When was the last time you looked closely at a zipper? For Andreas Brandenburger, Sales and Marketing Manager for the Germany business at YKK and with the company for over 30 years, this is part of his everyday business. In this interview with J-BIG, he demonstrates that there is more to discover than meets the eye. A conversation about quality, innovation, and Japanese philosophy that has changed our view on a mechanism we use every day.
J-BIG: Mr. Brandenburger, first off: What is the correct pronunciation of “YKK” in the German context?
Andreas Brandenburger: In Germany, we want to be perceived primarily as a German company – we secure German jobs, we produce in Germany, and we cater to German needs. That’s why we tend to talk about “Ypsilon Kah Kah” in this country. But like all companies, our business relationships are becoming more international, and so the international pronunciation of “YKK” is slowly gaining a foothold in Germany, as well.
Some customers from the early days even know us as ” Yoshida,” the name of our founder, and still address us that way sometimes. From my point of view, the fact that we have been able to maintain close customer relations over such a long period of time is in itself a source of pride.
J-BIG: How does YKK position itself as an overall group?
Andreas Brandenburger: When asked what YKK actually does, I always give the intentionally trivial answer “We make zippers”. Once people look in their wardrobes and see that our zippers are sewn into many of their pants and jackets, it’s often an eye-opener. In the apparel sector in particular, we are at the forefront of the global market.
In Germany, this is in fact the focus of our activities, but globally, the zipper business accounts for about 40 percent of our sales. The rest is mainly architectural products: Facade elements, windows, doors, front gardens, sunrooms. There is even a YKK Building in Tokyo, where you can admire many of our architectural products live. This business area is very strong in Asia and North America, but almost no one in Europe is familiar with this mainstay of YKK – there is no separate sales department for it here, either. In Japan and the USA, skyscrapers or high-rise buildings are built in a very standardized way, whereas in Europe, it is more common to have each window configurated individually. That is, of course, a hurdle for market entry. Nevertheless, we opened a German branch for the segment in 2017 to study the European market.
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Our main German business, on the other hand, has been going for a long time. We build our own machines, for example for zipper production, in-house in the Group. There are almost no suppliers who produce such machines, but they are an important factor for quality. For jeans zippers made of metal, for example, it is crucial how fine the technical clearances are, so that no burrs are produced during cutting and the zippers do not have sharp edges. In order to have control over quality here, we simply build the machines ourselves.
J-BIG: What makes a good zipper – and is it a measure of quality in clothing?
Andreas Brandenburger: We are not a brand that is front and center – you don’t buy your pants because they have a zipper from YKK. Therefore, we are not always present or visible to the end customer. In general, I think it’s fair to say that you only really start to notice a zipper once it’s stuck. As long as it runs smoothly, you as the end customer probably don’t think much about it, and that’s how it should be. A high-quality zipper is user-friendly and causes no problems – neither during processing at the garment manufacturer nor when it is used by the end customer.
Which specific requirements a zipper has to meet depends on what it is used for. Zippers are divided into three product categories: First, there are plastic spirals, like the ones you know from cotton pants, shoes or even tents. Work clothes and mattresses also usually have this type of zipper. Secondly, we produce metal zippers – these are used, for example, in parkas or jeans. Such denim zippers are our best-known product, and the media regularly features an article on the question “Why does it say YKK on my zipper?” The third type of zipper is one you know from children’s and sportswear: plastic teeth zippers. Basically, these are serrated plastic tracks injection-molded into shape. This shape gives them certain properties advantageous for particular fields of application or just looks more appealing.
Each of these three categories has its own requirements and quality criteria. Take, for example, a spiral six millimeters in width: You will find such a zipper in shoes, workwear or even the bags of leaf vacuums. Each of these applications has a specific requirement profile, but at the moment we manufacture the zipper, we usually don’t yet know what the customer wants to do with it. Our aspiration is therefore to manufacture the product in such a way that it has multiple potential use scenarios. On the one hand, this is good for our customers, and on the other, it gives us the opportunity to sell the product globally without having to worry about technical standards in individual markets. Our standard values are sometimes significantly higher than the local DIN – so we are always on the safe side and can guarantee the highest quality. In fact, we have defined many of the current quality standards ourselves.
J-BIG: What do such quality standards specify?
