Margaret Mimbs was 26 years old when she began working at the YKK zipper plant in Macon.
It was less than a month after the company and the community celebrated the grand opening of the $15 million manufacturer Oct. 18, 1974.
It was Mimbs’ first full-time job.
“I was newly divorced with four kids, and I needed a job,” she said. “My intentions were to stay until I got married again.”
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Even though Mimbs, now 66, remarried not long after joining the company, she is still employed at YKK USA Inc. -- originally YKK Industries -- on Ocmulgee East Industrial Park in Bibb County.
“I really love it,” she said. “I have no intention of leaving.”
She is one of several longtime employees at YKK’s fastener plant, which employs about 600 workers.
While YKK in Macon has gone through recessions, upheavals in the textile industry, downsizing and a challenging economy, the company has remained committed to Macon for the past 40 years.
“This commitment has carried through as the economy and the world has changed,” said Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission. “YKK’s Japanese leadership remains committed to Macon. They have publicly stated that Macon is their home, and they will always be a friend of Macon and Georgia.”
Even though the grand opening was held in October 1974, the plant actually began operating in the spring of that year.
Annie Curry, 62, was among the first employees when she came in May 1974. It’s the only company she’s ever worked for.
“Well, I do like my job,” Curry said. “I’ve pretty much stayed in my department for the whole 40 years.”
Employee Betty Bond, 63, started on the same day as Curry. She had worked for nine months at the former Macon Shirt Co. before coming to YKK. Bond said she has enjoyed the experiences she’s had -- and learning about the Japanese culture.
YKK CHOOSES MACON
YKK was founded by Tadao Yoshida in Tokyo, Japan, in 1934 -- 80 years ago this year -- and it picked Macon for the company’s first U.S. zipper manufacturing plant.
“In 1972, the company was looking for 11 acres for a small zipper plant in Georgia,” said Alex Gregory, chairman, president and CEO of Marietta-based YKK Corporation of America, the parent company for YKK in Macon. A native of Eatonton, Gregory was hired in 1973 as part of a team of engineers for the first 258,000-square-foot facility.
Macon resident Cloyd Hall, who was a special assistant to then-Gov. Jimmy Carter in the early ‘70s, first introduced YKK to Macon.
Then other factors played into Macon’s favor.
Interstate 16 was being built from Savannah’s port to Macon. The county agreed to deed land to the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority to be developed as a new industrial park. The county also agreed to increase its water and sewerage capacity to 1 million gallons a day.
The county persuaded YKK to buy a site of more than 50 acres, and the company agreed to build its plant and employ 500 to 700 workers.
Yoshida attended the grand opening celebration, which included unzipping a large zipper on a door leading to the plant’s front office.
“Joy comes not in profit alone but in giving something to the people of an area,” Yoshida said in 1974, according to a newspaper article. “I feel this joy at this moment.”
The company celebrates its Founders Day on Oct. 18 each year and gives its Macon employees the day off. This year, employees will get Friday off.
Early on, Yoshida’s philosophy, which he called the “cycle of goodness,” became the company’s mission. It means no one prospers unless he renders benefit to others, and the company continues to follow that philosophy, Gregory said.
Today, Tadahiro “Tad” Yoshida, son of the founder, now guides the privately held company with the same mission. YKK operates more than 108 companies in more than 570 locations in 71 countries, employing more than 40,700 workers worldwide.
“YKK has made a significant contribution to Macon, the region and the state,” Topping said. “They have been involved in everything from the Cherry Blossom Festival, Sister Cities program, education, civic activities, (the Greater Macon) Chamber of Commerce, numerous community activities and state associations. And they have employed thousands of Georgians, paying millions in wages and taxes.
“YKK has made their imprint on Macon and made this a better community.”
The Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority and the state have invested in YKK through grants and tax credits “to encourage (its) growth and stability in our community,” he said.
ZIPPERS NOT JUST FOR JEANS
Five million zippers are made in Macon every day, said Lee Smith, YKK’s vice president of manufacturing operations in Macon.
“That’s not the entire zipper, but that’s the slider, the moving part that’s on the zipper. Out of the 5 million made every day, 2.5 million are exported.”
The other 2.5 million are consumed in the North and Central America region, Smith said. The same is true of brass wire.
“There are only two wire plants for YKK in the world,” he said. “There is one in Japan and one in Macon, Georgia. We ship to 12 different countries and 14 different factories.”
Smith was born and raised in Macon and has been with YKK for 35 years, starting when he was 18.
