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Sub-Zero: the home appliance company leaving competitors out in the cold

The Rolls Royce of refrigerators
The Rolls Royce of refrigerators 04:17

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 appliance's handle. "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 refrigerator, owned by celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, starts at a cool cost of $9,000, but Bakke told CBS News correspondent Rita Braver that the high price 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 dramatic welcome center underscores the company's upscale image.

"That's what we're selling here: lifestyle, absolutely," he said. 

But there was nothing glamorous going on 77 years ago, when the company started out in a Madison garage.

Bakke said Westye Bakke, his grandfather and the 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 only three employees, including his son, Bud, who is Jim Bakke's father.

The company's museum features Sub-Zero innovations: Westye Bakke was the first to make an upright freezer with doors opening out as well as the first to create separately sealed refrigerator and freezer compartments in one unit.

"He could maintain temperatures down below zero, which was hard to do back in those days, so hence, he called his company Sub-Zero," Jim Bakke said.

Since 2000, the company has also made wolf ranges, but it's their sleek refrigerator models that can be covered in almost anything that make them a favorite of interior designers.

Designer Mick Degiulio told Braver that he has used Sub-Zero products in scores of kitchens.

"I've gone back to the project 25 years later, and the Sub-Zero is still there working," he said. 

And every one of the appliances is made in the U.S., mostly in Fitchburg. About 2,000 of the company's 3,000 employees work in that factory.

Every one of the refrigerators is put through intensive quality testing with a specially designed computer program.

"It's something that is exclusive to Sub-Zero that we actually do 100% testing on everything that we manufacture," Bakke said. 

The company even grows its own lettuce to make sure it stays fresh after two weeks in a Sub-Zero refrigerator. 

And if the company's attention to detail seems frozen in time, Bakke says, it's not about cold, hard cash. He said the idea of selling the company would be almost like "selling one of my children."

"My grandfather and my dad gave me such a wonderful opportunity," he said, "and to sell it, to make some more money, I have no interest in that."

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