When her husband died unexpectedly in 1949, Mabel Simmers was forced to take over the family business — Mt. Vernon N.Y.-based County Refrigeration Services, Inc. It was rough going at first, Mabel used to tell her grandchildren. The unions that supplied her labor struck because they didn’t like the idea of reporting to a female owner. Other distributors tested her by occasionally encroaching on her territory, which included wealthy Westchester and Pelham Counties.
Finally, as family legend would have it, Jim Hory, a local Chevrolet dealer and family friend, came to Mabel’s side. Chevrolet and Frigidaire were both divisions of General Motors at the time. Hory told the labor union to back off and the other dealers to play fair. Thanks to this friendly intervention, Mabel, who was no doubt one of the few female business owners in the New York refrigeration and HVAC distribution business, held her own. In fact, she did well enough to maintain the business into her sixties, retire, and turn it over to her son. Unfortunately, the business was unable to survive a turbulent period for Frigidaire distributors during the mid-to-late 1970s.
Today, nothing but a foundation stands at 110 Haven Avenue in Mount Vernon, where County Refrigeration used to be located, and where the very able Mabel posed for a Yellow Pages ad. But the place was a whirlwind of activity in the late 1960s. The telephone room, located adjacent to Mabel’s glass-walled office, was an incredible tangle of wires. Busy salespeople sat out in the main, paneled office space. A soda machine behind a bar dispensed ginger ale.
The outfit sold commercial-grade refrigeration and HVAC equipment to restaurants, hotels, and other commercial users, a big growth business during the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Frigidaire, a company that developed many of the innovations we take for granted in appliances today — the combined refrigerator/freezer and automatic icemakers, to name two — was a great brand to sell.
Mabel’s husband, Hugh Simmers, who was born in Scotland and immigrate to the United States in 1919 at the age of 24, was a salesperson for Frigidaire before he was granted his own dealership. Simmers used to tell his children that his “most important” client was President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He sold and serviced the equipment at Roosevelt’s Hyde Park estate.
Thanks to a culture of innovation, the Frigidaire brand prospered during the 50s and 60s despite pressure from imports that led to price cutting by domestic firms. Several U.S. companies weren’t as lucky. White Consolidated Industries, which got its start making sewing machines, emerged as a big player during this period, buying up many former high-flying appliance companies, including Kelvinator, Westinghouse, and Philco.
Competitive pressures eventually caught up with Frigidaire in the early 70s. After layoffs and a new labor agreement, GM tried to win back lost market share by cutting prices. The tactic seemed to make the problem worse. Then in 1975, when the automobile air conditioning business picked up, GM separated that business from Frigidaire, creating a new division, Delco Air Conditioning. By 1978, Frigidaire was losing an estimated $40 million on sales of $450 million.
The following year, in January 1979, General Motors announced it had sold Frigidaire to White Consolidated Industries, which continued the Frigidaire name, product line, and distribution. But the division’s facilities in Dayton were retained by GM and expanded into automotive operations.
Under its new owners, Frigidaire shifted from an emphasis on industry-leading innovation to the pursuit of manufacturing efficiency. WCI cut administrative and production costs, eliminating research and development at Frigidaire. WCI also switched the company’s marketing promise. Instead of emphasizing cutting-edge design, the Frigidaire brand was promoted as reliable, with the slogan “Here today, here tomorrow.”