This story is part of GlobalAtlanta’s exclusive Japan special issue. Click here to read more.
When his three-year tour in the U.S. Navy ended in the early 1970s, Eatonton, Ga., native Alex Gregory wasn’t planning to work for a Japanese company.
All he knew was that he and his wife wanted to move back to middle Georgia.
Through a friend, he heard that a Japanese company in his wife’s hometown, Macon, was looking for someone who knew textile engineering, the field he studied at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“I didn’t know where Japan was on the map probably, and I didn’t know exactly what they were doing, what the company was all about,” Mr. Gregory told GlobalAtlanta.
The job interview was rocky, but he was hired in 1973 as one of the first employees at YKK’s new Macon facility. At the time YKK, best known for its zippers, and electronics maker Murata were the pioneering Japanese manufacturers in Georgia.
Fast-forward 35 years, and Mr. Gregory has become president and CEO of YKK Corp. of America, the Marietta-based holding company for 14 YKK subsidiaries with operations throughout North and Central America.
He took up the post in 2002, becoming the first American to run one of YKK’s six worldwide regional companies. He’s also the first to be appointed as a group officer for the privately held Tokyo-based parent company, which employs about 40,000 people worldwide through 120 companies in 70 countries.
In June 2008, he was elected to YKK Corp.’s board of directors in Japan, another first.
Mr. Gregory first went to Japan in October 1973. The Macon plant opened the following January.
The transition was surprisingly seamless, considering that Japanese manufacturers had no example to follow in Georgia, he said.
“We had concerns when we were over in Japan planning the first plant here in Macon in terms of what sort of cultural problems or issues we might run into,” Mr. Gregory said. “But actually, things went very smoothly and the Macon community welcomed us and made us feel right at home here from the very beginning.”
Since then, Mr. Gregory has watched the company thrive through a variety of challenges.
In the late 1980s, to decouple from its strict dependence on the apparel industry, YKK began making architectural building products.
Though best known for its original business – zippers and fastening products – YKK now generates two-thirds of its revenue from its architectural products business under the banner of YKK AP.
But YKK didn’t abandon apparel, even as textile manufacturers left the U.S. to begin sourcing from Mexico, Central America, China, Vietnam and other places with relatively low labor costs, Mr. Gregory said.
In 2003, Mr. Gregory launched the Competitive YKK Macon Initiative, aimed at keeping its textile manufacturing plants in Macon open and profitable in the face of overseas competition.
He met with workers in Macon in small groups to explain the competition the company was facing and why it needed to cut wages and benefits, including his own.
Out of some 800 employees, very few complained, and many appreciated the company’s candor, he said.
Most offered this sentiment: “Do whatever you need to do to protect our jobs,” he said.
Mr. Gregory also met with the Macon mayor and local leaders to explain the changes, a move he said gained YKK respect in the community.
Pat Topping, who joined the Macon Economic Development Commission in 1999, said he hasn’t seen another company show such dedication to keeping the community updated.
“When they were going through that textile industry change, President [Tadahiro] Yoshida [son of the YKK Group founder] even came to Macon to make sure that we understood his commitment was still to Macon, his heart was still in Macon and that their plan was to stay in Macon,” said Mr. Topping, senior vice president for the commission.
This January, the company made some different changes at higher levels.
It promoted Michael Blunt as its new president for YKK (U.S.A.) Inc., based in Marietta with manufacturing in Macon. Mr. Blunt will also serve as the head of YKK Corp. of America’s fastening business for North and Central America, a newly created position.
Along with other adjustments, these will help streamline the company’s organizational structure in order to approach customers with “one company” instead of many disparate subsidiaries, one of Mr. Gregory’s longtime goals.
‘A great partner’
Although employment numbers have shrunk from a high of 1,200 nearly a decade ago to about 700 today, YKK still has six plants at its National Manufacturing Center in Macon. The company makes millions of zippers there daily, as well as vinyl windows for residential construction.
In Dublin, Ga., another 475 workers are employed under the banner of YKK AP America Inc., which makes aluminum architectural products for commercial buildings including entrances, storefronts, windows and sliding doors.
In total, YKK Corp. of America employs more than 1,400 in the state.
Historically, though, YKK has done more in Georgia than just create jobs at its own factories.
Since then-Gov. Jimmy Carter welcomed YKK to Georgia in 1973, the company has been an unofficial liaison for Japanese companies looking to invest in the state.
There has been no shortage of such activity the past 20 years. Today, the Georgia Department of Economic Development estimates that about 350 Japanese companies have operations in the state, partly thanks to YKK.
“YKK has certainly been a great partner over the years. They have taken a leadership role in efforts to highlight the benefits of investing in Georgia,” Ken Stewart, commissioner of the economic development department, told GlobalAtlanta in an e-mail. “Their participation has been most valuable in recruiting companies to Georgia.”
The activism and willingness to help comes from YKK founder Tadao Yoshida’s philosophy on doing business, the “Cycle of Goodness.” Its central tenet is, “No one prospers unless he renders benefit to others.”
To that end, YKK builds quality products, works to build better lives for company employees and seeks to improve the communities where the company is active, Mr. Gregory said.
Takeshi Saito, chief executive director of the Japan External Trade Organization’s Atlanta office, said YKK has contributed significantly to business and cultural exchange between Japan and the Southeast.
“They provide not only products but also they have contributed so much for the Japanese community as well as the American community,” he said.
YKK has sponsored exchange fellowship programs, promoted Macon’s International Cherry Blossom Festival and helped maintain Macon’s sister city relationship with the Japanese city of Kurobe, where YKK was founded, Mr. Saito said.
Mr. Topping of the economic development commission said YKK played a behind-the-scenes role in welcoming executives from Nichiha U.S.A. Inc., a concrete fiber producer, when it opened its first U.S. operation in Macon in October 2007.
‘We’re doing our best’ in recession
The Cycle of Goodness calls for the expansion of the company’s ideals to as many parts of the globe as possible.
Right now, that translates to about 70 countries, which means YKK can’t help but feel the pinch of the global recession.
“But we’re doing the best we can in recession although we’re struggling just like most other businesses,” Mr. Gregory said. “We remain very optimistic during this tumultuous time.”
He compared the 2008 recession with 2001, when orders ground to a near halt in the latter half of the year, a condition that was worsened by the general downturn in the economy following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Last year, YKK’s apparel retailers began having trouble in August and September, and its building products have suffered as commercial real estate markets slowed, following the path of the tumbling housing sector, which many economists have said kick-started the financial crisis.
Mr. Gregory remains hopeful that the economy will pick back up in late 2009, as some economists have predicted.
He mentioned significant growth over the years for YKK in the automotive sector, where the company’s zippers are used to affix upholstery snugly to seats.
He said the presence of foreign automakers in the South is a relatively recent development in that business. It started with the “Big Three” American automakers in Detroit.
The recession has provided valuable lessons about the interconnectedness of global markets, he added.
“The customers are still here, and this economic downturn around the world has taught us how dependent the global economy and the rest of the world are on the U.S. economy,” Mr. Gregory said.
“We’re trying to use this opportunity to make improvements throughout all of our companies. I hope that most of our employees are upbeat looking forward to when the economy does turn around,” he said.