The major zipper supplier adapts quickly to changing product trends, market conditions
When it comes to zippers for mattresses, pillows and other sleep products, Ideal Fastener Corp. is one of the industry’s go-to global sources.
Founded in New York in 1936 by Elie Gut, Ideal Fastener has grown from its modest beginnings as one of a few dozen small zipper suppliers serving the local apparel industry into what is now the second largest zipper manufacturer in the world. With offices and factories around the globe, the company is able to engineer and manufacture from multiple regions, without compromising quality or service.
As apparel production in the post-World War II period migrated away from New York due to rising labor costs and other changes in the competitive landscape, Ideal Fastener opted to move its plant to the lower cost South in 1966. Working from new headquarters in Oxford, North Carolina, Elie Gut and his son, Ralph, steadily built a strong base of business across a wide range of diverse industries, including the activewear, furniture, luggage, automotive and military sectors.
“As a leading zipper supplier with a well-established global footprint, we are big enough to handle the world’s largest brands, but we also are small enough to provide personalized customer service,” says Jeff Gut, co-president, along with his brother, Steven. The two are part of the third generation of family leadership of the company. Their father, Ralph Gut, is board chair and their sister, Michelle Lobel, who previously managed global operations, continues to serve as a board member while also running her own medical device company, Bryn Pharma.
“Our management team prides ourselves on our firsthand knowledge of all aspects of the business, and our close working relationships with customers,” Jeff Gut says. “Details make the difference, and we are obsessed with details.”
Gut adds that Ideal Fastener’s workforce, which numbers about 150 at the North Carolina plant, plays a large role in its success. “We have employees that have been with us 30 or 40 years and, when they retire, they are often joined at the celebration by sons and daughters and other family members who continue to work here. We have a group of highly skilled, motivated associates.”
Made in North Carolina
While many other textile companies once based in North Carolina have closed their factories or moved operations overseas, Ideal Fastener continues to operate a 150,000-square-foot production facility in Oxford, located about an hour north of Raleigh. In 2014, the company made a $5.7 million investment in the facility, expanding its capacity and adding new equipment and technology. About one-third of the space is devoted to sleep products, which is one of the company’s higher growth categories. The plant serves customers throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico and also exports products to Europe, Central America and the Caribbean. Zippers for bedding are one of the core products made at the plant.
“We’ve always done a big business with zippers for pillow covers and cases, and zippers for hospital beds and other specialty applications have been part of our mix for quite a while,” Gut says. “But then, about 10 years ago, when new types of foam mattresses began to come on the scene, we saw an upswell in demand for zippered covers. It started as a trickle and soon grew into a wave.”
“Producers needed a fast, easy and efficient way to secure covers onto foam,” Gut adds. “These zippers mostly went on the bottom of the mattress, and consumers never saw them.”
As boxed beds emerged as a major force in the marketplace, demand for zippered covers has soared. “Twenty years ago, it was rare to see a zippered mattress cover. But with the emergence of boxed beds, there’s been a tectonic shift in the marketplace, and zippered covers have become more and more popular.”
As this shift has taken place, many bedding producers have added a “consumer-facing” zipper at the top of the mattress, while keeping the zipper used on the bottom for their own production purposes. “They wanted to make it easy for consumers to remove and change the covers, which added a new dimension of function and design to the bed,” Gut says.
AT A GLANCE
Ideal Fastener Corp.
Oxford, North Carolina, where it operates a `50,000-square-foot production facility. The company has 2 million square feet of manufaturing space worldwide, including three facilities in China (Dongguan, Jiangyin and Zhaoqing) and facilities in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Chennai, India; Manerbio, Italy; and Istanbul.
A full range of zippers and fastener tapes for bedding, furniture, apparel, automotive, luggage and military applications.
Founded in 1936 by Elie Gut, the company now is led by a third generation, Elie Gut’s grandsons, Jeff and Steven Gut, along with international partners.
A perfect fit
The addition of a top zipper created a new opportunity for Ideal Fastener, but it also posed a challenge: How do you design a zipper capable of tightly securing a sewn cover to a big, bulky mattress while also enabling that cover to be easily removed, washed and replaced by the consumer without any changes in fit or performance?
“It all comes down to tolerance,” Gut says. “To make a 315-inch-long zipper that stretches all the way around a king bed requires an insanely tight, accurate length tolerance. While someone might not notice a 0.5% variation in length on a jacket zipper, when you’re dealing with a queen or king mattress, even a tiny deviation can cause big problems.”
After a period of trial and error, the company’s product development team came up with proprietary technology for the latest generation of boxed beds that enables even thick mattress covers to be removed quickly and easily. To ensure that everything comes together properly, Ideal Fastener places precise markings on its zippers and tapes that make it easier for sewers to install them.
Manufacturing zippers for beds has required Ideal Fastener to rethink aspects of its own production process, as well. The biggest change took place about 15 years ago, when the company began to expand its presence in the bedding industry with products such as zippers for futons and institutional mattresses used in schools and hospitals.
“We had to redesign our entire North Carolina factory layout to accommodate mattresses,” Gut says. “Before mattresses, the average length of our zippers ran from 10 to 30 inches. But our zippers for mattresses are 8 to 9 yards long, so we needed to bring in much longer packing tables and change how our workfloor was organized to make room for them.”
