UT, TVA Business Experiment Still Going Strong After Fifty Years

Indigenous is a term usually associated with people, not business. However, an idea brought about by the Tennessee Valley Authority and UT’s Department of Industrial Engineering more than fifty years ago continues to challenge that notion.

Dunlap Industries, named for the county seat of its Sequatchie County headquarters, grew from the concept of indigenous businesses developed by the TVA and UT.

The idea was that starting up a business in an underserved community would allow the industry to have concessions in taxes and utilities and would provide that area with jobs and economic stimulus for years to come.

Though the practice is commonplace today, the success of the venture was anything but guaranteed when Dunlap Industries was founded.

Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering head John Kobza, middle, meets with officials from Dunlap Industries.

Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering head John Kobza, middle, meets with officials from Dunlap Industries.

“A lot of credit should be given to Howard Emerson, who was head of our department then,” said John Kobza, head of what is now the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at UT. “He had worked at TVA before he came to UT, so he was able to bring both sides together pretty seamlessly and get everyone on the same page.”

Emerson worked with fellow UT professor Dan Doulet in developing the idea that business could be a catalyst to lift rural areas out of poverty, indeed becoming a part of that community’s fabric.

Along with TVA, UT presented this so-called bootstrap approach of having a town lift itself up to the Sequatchie Valley Development Association, which chose the town of Dunlap for the experiment.

A worker at Dunlap Industries inspects a production line.

A worker at Dunlap Industries inspects a production line.

As the company was being set up so that the residents would literally be shareholders by owning stock as well as stakeholders by working at the company, a study showed zippers to be a product likely to have a favorable outcome. Thus the Flint Zipper Company was born.

Mike Kwasnik was chosen to lead the project, guiding it from 1966 until his son took over in 2008. In those four decades it grew from three employees into Dunlap Industries, a company with three locations in Tennessee, two in China, and one each in Cambodia, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

The company even produced the zipper featured on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ album Sticky Fingers, one of its more notable successes.

A look a the production line of Dunlap Industries, one of the last two U.S.-based zipper producers.

A look a the production line of Dunlap Industries, one of the last two U.S.-based zipper producers.

“We are thankful for what has been accomplished and excited that Dunlap Industries is still working with both UT and TVA,” said current Dunlap President Robert Kwasnik. “It is a testament to the value of UT’s concept and Tennessee’s public/private partnerships that fifty years later the entire Sequatchie Valley continues to reap economic benefits from this.”

In fact, some employees of the company are the third generation in their family to work there, a testament to the idea behind its founding.

Dunlap recently hosted a celebration of that founding, with a special gift presented to Kobza to mark the event: a golden zipper.

“They found a unique way of saying thank you to us for the role we have played in their history over the years,” said Kobza.

UT continues to serve as a key partner with Dunlap, particularly through the company’s participation in lean manufacturing processes and through the Institute for Public Service’s Center for Industrial Services.

While zippers are the most visible part of the company’s resume, it is also a major producer of thread and of hook and loop fabrics, known more commonly by the brand name Velcro.

 

CONTACT :

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)