If you are wearing something that has a zip, have a closer look at it and there’s a fair chance that you’ll see the letters YKK embossed on the puller. It doesn’t matter if it’s a high-end designer brand or cheap high-street label, the YKK legend appears with astonishing regularity. And it’s not just on clothing.
YKK zips appear on furniture, luggage, sports equipment and pretty much anywhere zips are used. Estimates vary, but it’s believed that 50 percent of all zips in the world are made by this one company — just over 7.2 billion zippers come out of its factories each year. It seems strange that one company can totally dominate a market and become so ubiquitous, yet be virtually anonymous, so here is some background.
YK stands for Yoshida Kogyo Kabushiki Gaisha – meaning “Yoshida Manufacturing Corporation” — a Japanese company established in 1934. Although YKK has branched out and now makes other products (mostly aluminium building materials), zips still represent the core of its business.
Unlike many huge manufacturing companies, however, the work has not all been farmed out to China, Vietnam, Bangladesh or other locations where the products can be made at the cheapest price. In fact, its biggest factory is in Macon, Georgia in the United States. So why not follow the route of so many others and try to maximize profits by outsourcing to the countries with cheap factory labour?
The answer is that YKK could do this, and save money to try and improve its bottom line, but it would be a very short-term gain as the quality would almost certainly drop and a faulty zip can ruin a business as fast as it can ruin a $2,000 dress. It is a strangely overlooked fact, but an expensive dress, pair of trousers or holdall is essentially useless (and therefore worthless) if the zip breaks, as that’s one thing that is not easy to replace on an item.
After all, when was the last time you replaced the zip on anything? So the company relies on quality, and companies around the world seemingly reciprocate by relying on YKK.
The threat comes from the 1,000 or so Chinese manufacturers (that supply most of the other 50 percent of the world’s zips) who have reverse-engineered YKK zips from the 1980s and are undercutting it in the market. Such is the way of modern manufacturing. But in an age where so many industries are churning out a cheaper product with fewer resources and lower wages, it’s heartening to see a corporation dominate the market by looking at quality as being key.
The founder, Tadao Yoshida, based his company on a philosophy of what he called a “virtuous cycle,” and a belief that “no one prospers unless he renders benefit to others”. Using this principle, he endeavoured to create the best zips in the market that would hold up over time. This in turn would benefit both the manufacturers who used his zips and the customer, and ultimately benefit his company with higher repeat and referral sales, thus completing the “Cycle of Goodness”. And, against multiple Chinese copies, YKK is holding onto its philosophy, and profits are up on last year.
Now there’s a bit of Zen business wisdom to ponder next time you zip up following a pre-meeting visit to the gents.
For Esquire magazine, January 2014
For the original PDF click here – 2014_JAN_Zips