The last zipper factory in the West and one of only 4 remaining in the U.S., this “Made in America” family run business has been at it for over 25 years.
You’re always welcome at UCAN.
Malan Lai (pictured) and his brother, Hyrum Lai always swore they’d never work here. Oh how things have changed.
All zipper dyes are made in-house by professionals who can tell two colors that appear identical to you and I, apart. In order to get the correct color match for the client a $25 book containing over 600 colors of zipper tape is mailed to them. The kids from FIDM have dubbed this old-style glass jug filled with spiraling tubes dye machine, Frankenstein.
Vats, drums, dyes, acids, formulas, paints, powders, bobbins, ovens, molds and boilers – not things you’d normally expect to see in Southern California, even on a factory tour. And while zippers were invented by an American, it’s easy to assume they stopped being “made in the USA” decades ago. But UCan Zippers has been at it on Long Beach Avenue for over 25 years, and despite the manufacturing exodus to cheaper labor markets overseas, this family business has no intention of going anywhere.
Here a gas-masked worker prepares to load up the washing machine – like tumble cages with sliders, and then adds the chosen color to be sprayed on.
So many choices…nylon coil, plastic mold, metal or reverse; pieces or long chain; brass base wire or something more expensive? Will you have a bottom stop, or a pin and box? The list goes on, and sometimes even the most common color, black, isn’t really black.
The factory has the air of a World War II munitions assembly plant, with the clangs of chopping, steaming, banging, shaking and even what sounds like a machine gun. There are rolls of material and countless odd-looking machines with various types of zippers trundling, winding or shooting in or out of them.
The Taiwanese-born Paul Lai (owner) had been working in fast food – 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, running 24/7, six days a week with over 200 employees.
But then China opened, and people could buy their own inexpensive machinery. The company focused on how to compete with China, without actually having to move there.
The factory now employs 43 people and is the only remaining U.S. zipper company west of the Mississippi.
UCan 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 UCan or another maker’s initials, although sometimes customers want their own design there (or none at all).
Like most American companies competing with China, this factory has become more automated over the years.
UCan 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 to what it’s best at…ZIPPERS BABY!
Made in America?
While the two brothers probably never thought they’d be running the place, they’ve done an incredible job and have really made an effort to get the word out about their company through social media and factory tours and if you don’t like that…UCAN Zip-it!
As I was leaving the tour, I noticed this creative vanity plate out in the parking lot. It belongs to Paul Lai the owner of UCan who said, “I’m not a CEO, I’m a CKO – Chief Knowledge Officer.” Yes Cerritos Auto Square!