The location of Ideal Fastener’s plant is a strategic advantage when it comes to serving the U.S. bedding industry, according to the company. “We’re within a four-hour drive of many of the industry’s key manufacturers,” Gut says. “That makes it easy for us to get together with our customers, either at our plant or their facilities. We can share ideas and collaborate on innovations that move our products forward.”
The fact that Ideal Fastener serves a wide variety of industries gives it a unique perspective to draw on for product development. One example is its line of flame-resistant zippers, which it originally developed for the armed forces. “One of our customers was in our plant doing a site audit and he saw that we were making FR zippers for the military,” Gut says. “He asked whether we could make a similar product for bedding that could replace the FR fabric he was sewing behind his zippers. Until that point, we hadn’t realized that this was something the industry needed, but it led to an entirely new application.”
A similar product migration from one industry to another is occurring with car seats, Gut adds. In Europe, Ford has launched a new model, the Puma, with seat covers that can be zipped off easily and washed or replaced by motorists. “This is a growing trend in bedding, and it makes a lot of sense for car seating, too,” Gut says. “We expect to see more automakers adopt this because it adds value to the car.”
Core products for bedding
Ideal Fastener offers a wide range of zippers for pillow and mattress covers. Popular pillow zippers include its low-profile No. 3 woven coil with nonlock, auto-lock or semi-lock sliders. Best-selling mattress zippers include No. 5 and No. 8 reverse coil zippers with nonlock sliders and No. 5 molded zippers. Options include interchangeability, FR treatment, and sew-line markings and notches.
Since 2007, Ideal Fastener has offered a line of sustainable zippers produced in partnership with Unifi, a leading producer of recycled polyester made from plastic bottles. The line — marketed as Ideal Earth — features zippers made of 100% post-consumer polyester. On average, every 100,000 Ideal Earth jacket zippers that are produced save 1,000 gallons of gasoline, according to the company.
“We were the first company to offer a sustainable zipper,” Gut says. “Sustainability has been a big trend in sportswear for a while, and our Ideal Earth line is exceptionally popular in that market. The bedding industry has been a bit slower to catch on but we’re beginning to see more interest.”
Gut adds that Ideal Earth zippers are virtually “cost neutral” compared with standard zippers, and the performance is identical. “In cases where there is a slight added cost, we can work with our customers to eliminate that by taking cost out of another area,” he says.
Ideal Fastener always is looking for new ways to enhance and improve its zippers. In recent years, for example, color has become more important to mattress brands, especially as a means for product differentiation.
“In the old days, when zippers were only on the bottom of the mattress, they tended to be very bland colors like white and beige,” Gut says. “Now that the zippers are appearing on the top, we’re seeing more color.” Greens and blues are popular right now.
In addition, today’s mattress zipper pulls tend to be “more dynamic,” he adds. “Customers want something that’s going to stand out on the retail floor or website.”
Zipper pulls are becoming more of a branding element, incorporating logos that reinforce other branding on the bed. “This is a hot trend in sportswear, where companies such as Adidas and Under Armour feature logos on jacket zipper pulls and other items,” Gut says. “We’ll see more of this in bedding in the future.”
In the past few years, the zipper has evolved from a basic structural component that did its work “behind the scenes” to a more consumer-facing functional and aesthetic element, he says. “Zippers used to be regarded as a commodity that didn’t change much from year to year. Now, zippers are increasingly being incorporated into the design, and producers and retailers are taking advantage of the flexibility of zippers to change out covers more frequently in retail displays.”
Ideal Fastener has several new products in development. They include a new type of breakaway zipper that is easier to remove. “Instead of having to walk around the entire mattress to unzip a king bed, this new model unzips with one simple movement, and it’s easier to put back on,” Gut says.
Now in its eighth decade of business, Ideal Fastener attributes much of its success to its ability to anticipate and adapt to market changes. This nimbleness was evident in its move to North Carolina in the mid-1960s and also in 1997, where the company ventured to Asia.
“About 25 years ago, most U.S. apparel makers suddenly took their production to Asia to increase competitiveness,” Gut says. “We realized right away that to protect our business, we needed to be in Asia.”
“Michelle recognized how important global sourcing would become,” he adds. “To maintain our edge, we needed to be in Asia with our own plants, where we could keep a close eye on quality and provide the level of service that our customers had come to expect from us.”
Today, Ideal Fastener has 2 million square feet of production space worldwide, including three facilities in China (Dongguan, Jiangyin and Zhaoqing), and facilities in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Chennai, India; Manerbio, Italy; and Istanbul. In addition, it has sales facilities in a total of 20 countries. The company employs more than 3,500 workers worldwide.
“We have our own team on the ground pretty much anywhere where there is large-scale cut-and-sew activity taking place,” Gut says. “Our customers depend on us to get them the zippers they need quickly and cost effectively.”
Ideal Fastener’s decision to expand overseas in the 1990s was a “matter of survival,” Gut says. “If we didn’t add this capability, our customers were going to buy their zippers elsewhere.” More than 20 years later, the move also turned out to be a blessing for its U.S. production. “It strengthened our U.S. operations and enabled us to better serve the emerging market for foam mattress zippers.”