We asked Lee Smith, vice president manufacturing operations at YKK (U.S.A.) Inc., to talk about his 40+ year career with YKK and to share his advice for people wanting to start a career in this industry.
Tell us about how you started your career at YKK:
My career at YKK started due to my desire for a full time / 40 hour per week job. I started working when I was 14 years old. At 16, I started to work in the grocery industry following the same line as many of my friends. I graduated high school early in my senior year and wanted full time employment. I had decided to work before college. The grocery industry turned me down, so I asked a friend of mine who worked at YKK if he could get me a job. He gave me an application and I got a call a day later. I was interviewed by Durry Faulk and a guy named Alex Gregory (former Chairman of the Board and CEO of YKK Corporation of America). They put me to work 2 weeks later in the coiling department of Plastic Fastener 1, producing 2.5CF coil for the sewing department.
What is your advice for high school students trying to figure out what to do next?
A student needs to understand who they are and what they want to attain in their life. They must understand their strengths and weaknesses. What is their passion or what inspires them. We all have things we have to do to survive but this is a time in their life where they are at a crossroads. They need to find the things that make them think, dream, and feel inspiration. Explore those avenues as soon as possible and they will eventually find a passion from which they can build a career.
“A student needs to understand who they are and what they want to attain in their life.”
What was something that attracted you about YKK?
The things that attracted me to YKK were the opportunities that were available. Anyone at this company can attain anything they set their mind on. YKK offered all of us tuition and training in any areas that we wanted. We were given freedom to grow and to challenge ourselves. In the early days we always had goals and were surpassing them every year. We would celebrate and every milestone and then keep moving up. YKK created a family of employees that were the true definition of a team – they were supportive but at the same time competitive. We were going to become #1 in our business and nothing was going to stop us. And BTW … we did.
What are some of the skills an employee must have in order to be successful at YKK?
Integrity / Team-minded / Humble / Passionate / Never satisfied with today / Caring / Listener
What were some of the challenges you have encountered during your career at YKK?
As an hourly employee for 5 years, the challenges were just learning new things very frequently. During that time I was an operator-mechanic and mechanic in two different departments and went from making raw materials to making the finished zipper. The next year I moved to management and the hardest thing about this change was that I had to begin to manage my peer group and people that I had worked alongside for several years. This by itself is one of the greatest challenges that anyone can face if not taken seriously or performed correctly. Your peers are going to test you to see if they can get any kind of special treatment and that takes you down a rabbit hole from which you will never recover. Treat everyone with respect and with consistency. Always set the correct company precedent and never waiver from it. Never!
With this mindset I carried myself into many future management positions. In the later years of my career I was assigned many responsibilities that were related to improving performance in business units. This by itself brings on many challenges as you have to get to know a new management team and large group of employees. You are making assessments and making tough changes for the benefit of the company. You are not very popular during these times but I have always had the support of YKK and the employees.
“Treat everyone with respect and with consistency.”
What is your definition of success?
Success is never giving up and knowing that you alone control your destiny. Help as many people as you can along the way.
“Success is never giving up and knowing that you alone control your destiny. Help as many people as you can along the way.”