Architects Guide to Glass, USGlass

A Good Melt-Down

YKK AP 25th_Group

There are many things I get to do in the course of business that warm my heart, but there are only a few that melt it. Well, I had mine totally turned to hot water a few weeks ago.

Usually it’s the people who make you melt. They may have risen to overcome challenges, come back from adversity like a bobo doll who just won’t deflate or simply make things work against the odds. But that wasn’t the case this time. This time, a whole company got to me.

YKK Corporation chairperson Tadahiro Yoshida opens a gift from the people of Dublin, Ga., at today’s festivities commemorating YKK AP America’s 25th anniversary.
YKK Corporation chairperson Tadahiro Yoshida opens a gift from the people of Dublin, Ga., at the  festivities on May 11th commemorating YKK AP America’s 25th anniversary.

The impetus for my melt-down was a visit to the YKK AP America plant in Dublin, Ga., on May 11. The company celebrated its 25th anniversary that day with a ceremony and hospitality. And a true and unique marriage of Southern and Japanese geniality provided a number of touching moments.

First, a little history. It was about 27 years ago when representatives of the company came to visit me and few colleagues to introduce the company. We saw an interesting presentation about how YKK began as a zipper manufacturer (the company actually automated zipper manufacturing in Asia—before that it had been done by hand), and how it had diversified and continued to do so. YKK has been fabricating aluminum for buildings in other parts of the world since the early 1960s. It was now entering the U.S. in the aluminum/glass industry and expected to be operational nationwide in a few years. It was an ambitious plan, and I got to watch it executed brilliantly over the years.

Today, YKK is a major player in the building aluminum arena, manufacturing systems for exteriors and facades in commercial and institutional structures, as well as making aluminum sunshades and residential windows, storefronts, window wall and curtainwall systems. They have a lot to commemorate and could have done so in usual, traditional ways, and that would have been more than a fine celebration. But there were a number of touches that made me melt. Specifically:

YKK AP 25th_Tree Planting
YKK planted a tree to honor those who died in a plane crash 25 years ago.

The company took time to honor those who were killed in a plane crash 25 years ago on the way to Dublin when the plant was under construction. Those who perished were honored by name, and a tree that had been planted in their honor was moved and replanted. I got to share lunch with the family of Chuck Phillips, the young YKK engineer from Georgia who had been killed in the crash. The ceremony was lovely, but the part that melted me was to hear how much Chuck’s mother and sister, who were both in attendance, feel a part of the YKK family. “We are included in every event,” said his sister, “Chuck is never forgotten, and my family is so grateful for that.”

The company honored all its long time employees, recognizing those who had been with them for 25, 20, 15 years and on down in multiples of five years. And that was nice in itself. But what melted me was the way those first employees talked about joining YKK years before. They came aboard before there was a plant, before there was an office, before they were making any product. “They were willing to take a chance on me, and I decided to take a chance on them,” said staff accountant Renee Stanger, reminding me how chances can often be a two-way street. Both conversations left me with a lump in my throat.

From left to right: Oliver Stepe, me, Tadahiro Yoshida and Keiko Yoshida

YKK has made an incredible difference to the people and the economy of Dublin, Ga. You can see that in evidence everywhere. And there was discussion and presentation all around this fact, including a donation of $25,000 by YKK to a local not-for-profit empowerment organization. But what really got to me was the incredibly strong and genuine personal relationship among YKK Corp. chairperson Tadahiro Yoshida, the former mayor of Dublin and current mayor Phil Best. From educational efforts, to exchange student programs to a sister city effort between Dublin and Osaka, Japan, these leaders have formed relationships that will benefit the people of Dublin for years to come.

YKK is a strong and growing company. One of the highlights of my visit was getting to interview the CEO Yoshida and learn about the first LEED-certified buildings he championed in Japan. Another was talking with YKK AP America president Oliver Stepe about the stewardship he feels for the company he is now running. You’ll learn more about these in an upcoming issue of USGlass magazine. But for today, I just wanted to focus on the feelings that got to me on that very warm May day. Come to think of it, it’s always the people who make you melt.