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Fashion

The Only U.S. Zipper Company in the West Is Here in Vernon

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Thu, Apr 3, 2014 at 5:29 AM

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click to enlarge A worker on the job at U-Can - PHOTO BY DANNY LIAO
  • Photo by Danny Liao
  • A worker on the job at U-Can
On the floor, the noise continues: There are boilers that use pressure and temperature to dye white polyester, and circular "hoppers" that use small jets of air and vibrations to jog pins and boxes around a carousel and bring them together.

A paint-splattered table is lined with pots of dazzlingly bright enamel primary colors. Here a gas-masked worker named Antonio loads up the washing machine - like tumble cages with sliders, and then adds the chosen color to be sprayed on. "He mixes them by eyeball," Hyrum Lai says. "It's an amazing talent."

Back in the office, the boys' mother, Liz, arrives, followed quickly by father Paul in his wheelchair. Paul Lai is still a regular visitor. "After 25 years," he says, "the overseas contacts expect me. ... I'm not a CEO, I'm a CKO - Chief Knowledge Officer."

The Taiwanese-born Paul Lai had been working in fast food -   originally, "I flipped the burger!" he laughs - when a Taiwanese company called Zipper Power approached him to run the factory back in 1984. The plan had been to set up in New York, but he found it "too far and too cold!"

In the early years business boomed. U-Can ran 24/7 six days a week and had 200 employees, even with no sales force. "But then China opened, and people could buy their own inexpensive machinery," Paul Lai says. "I focused on how we can maintain without moving to China but still respond timely to Eastern USA, the fashion center."

The factory now employs 43 people, and Japanese behemoth YKK controls 90 percent of the world market. It's even bought the company that supplies most zipper machines. U-Can is the only remaining U.S. zipper company west of the Mississippi.

Paul Lai is convinced that its larger competitor wants U-Can dead. "But one mean tiger cannot kill thousands of monkeys. He might kill 50, but not all of them. We're still here."

Says Hyrum Lai, "While we're too small for YKK to bother with us, I know we're a thorn in their side. But if they came knocking, I wouldn't show them around."

U-Can ships all over the United States, and occasionally Japanese companies will import its zippers because their customers love anything American.

Take a look at your own zipper and you might see it's stamped with U-Can or another maker's initials, although sometimes customers want their own design there (or none at all).

U-Can sold between 2 million and 3 million zippers in 2013 - one of its best years. And though they've kicked around ideas about diversifying into buttons or going more digital, the family will probably stick at what it's best at. Malan Lai says, "When my father first purchased this business, he said he was flying on a trip and all he heard around him was zip, zip, zip, zip, and he thought, 'If I can't make it in this business...' "

His brother relates one more story. "In 1993 we were on vacation in Hawaii, and were in a department store," he says. "I was looking through the clothes, and then I saw one of our U-Can zippers."

Paul Lai finishes the anecdote: "And he held it up and went, 'Dad! Look!' "

Editor's note: The original headline on this story misstated the location of U-Can's Long Beach Avenue factory. It is in Vernon. We regret the error.


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