Andreas Brandenburger: They mimic practical applications. First of all, a size is defined so that both the industry user and the consumer have an overview of which products are available on the market. Since 2016, there is also a new European standard that assigns zippers to certain product categories. Depending on the category, there are different requirements in terms of technical values.
For a jacket, for example, the retaining box – that’s the square part at the bottom of the zipper – must pass certain stability tests. For children’s clothing or a child’s sleeping bag, the tear-off strength of the pull tab is vitally important. If children can tear this handle off and swallow it, it can be hazardous to their health and create product liability issues. Other aspects are cross-tear resistance, the strength of the stopper and so on.
Quality differences also result from the care taken in production, the materials used, and the demands placed on the fastening applications by producers and users. The spectrum of demands for a zipper ranges from frequency of use, exposure to the elements, contamination or temperature changes to certain cleaning processes.
J-BIG: How does YKK ensure this high quality in the manufacturing process?
Andreas Brandenburger: Our own machines are certainly an important factor here. A good example is seam-covered zippers on dresses. In such cases, the zipper runs up the wearer’s back for 40, sometimes even 60 centimeters. During production, the spiral is cut off at the intended length of the zipper. If this is not done carefully enough, a little bit of spiral is left over, which then jabs or scratches the wearer’s skin. Such an uncomfortable sensation can spoil even the most beautiful dress. But if you insert a plastic stopper at the top of the zipper that covers the end of the spiral, you can bypass this problem. However, to ensure that the end of the spiral really always disappears under this stopper, high standards and very high-quality, finely calibrated machines are required.
This small but subtle difference is not visible to the end user – in this case the person buying the dress – but it makes a huge difference to the level of comfort when wearing the garment.
J-BIG: Apart from garments – where else might readers encounter zippers from YKK?
Andreas Brandenburger: The spectrum is very broad, from mattresses to tents to mosquito nets. We also make special waterproof zippers that you will find in boat tarps as well as on diving suits. Whenever using waterproof materials, it is important that the zipper does not become a weak point.
In Germany, the luggage sector is also an important mainstay. Here, we are strongly positioned with very customized solutions. And we also developed a zipper with a flammability rating and a flame-retardant meta-aramid backing tape – this is used in the automotive sector or in protective clothing, among others. Headrests are one example, as are seat covers and airbag covers. For the driver, it is often not even apparent how many parts of their car use zippers in one form or another.
If we broaden the scope a bit and look at other types of fasteners, there are even more examples. Hook and loop fasteners, also commonly known as velcro, are a growing segment for us: here, we are involved in government clothing as well as in diapers. Then there are special plastic products, such as D-rings, cord stoppers or snap hooks. These are used in a wide range of applications, for example in the tent industry for storm bracing.
YKK’s range of articles also includes the product group of metal fasteners. For Germany, the production and sale of snap fasteners, eyelets and rivets is carried out by the independent sister company YKK STOCKO FASTENERS GmbH in Wuppertal.
J-BIG: Does a product like a zipper still offer any real potential for innovation? Or is it more about continuous improvement?
Andreas Brandenburger: Both. Our market entry into the sun protection sector about ten years ago, for example, was a real revolution for us. Here, we offer zippers for roller blinds, awnings or even rolling shutters. This year, the R+T trade fair for roller shutters, gates and sun protection was unfortunately cancelled, but when we exhibited there for the first time three years ago, interest exceeded our expectations. After all, the requirements for a zipper in such an application are not trivial. We invested in processing tools in this area, and today, this segment is seeing growth of around 20 percent per year. As a group, we have also had a very strong presence at ISPO for 15 years. A while ago, we presented zippers there in which the zipper elements were sewn directly onto the laminate of the jacket. The advantage of this product is that the textile zipper tape can be omitted. We launched this project together with the Gore company.
One example of ongoing development came a few years ago when the Eurofighter was launched – here, we helped to develop the pilots’ clothing. Because of the G-forces aviators are exposed to, they need special suits that can withstand up to 9G. We developed zippers that can withstand these stresses, as well as an enormous breaking load. A second important factor is panic forces: Imagine a suit is on fire and the pilot tries to open it in a state of panic. There is a great danger that he will tear off the pull tab. Meaning that the suit can no longer be opened at all. In some cases, forces of up to 500 newtons or about 50 kilograms come into play here, and the slider must be able to handle them. We have increasingly specialized in this area – an investment in the beginning, but today, this type of clothing is an important market for us. One of the last major projects we supported in this area was the new blue uniforms for the Bavarian police. Initially, there were a few problems with pants that tore, but the zippers are holding up beautifully.
