The ups and downs of the zipper business

I never thought about zippers one way or the other while I was growing up.  You did not want to get anything caught in your zipper and you didn’t want to get embarrassed with your zipper down.

A great college friend of mine joined a Japanese company, YKK, right out of college.  Their primary business was zippers.  I gave my buddy a bit of grief that he had gone through four years of college work for a zipper company.  Just shows you how much I know.

Brian Miller was my friend that joined the world’s largest zipper company.  He was a naturally talented musician.  I took classical piano for years and he was just born with an “ear” for music.  I was insanely jealous of him at the time, but at the same time he admired my ability to read music.

Brian spent his entire career with YKK, while based out of El Paso.  We would occasionally meet up with other college friends to play golf, cards and share old times.  It was always so easy with Brian.  I would talk a bit about burgers, he would talk about bit about zippers, and then we would just enjoy catching up about life.

This past week I have been attending the Georgia Municipal Association Convention in Savannah along with most of my colleagues on the City Council.  Imagine my surprise when one of the speakers was Alex Gregory, who had been the Chairman of YKK America.

YKK is a company that has survived by adjusting to the changing world.  Denim jeans were the product that brought YKK to the pinnacle of American manufacturing.  In 1990, there were 59 jeans manufacturing plants in the United States.  By 2006, the number of jeans plants was zero.  By this time the oddly named Japanese manufacturer of zippers had already long established themselves in Macon and Dublin.

YKK realized there was no long term future in their current business model, no matter how many zippers were needed.  The company explored other areas that might be complimentary to their existing manufacturing capabilities.  YKK expanded their operations into automobiles, specialty clothing, the medical field, and aluminum for commercial buildings.

Despite the declining need for labor for the original zippers, the company managed to diversify in such a way that the YKK currently employs over 1,600 employees in central Georgia. As jeans manufacturing moved offshore, YKK’s move into other growing parts of the economy allowed them to expand even as their original business stagnated.

This innovative company even began working with the space industry.  In fact, one of the other speakers at the conference was Joan Higginbotham, a former NASA astronaut on the International Space Station.  Ms. Higginbotham was wearing an astronaut’s jumpsuit for her presentation.  When Mr. Gregory checked, sure enough the zipper on that iconic piece of NASA clothing was made by YKK.

YKK has even become involved in the Cherry Blossom Festival in Macon, which now features over 350,000 Yoshino Cherry trees and is rated as one of the top festivals in the South.

Gregory and his vision for YKK in the United States started with their first manufacturing facility in the United States built in Macon in 1972.  Over time YKK’s innovative responses to the changing world has turned out to be one of the great manufacturing success stories of Georgia.  And to think, it all started with a zipper.

o0o

Dan Ponder can be reached at dan@ponderenterprises.net

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