partnership, is just the high level of engagement that Nationwide has with your members. You’re out there every day trying to do what’s best for them and that we’re honored to be a part of this that you guys think that this is going to be meaningful. For your membership, it’s going to be huge.

From the JennAir side, I think I would say the big thing here is we want to tell our story. There’s been massive investments made and I’d really just … I want to be able to share what it is that we’re doing. You look at the product, the people on our team, the programming behind it. Gosh, even post-purchase support, it’s truly … Rob, it’s never been better. I mean, the product itself you really just have to experience, and then all of the logistics to get there. Now, are we perfect? No, but certainly there’s the right people making decisions, pulling the right levers to be as influential and as supportive as possible. And again, this Nationwide partnership is just a step in that evolution.

Rob Stott: Not to pull on your coat or follow in your coat strings here. Sort of what you’re saying about Mr. O’Halloran, the vision was set and he’s able to … He has it and it’s clear that … It’s sort of one of those things like put him on it, step back, and let the man go to work because he’s done an awesome job just absolutely building the whole luxury initiative that he’s pulled together. It’s just been fun to watch for sure. So I can only imagine on the vendor side you guys being able to work with him, having some fun doing so. Excited to-

Nate Puplis: He is exceptional, truly exceptional.

Rob Stott: No, we appreciate it and look forward to seeing how this grows as well this partnership and the initiative.

Nate Puplis: Absolutely.

Rob Stott: Lots of opportunity, right? You mentioned it, the pandemic did a lot to … It did a lot across all channels and all industries to put the pedal to the metal and advance things faster than anyone could’ve anticipated. To see how sort of the opportunity is, I don’t think it’s ever been better for the luxury space. And dealers that are in it, and doing it right too, and really setting that experience in their stores apart. And we talked a lot about experience today. I want to bring it home on one more experience question and that’s … As you’ve seen it evolve, are there things that you think retailers could do to make it even better? Or areas of that experience that they could focus more on as JennAir comes on and get the product in their store? Part of their portfolios, what could they do to really take that client … Take that experience for the client to another level?

Nate Puplis: It’s a really good question. A couple of thoughts. The luxury experience itself at its base level, it’s a high price tag. And so with that comes high expectations. From what you’re saying I agree 100%, the experience is critical. We look back over the last maybe 10 years and really the path to purchase has evolved. I mean, you look at some of the more recent Google studies, and within the past five years being sheltered in place and whatnot has really drove the digital space forward five years. I mean, I look at my parents wanting to see my daughters and they’re on Facebook. My parents are baby boomers, my mom was born in 1944. It’s crazy to see the radical onset of digital because we needed to, right? If you look at where that sits within the luxury space. I mean, the dealer experience is let’s say 2012, top-notch showrooms, completely dialed in, well merchandised, very expert sales associates, white glove delivery team from point to … They walk into the store to they drop off the appliance just absolutely bespoke complete luxury, right?

The change though is that it is, it’s all of that, we didn’t take anything away from that. But it’s all of that plus the digital space, and the digital space has to be the differentiator. So it’s things like chat or setting an appointment or even a virtual kitchen experience on your website are huge differentiators. And back to one of the original questions. Why are we so excited to join with Nationwide? This is one of those because that helps us get in the playing field of this luxury space. Chat, set an appointment, virtual kitchens. There’s so many cool levers that we can pull now by being a part of your organization.

So we take all of that and we look to what’s next. It’s the influencers, right, and it’s folks that have a story to tell and they want to share it, and they’ve got great followings through their digital platform. Let’s take the notion of someone that purchases a luxury product in 2012, right? And so let’s say maybe you’ve got a kitchen full of appliances and you just purchased from your local retailer and you invite a chef over to show off for your friends. Well, that’s fantastic. The chef cooks a wonderful meal up, you can wash it in your very quiet dishwasher, you can open up your DARING OBSIDIAN refrigerators. You are the influencer that invited the chef over, and you shared that experience with your friends, and then your friends go “Well, this is a great brand and this is a great company to buy from being the local retailer. And so that was the scope of that.

Now, fast forward to today or even to tomorrow steps, and what can we do to not just do that because that definitely still happens, but to add to that? It’s folks that they’re doing this but they’re taking that video, they’re capturing on Reel or posting it on TikTok. They’re taking photos of this and just experience of the product, posting that on Instagram. I mean, it’s very much a humble brag but it’s the lifestyle and they’re welcoming folks to be a part of that and to see what they’re doing from their own personal design. You pair that with things like dealer reviews or salespeople reviews and you’ve really … It’s critical. The social media pieces is absolutely somewhere we need to play. And again, that speaks back to the launch of this program with Nationwide and all of the digital tools that Nationwide has that we can help capture a lot of that.

Rob Stott: No, it’s exciting times for sure, and lots of unique opportunities. For a lot of these dealers, it’s stepping maybe not necessarily on the luxury space. Thinking that those guys may or may not be more so … I’ll lean more towards the may be aware of those things, but I think to hear it, right, that’s the important thing. And reinforce that these digital spaces, the social media space, that’s where they need to play and where the opportunity for growth exists. I mean, if they’re in business right now they probably have that in-store experience down so it’s looking for those outside-of-the-box opportunities that you’re talking about, and the brands and partners to work together with to make those digital experiences top-notch as well to match what they’re doing in-store.

Nate Puplis: 100%. They don’t know what they don’t know.

Rob Stott: Right, exactly. And you’re here, we’re here, we’re all working together to help educate them. Lots of opportunity and plenty to be excited about moving forward in this year and beyond. Mr. Puplis, this was a lot of fun. I feel like we could keep going forever but we only got … The data dictates that we got to stop at a certain point and I think we’re getting there. We appreciate the time and I’m sure we’ll be catching up again down the road. Is Dallas on your radar? Will we be seeing you down there anymore?

Nate Puplis: That was going to be my next thought. I was going to say, we will see you at PrimeTime, brother, and please do stop by the Whirlpool booth. We’ll have a team there to answer questions, to talk about the programs, and really just dive in together. Come see us.

Rob Stott: Absolutely. Are you bringing any of them statement pieces because I would love to open a range? Or open the refrigerators.

Nate Puplis: Well, I’ll tell you what I’m working on it. It’s funny you mentioned being on the different sides of this, the actual logistics of getting product at the group, I’ve got a lot of respect for the folks within Whirlpool and-

Rob Stott: I can only imagine.

Nate Puplis: A lot of these other companies that have to do that and plan where the product goes when and how. TBA, TBA.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Well, either way, we’ll be looking forward to seeing you all out there. This was a lot of fun and catch up again soon, man.

Nate Puplis: That sounds great. Appreciate you, Rob, thanks.

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