J-BIG: Let’s take a look back: What can you tell us about the history of YKK in Germany?
Andreas Brandenburger: YKK Deutschland was founded in 1967, as the third European subsidiary. The first was established in Sneek, the Netherlands, in 1965. The second subsidiary in Europe was in the UK, with headquarters in London and production in Runcorn. And then it was us.
From 1967 to 1971, we worked with sales representatives and imported the products. Proximity to the airport was therefore decisive for the choice of locations; our customer focus was strongly on the apparel industry. Accordingly, locations were established in Frankfurt, Mönchengladbach, Berlin, Munich, Bielefeld and near Stuttgart. In 1972, the company also established its own German production site for zippers in Weimar-Wenkbach, which was continuously expanded over the years.
Until the mid-1980s, we were still very dominant in the apparel sector. We had a market penetration of 25 to 30 percent and focused on textiles, shoes and leather goods. That is ultimately also the reason why we are located near Offenbach: At that time, there was a lot of clothing industry in the region around Offenbach and Aschaffenburg. In the mid-1980s, however, clothing production increasingly shifted to Eastern Europe, later to Turkey, and finally to Asia. Currently, there is a certain trend towards Central Africa – for financial as well as environmental reasons.
J-BIG: Did this development also have a financial impact on YKK in Germany?
Andreas Brandenburger: Despite this structural change, we have not experienced a decline at YKK in Germany. Instead of layoffs or drastic restructuring measures, we had a continuous restructuring process. In the past, our sales offices and warehouses were located in the regions where our customers were producing. But in the apparel business, it’s increasingly the truck that sets the pace, not the seamstress. So our business continued, but there was no longer a need for local availability with numerous branch offices. Gradually, we centralized our forces here and shifted our investments towards technical applications and new customer segments. Today, we have two locations in Germany: our headquarters here in Mainhausen and production in Weimar-Wenkbach. In total, we have about 250 employees, two-thirds of whom work in production. We currently have a lot of variety in the article groups that can be manufactured in this country, and we produce the majority of the products we sell in Germany.
J-BIG: How has this changed your customer base?
Andreas Brandenburger: In the 1970s, about 80 percent of our sales potential lay in the apparel sector. In the 2010s, this share was 35 to 40 percent. The rest are technical products, such as mattresses: This is a very bulky item and difficult to transport, which is why it is produced close to Europe. Workwear, for example for supermarkets or car dealerships, is also one of these relatively newly developed segments. Primarily, we work for suppliers who rent workwear to companies in a leasing model. But Engelbert Strauss, for example, with a global production, also uses zippers from YKK in most of its styles.
Overall, we have built up our customer base like a pyramid. In the lower “economy” segment we have high market penetration and high volume, in the midsize segment, we try to find the right balance between price and volume, and at the very top, there is the premium segment, with high price and small demand. The aim of customers such as Lidl or Aldi, for example, is to offer discount goods at a good price. The quality should be appealing, but I would nevertheless place this segment more towards the lower end of the pyramid. Suppliers like C&A or Karstadt Kaufhof inhabit the middle, and customers like Hugo Boss, Bogner and others are found in the premium segment. Because of the diversity of our products, it makes no sense at all for us to limit ourselves to a single segment. We focus on each customer and their needs individually.
J-BIG: What challenges do you see for the industry?
Andreas Brandenburger: In the apparel sector, sustainability is certainly a key issue. A few years ago, we reached the milestone of 10 billion zippers produced worldwide – enough to circle the earth 80 times. On the one hand that’s great, of course, but from a sustainability point of view, it’s definitely problematic.
The apparel sector has the second-largest volume of waste – just think of retailers like Primark, where it is not uncommon for goods to be discarded shortly after production. This is where we want to come in with our products and contribute as much as possible to greater sustainability in the industry. On the one hand, this includes climate-neutral production, and on the other, we want to switch to recycled raw materials for our product groups. From plastic recycled from packaging waste or fished from the sea to innovative methods for dyeing zippers that do not require any water. We have not yet fully established these initiatives in Germany, but we are working on implementing them.
