Locally owned and operated Dunlap Industries has unique 50-year history

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 7/25/16. Ann Hobbs, left, a 45-year employee at Dunlap Industries, and her coworker Randall Summers who has been with the company 32-years, quality check the tape being made for zipper manufacturing on Monday, July 25, 2016. DI makes molded and coil zippers for use with U.S. Army and other high use applications.

Dunlap Industries’ largest customers

NikeLand’s EndL.L. BeanVF ImagewearFruit of the LoomU.S. MilitaryDupontSource: Dunlap Industries

Dunlap, Tenn., depressed in the 1960s, was the testing ground for a joint TVA-University of Tennessee industrial development experiment that would forever change the community's economic landscape.

What would happen, officials at the time asked, if TVA and UT-Knoxville pooled research and development resources to study, and potentially to help launch, a manufacturing company in town?

And would it be possible to bootstrap the launch with the money of local investors - to use local funds to launch a company from scratch instead of using city money to promise tax breaks and free utilities?

As it turned out, yes. And Dunlap Industries, one of three major zipper and connector makers globally, was the result. With 95 percent of start-up capital coming from locals, the company began manufacturing zippers under the name Flint Zippers in 1966.

Fifty years later, the company now operating simply as Dunlap Industries is still in operation, with facilities in Dunlap and Graysville, Tenn., and offices in Soddy-Daisy, as well as multiple international factories. Dunlap Industries today competes across the globe for clients, and regularly provides zippers for United States military uniforms and attire.

Some of the company's most famous appearances - like a special Nike suit made for tennis legend Serena Williams, a sweatshirt worn by Will Smith in the filming of "Ali" and the cover of the Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers" album - are on display at the Soddy-Daisy office.

An important employer for Dunlap for half a century, it's hard today to find someone in the Sequatchie Valley town who isn't connected somehow to the factory. There are workers who have been with the company 30 or 40 years. There are also second- and third-generation employees and leaders.

"It's the American factory story, that's locally-owned and operated, that a significant portion of the money is kept in the community and reinvested in the town," said Robert J. Kwasnik, president and COO.

He and his brother, Mike Kwasnik Jr., are themselves second-generation leaders at Dunlap Industries. Their father, Mike Kwasnik, was Dunlap Industries' first general manager, and one of the students who first gathered research and on-the-ground information for the project.

Mike Kwasnik Sr., was a graduate student at the University of Tennessee and in management at a Chattanooga manufacturer when he was appointed to the top job. A New York native transplanted to the American South, Kwasnik took on the role in his early 30s, with a total of three employees.

"He worked seven days a week, around the clock," said Mike Kwasnik Jr. "On the weekends, we saw dad, and he would make breakfast and then he would go and do paperwork."

Kwasnik's sons said their father instilled that same work ethic in his children - as well as an appreciation and understanding of the importance of Dunlap Industries to the community.

Dunlap Industries competes fiercely with Japanese-owned YKK.

"We go wherever we've got to go to get business," Mike Kwasnik Jr said.

Today, company officials continue to look forward with eyes on shifting global economies and demand. They know 50 years is a milestone, but it isn't a resting spot.

"We know we can't rest on that accomplishment," Robert Kwasnik said. "We know we must continue to look for ways to add value for our customers."

The guiding and founding focus of the company is still the same, he said.

"There's far more responsibility than just starting a business to make money," he said.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.