One Of America’s Best Manufacturers Is This Japanese Zipper Maker

By Forbes

A strong piece of evidence in support of the many current calls to reshore American manufacturing is the tremendous performance by the many thousands of existing producers already working here.

I already knew one such standout U.S. manufacturer: Carhartt, the maker of working apparel, which I wrote about recently. As a result of that article, I learned about another: YKK, maker of zippers, other fasteners, and much more. (Who invented the zipper? Learn more here.) I found out that Carhartt became a major customer of theirs all the way back in 1974. That year Carhartt bought a million YKK zippers; today they buy about 40 million per year globally. I remember seeing the “YKK” stamp on the zipper pull of my blue jeans back when I was a kid, and it’s right there on the Wranglers I’m wearing today. Clearly they’re an American mainstay.

But they’re Japanese-owned. Founded in 1934, YKK Corporation is headquartered in Tokyo, has 46,000 employees in more than 70 countries, and has annual revenue of over $7 billion. In addition to fasteners, the company manufactures architectural products and industrial machinery, and provides engineering and technical services. They’re one of the world’s leading zipper manufacturers, making enough every year to circle the earth 80 times.

They first came to America in 1960, establishing a sales office in the garment district in New York City. YKK founder Tadao Yoshida was a big believer in vertical integration, and his goal was to build a U.S. organization following that model. With the garment industry at that time centered in the southeastern states, he crossed paths with then-Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, and they became lifelong friends. In 1974, YKK acquired 54 acres in Macon, Georgia, and built a factory there. That began YKK’s commitment to American manufacturing, which would eventually grow to over 700 acres across the country as the company’s U.S. business grew solidly over most of the next two decades. But that commitment would eventually be seriously challenged when most American textiles manufacturing was sent overseas in the 1990s.

“Our culture is to focus on the long-term success of our customers and employees,” said Jim Reed, President, YKK Corporation of America. “That’s part of YKK’s philosophy of the ‘Cycle of Goodness’— no one prospers without rendering benefit to others. That came from our founder, who declared that the company is more than a profit-making machine.” He was decades ahead of his time with that now-popular notion, but that didn’t make it easy to survive the huge downturn of the U.S. apparel business at the end of the 20th century.

But YKK’s commitment to America was real. The company not only survived, but prospered, through diversification. They began selling their fasteners into new markets such as automotive, safety, medical, hygiene and even military and space applications. That’s also when they expanded their U.S. business in architectural products such as doors, windows and curtain walls.