It is also very important to us that our products are not one-offs but are suitable for long-term use. Just as a good pair of jeans becomes more comfortable with prolonged wear, the zipper should also become increasingly smooth and easy to handle over time.
And if a zipper – from YKK or another supplier – does break, you can also buy our zippers over the counter, in some drug stores or haberdasheries, for example. A broken zipper doesn’t have to be a reason to throw away an otherwise still immaculate product. About ten percent of our sales in Germany come from this retail segment.
J-BIG: How closely do you coordinate your activities with the headquarters in Japan? Is there a global strategy in place, or do you make decisions more regionally?
Andreas Brandenburger: We operate both bottom up and top down. YKK is active in 70 countries and employs over 40,000 people, but we are largely organized through national companies and regional blocks. Germany is part of the EMEA block, that is Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Our region stretches from England to Moscow and from Scandinavia to South Africa, so naturally, there are tremendous local differences across markets. On the one hand, we have traditional Western European countries such as France, Great Britain or Germany, where the focus is very much on renewal and innovation. On the other hand, there are countries like Turkey or Romania – growing markets in terms of standard apparel, where a lot of production still takes place.
So even global trends don’t affect all markets in the same way, and this is where regional thinking and action is important. In Germany, we have our own investment budget, our own personnel plan, our own sales strategy, and of course our own customers. The objective for each sister company is to develop its own strategy for the country in which it is based in order to turn the national company into a flourishing business.
Directives issued by Japan to Germany or EMEA are usually more concerned with issues like quality, workplace safety, the structure of the individual companies, or perhaps branding and marketing guidelines. Japan is also in the driver’s seat when it comes to overarching issues such as sustainability – together with other strong national companies, the headquarters develops sustainable products and creates the necessary global production infrastructure. But it can also happen that a locally developed innovation such as flame-retardant government clothing is rolled out globally. There is a dynamic exchange in both directions, and each market can focus on its specialties.
J-BIG: Is there also exchange between Japan and Germany in terms of personnel?
Andreas Brandenburger: We benefit greatly from an annual rotation model that our Japanese colleagues complete – the classic expats that we are familiar with from many Japanese companies. What our Japanese managers learn here is not the German language, but rather the German culture and working style. Our penchant for precision, or the focus on technology, for instance. They then take this knowledge with them to a new position or to other areas of responsibility. And by the same logic, employees from Japan, North America or other locations also bring a breath of fresh air to our organization. Such exchange always has a positive effect and strengthens cooperation.
J-BIG: What is communication like outside of COVID-19?
Andreas Brandenburger: In Japan, we have a production facility in Kurobe and our headquarters in Tokyo. Before COVID-19 – and hopefully again in the future – we usually have annual meetings there, which are attended by important representatives from all five regional blocs. Markets or people who have accomplished something extraordinary are also invited to attend; either to learn something new or to present their achievement.
In everyday communication, our EMEA structure works as a kind of filter – we don’t always deal with Japan on a one-to-one basis. For global issues such as marketing, patents, IT and compliance, however, the headquarters in Japan controls the structure and implementation. In such matters, the company size and structure prescribed from Japan is very valuable.
J-BIG: Is there any area in your day-to-day work where YKK’s Japanese roots are particularly evident?
Andreas Brandenburger: The Japanese influence is most strongly felt in our corporate philosophy. This is shaped by the idea of the Cycle of Goodness, a symbolic representation of the common interests between customers, suppliers and the environment. Our company founder, Tadao Yoshida, developed this concept, and it still plays an important role at YKK today – also in Germany. The idea is simple: We can only do well if our customers, our environment and our employees do well, too. This is very much in line with the Japanese mentality, which is geared towards good cooperation and a holistic worldview – both in business and in private life.
In practice, this is expressed in the fact that quality and safety are extremely important to us. If a shipment is made and we suspect that a zipper does not comply with our internal standards, it will be recalled – without exception. In the process, we may go through customers’ warehouses ourselves to find the defective products. And we go to great lengths to explain our products very clearly and make them safe for all users. This commitment to quality has always been YKK’s distinguishing feature, and that will not change anytime soon.