Fred Tracy brings creative solutions to his work in the tent industry.
By Sigrid Tornquist
Change is our company strategy,” says Fred Tracy, owner of Fred’s Tents and Canopies Inc., Stillwater, N.Y. “You can’t be like a horse in a harness race, with blinders on—you have to keep your eyes open and find ideas you can use from all industries.”
Originally trained as a potter with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a minor in education, what brought Tracy into the world of specialty fabrics—and more specifically, the manufacture of tents—was the personal need for protection from the sun. “I’d be selling my pottery at art fairs and the sun was making the pottery too hot for people to touch and I was concerned about skin cancer, sitting in the sun all day like that. So I designed and built a tent for myself,” he says. “Then I sold hundreds—if not thousands—of these 10-by-10 tents to other crafters, while still creating and selling pottery.”
By the end of 1990 Tracy and his wife Linda—a CPA who began work at the company full time in 1998—decided to focus on the more profitable side of their business. Tracy phased out selling pottery and concentrated on manufacturing tents. His first manufacturing facility was housed in a small, unheated barn, and the next one in a second-floor classroom of a school-turned-community center. “The classroom was heated, which was great, but it was only 21 by 24 feet,” Tracy says. “So I would carry my sewing machine up and down the stairs so I could use the gymnasium to measure out and work on the larger tents.”
Quest for quality
In 1996 Tracy built the facility the company is in now. The company’s growth—it now has more than 40 employees and this year’s catalog of products is just shy of 100 pages—is closely connected to Tracy’s ability to respond quickly to customers’ needs. “First, there aren’t a lot of layers to get to the top. People like that,” Tracy says. “And I’m willing to listen to customers and change gears quickly to meet their needs.”
Observation and attention to quality factor in as well. Fred’s Tents repairs tents as well as manufacturing them—both their own and those from other manufacturers. The practice stabilizes income during the off season, but it also gives Tracy the opportunity to identify areas where tents are more apt to wear and degrade, and then develop ways to address those issues. “We looked at where tents were failing. Was it on the fabric side? Was it from rental use? And if it was, why?” Tracy says. “Then we’d go back to our suppliers and ask if they could make a stronger fabric, for instance.” In 2000 Tracy and the company also made the commitment to use stainless steel if at all possible since one of the recurring tent repair issues had to do with the rusting of hardware. “For the difference of a few cents, it’s not worth it to discover rust on a tent when you have a stainless steel part available,” he says.
String of ideas
In addition to willingness, availability, observation and attention to quality, Tracy’s ability to imagine innovative solutions to problems and his eagerness to try something new also keep the company on the leading edge of the industry. “When I walk into a room I make an effort to know three-quarters of the people there by the time I walk out,” Tracy says. “You learn by listening. I try to discover something new, then take it out of its common use and hopefully bring it back to the tent or fabric industry.”
In 2012 Tracy and his team developed three new products: a sectional sailcloth tent called the Stillwater, a heater wall that can distribute heat into the sidewall instead of into ducting, and the Big Fred Shed, a new version of one of the company’s best sellers (Fred Shed), which can be used for agriculture, construction and composting. Every year Tracy has more ideas waiting in the wings. “I don’t believe in patents,” Tracy says. “I just try to stay ahead of the competition by having another product to develop.”
There are two main areas Tracy keeps in mind as he looks for new ideas: safety, and saving rental companies labor costs. “We’re always trying to come up with different gadgets to save labor,” Tracy says. “Besides the investment in the tent, rental companies’ investment in labor is their second biggest cost.” For next year, Tracy has at least one new safety innovation in mind, which he says is a simple idea that would fill a significant safety need in the industry.
In accordance with his ability to merge industry innovations, Tracy was one of the first tent manufacturers to see the potential for graphic applications on tents. “I was always three-dimensional in my thinking and when I looked at a tent I would see a beautiful white canvas,” Tracy says. “There is a saying in the tent industry: ‘We bring the grocery bag to the event, and what makes the event special is everything that’s in the bag.’ I thought: ‘Why can’t we add graphics to the tent portion and make a little fancier bag?’”
The trend to use graphics on tents continues to grow. Corporate branding and individual clients who want to set a particular mood for their event comprise the client base, and that’s becoming more standard. Tracy’s company also repurposes retired sidewalls and makes them into graffiti walls for events—an innovation that is both green and trendy. The company hangs up an old sidewall that is no longer a high enough grade for its original use, and guests at the event participate in painting it with latex enamel paint.
“The percentage of graphics we do has doubled every year for the last four or five years,” Tracy says. “And it continues to grow.” Fred’s Tents applies graphics to aluminum and steel, as well as to PVC and polyethylene. This year the company will also be applying graphics to carpeting.
“There’s always something to learn. And you learn it by keeping your eyes open and listening.”