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YKK Zippers: A fastenating company

Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
25 Dec 2015

YKK is a Japanese manufacturing group that has as its tagline: Everything from Z to A. That refers to their varied product line, from zippers to architectural products, and a whole lot in between, too. This multinational conglomerate is the umbrella corporation for more than 100 locations in more than 70 countries. Included is a large manufacturing plant in Macon, GA. Their products are ubiquitous and are very much a part of our everyday lives. Chances are that when you pull up the zipper on your jeans or pants, it was made by YKK, even though it may bear another label. They are the largest manufacturer of fastening devices, such as zippers, snaps and buttons, in the world. Their rise in the market is a story of making needed products, improving them and expanding into other business realms.

The Early Years

The company was founded in Tokyo before WWII, but went by a different name. They specialized in marketing fastening products. The company registered the YKK trademark, which translated means the Yoshida Manufacturing Shareholder Company. At that point in the company's history, zippers were made by hand. As you can imagine, that led to difficulties making consistently good and reliable products. So when, about four years later, they changed to mechanized zipper production using a machine purchased from the U.S., they made quantum leaps forward in the industry. As you may be aware, after WWII, the U.S. put a lot of resources into helping Japan rebuild its economy. The upgraded production methods vastly improved the quality and reliability of YKK zippers. Now they were on a roll.

In 1955, YKK opened a new plant in Kuroke, Toyama, and a little later moved YKK's headquarters to Taito, Tokyo. The forward focused company developed a design feature that proved to be extremely popular and that revolutionized clothing styles as well. It was the concealed zipper. A year later, they opened their first location overseas in New Zealand. Only a year after that, they arrived on U.S. shores, and established an office for themselves in the garment capital of the U.S., New York City.

Product Diversification Timeline

1961—Aluminum products for buildings

1966—YZip product developed. It is an extra-durable zipper for jeans. They also developed the machine to manufacture the YZip. The YZip machine incorporates the YZip into the manufacturing process of jeans as they are being sewn, which increased U.S. sales.

Late 1960s and 1970s—This decade saw further expansion of YKK in Japan, and fresh penetration into the North American continent with the establishment of a Montreal, Quebec Canadian headquarters. Expansion into the entire sub-Saharan region began when YKK opened a fastener factory in Swaziland.

Expansion by Product Lines

This timeline will reveal the meteoric global growth of YKK's business:

1981—Quicklon (AKA Cosmolon) fasteners

1984—Real Estate business in Singapore

1985—Agricultural business in Brazil

1986—Zippers and aluminum parts for buildings in Indonesia

Expansion by Company Identities

1994—Company renamed YKK

2000—YKK Newmax Co., Ltd. Producing snaps and buttons

2003—YKK Fastening Product Sales, Inc., specializing in sales; YKK AP Inc., specializing in architectural products

2007—Troubled waters: YKK was fined by the European commission for price-fixing allegations with fellow zipper makers, Prym and Coats.

Current Product Lines

YKK identifies three major product divisions: fastening products, architectural products and machinery and engineering. Fastening products include zippers, buttons and snaps, hook and loop fasteners (Quicklon) and fabric tapes and plastic products. Architectural products, the newest division, is expanding into windows, doors and building facades. The machinery and engineering group supplies the specialized machinery used in manufacturing fastening and architectural products for YKK factories around the world. Their goal is to have an integrated production system that spans the entire process from materials to manufacturing to final products.

That integrated approach to business is typical of what Japanese companies try to do. An example of that jumped out at us when we were in Australia visiting the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns. The folks there were shaking their heads at that business model, which they saw operating close up and personal. Their observation was that at first the Japanese came in to take Australian tours and boats to the reef with their own tour groups. Then they began to have their own boats to carry those tourists to the reef. Then, of course, the tourists had to have someplace to stay, so they built their own hotels and restaurants. Now, it seems that they have encompassed the entire Japanese tourists' Australian experiences to the point where the Australians felt they left very little Yen in the host country. I don't know if that's entirely accurate, but some locals are really worked up about it. Then again, it could be just a touch of xenophobia—or simply an observation of the smart, but exclusionary, model of the Japanese way of doing business. I'll let the readers draw their own conclusions. As an outside observer of both the Japanese and Australian cultures, I'll try to maintain a certain objectivity.

The Founder's Philosophy

The founder of YKK, Tadao Yoshida, had an overall philosophy of business, which the company strives to follow to this day. He believed that no one prospers without rendering benefit to others because companies exist within societies, and they must be a positive force in society.

To do that, he emphasized creating value through innovative ideas and inventions. Yoshida predicted that model would bring prosperity to the company as well as provide value to consumers and partners in the enterprise. YKK's growth and success over the years seems to prove him right. We've already discussed the company's innovative introduction of covered, hidden zippers. Another example is when YKK developed the machine that allowed the zippers to be integrated into the jean manufacturing process, an innovation that certainly benefited society as well as turbo-charging the company's development.

More efficiency and lower product rejection rates naturally leads to more profit, but also helps preserve limited natural resources, another focus of Yoshida's philosophy. That philosophy is consistent with Buddhist and Shinto beliefs. Yoshida believed in the "cycle of goodness" where not just one person prospers, but the growth and success of the company would have a ripple effect throughout the economy.

In conclusion, if and when you visit Japan, you'll likely come back a changed person after you see the way Japanese products, activities and way of life conserve energy and materials. For instance, the Japanese homes and apartments that we lived in had effective, very efficient and quiet room air conditioning systems. The hot water for our bathroom was heated on demand, (rather than being constantly kept heated, just in case we needed a bath in the middle of the night.) Yet, the water was heated quickly and reliably, and there was an ample supply of hot water. The system was located close to the bathtub and it, too, operated quietly. Overall, I'd describe the Japanese designs in general as "elegant," borrowing a helpful term from engineering and math. These systems are available in the U.S., but not used widely. Here, we're used to hot water and AC/heat immediately available 24/7, and we want the products to be as inexpensive as possible.

Photo credits Masaru Kamikura

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