In the beginning, YKK used a “vertical” manufacturing structure. It produced everything used to make a zipper, including brass, aluminum, polyester and yarn, Gregory said. That has changed over time. The tape or fiber part of zippers is no longer made in Macon.
YKK manufactures primarily zippers, but also snaps, buttons, hook-and-loop fasteners and plastic hardware.
Employees are kept informed about what the company needs to do to stay competitive and why they need to keep the customer in mind.
“We tell them, ‘You are not making a 6-cent zipper; you are making a $250 pair of jeans,’ ” Gregory said.
Jean zippers aren’t the only kinds of zippers YKK makes. It makes silent zippers used by soldiers on the battlefield. It makes fire-retardant zippers used by firemen, and it even makes air-tight, water-tight zippers.
“That product goes to outer space, and it goes to the bottom of the ocean,” Smith said. “We teach our employees that someone’s life is going to depend on our zipper.”
YKK also makes zippers large and tough enough go on pool covers and ones small and delicate enough to go on a silk blouse. It makes zippers for the automobile industry and ones that protect health care workers from diseases, such as Ebola.
COMPANY RESTRUCTURES, INNOVATES
YKK is divided into six regions. Gregory is responsible for the region stretching from Canada to the northern part of South America.
Some of the companies in that region do the same thing. For example, YKK El Salvador does the same thing that YKK Macon does, he said. Originally these companies primarily served their own market. One of the reasons YKK wanted to locate in Georgia was because most of the textile plants were located in the South. But there are fewer YKK companies now serving much larger areas. Macon’s YKK is a hub for the whole region.
“We’ve gone through a lot of restructuring over the years,” Gregory said.
During its peak employment of about 1,100 workers in 2000-2001, YKK was the largest manufacturer in the world for zippers.
Gregory said he’s often asked why YKK has downsized.
“And I say, ‘Because of you and me,’ ” he said. “Because we go out and buy less expensive garments, and so we’ve told the retailers that we want our clothes to be cheap.”
There were 59 brand-name jean manufacturers -- YKK’s biggest customers -- in the U.S. in the late 1990s. By mid-2000, “they were all gone,” he said.
Greg George, associate professor of economics and director of the Center for Economic Analysis at Middle Georgia State College, said that in general, economic activity in this country is becoming increasingly concentrated.
“The trend over the past 30 years has been a slow but steady decline in manufacturing,” George said.
Smith, head of Macon’s manufacturing plant, said one way YKK survives here -- even though its labor costs are higher in the U.S. -- is through innovation.
“The USA is competitive with all the other countries in holding down manufacturing costs, through our innovation and things like that,” Smith said. “We have to absorb that labor to still be competitive.”
The company develops new products here that will be produced in other countries. Also, YKK products have been standardized around the world.
“It takes 10 seconds to say (that), but it took years to accomplish,” Gregory said.
YKK manufactures its own machinery, and “it’s not just the machinery that we use to make zippers. Customers use our machines to install our products in their products,” Gregory said. “And we don’t sell a cut zipper; we sell them a continuous chain. So they don’t have to keep inventory of different size zippers. They cut it whatever length they need.”
It used to take YKK weeks to make a sample of a new style pull on a zipper.
“We got into 3-D printing,” Gregory said. “We can print a slider tab out of resin. ... So now in minutes and for 50 cents, we can make a sample that used to take us weeks and hundreds of dollars. ... It revolutionized our business.”
“There’s only one company (in the region) that’s making architectural products, and that’s YKK AP America,” Gregory said.
YKK AP began making architectural products -- such as doors and windows -- out of aluminum in Japan in the 1950s.
In May 1990, YKK announced that it would build a $45 million aluminum plant on 202 acres in Dublin. The plant, which opened in 1992, focuses on products for the commercial industry.
The company began production of architectural products for the residential market on its Macon campus in 2007. This past July, YKK AP announced it plans to double its production capacity at the Macon plant by January 2015. It employs about 100 people.
It is using some space the zipper plant no longer needs.
“Currently, we have 2.5 million square feet of manufacturing space here in Macon,” Gregory said. “Unfortunately, some of it’s empty.”
Once the YKK AP expansion is complete, about 25 percent of YKK’s total square footage will be empty.
While YKK came to Macon for one reason, it stayed in Macon for a related but different reason, Gregory said.
“We came to Macon looking for 11 acres to build a small manufacturing plant to service nearby apparel-related industries,” he said. “We stayed in Macon because of the community and the relationship that we’ve enjoyed with the community. It’s that commitment that the founder had and now the son has to Macon.”
To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.