When Fred Tracy was creating and selling pottery in the late 1980s, he found that his pottery would become almost too hot to handle under the summer sun at outdoor craft fairs.
So Tracy designed and made himself a 10-foot-by-10-foot tent to protect his works and his own skin from the elements. He then started making the tents for other artists and craftspeople, eventually producing thousands of these small tents.
That was the birth of Fred’s Tents & Canopies Inc., which today makes many different shapes and sizes of tents, and other portable structures, for the tent rental and special events industries. The business, with an 87,000-square-foot manufacturing and storage facility in the former Yankee Dollar distribution center on Hudson River Road in Waterford, is described by the company as the East Coast’s largest supplier of tents and accessories.
Related: Outlook 2017, The Gazette’s annual guide to business and technology in the Capital Region
“The company is known as an innovator. We think outside the box. We can move quickly and produce the product at a lower price,” Tracy said.
The company employs between 40 and 50 workers.
“The thing about Fred that we love is that he’s not a guy with a cookie-cutter mentality,” said Craig Seitz, president of Event Partners in St. Louis, Mo.
Seitz has purchased one large event tent from Fred’s Tents as well as many custom accessories. “He understands what tent owners need. He turns ideas into reality,” Seitz said. For example, Seitz said Fred’s Tents has a variety of gutter systems for tents that Seitz has purchased. The company makes custom gutter systems to keep those attending events dry during rainstorms, especially when going from one tent to another.
Tracy received a degree in fine arts with a minor in education from Alfred University in 1987. He worked in the pottery field for several years, operating shops in Lake George and Virginia Beach.
His tent business began in a garage in South Glens Falls and moved to Stillwater in 1992. In 1996 he bought property in the village of Stillwater and kept expanding that location. In 2014 he moved the business to its current location.
“We have sold tents in all 50 states and nine other countries,” Tracy said. He said his company has provided tents to events associated with presidential inaugurations, Super Bowls, the Kentucky Derby and the Daytona 500.
Dale DeFilipps, a salesman for Fred’s Tent’s whose territory includes the Northeast and Ontario, Canada, said Fred’s has sold tents in Europe and South Africa, among other countries.
“Our business is covering your business,” is the company motto. Tracy said the business currently has three divisions: fabric, print and metal.
“We don’t do tent rentals, we sell to rental companies,” Tracy said. The company also repairs its own tents and other portable structures. He describes his business as a fast-growing, mid-sized company, “proud of personalized service.”
Tracy attended the year’s first major tent trade show — the Industrial Fabrics Association International Tent Expo in Orlando, Fla. — in mid-January.
“I feel we are going to have good growth [in 2017],” Tracy said.
He said the party and special events industry has recovered very slowly from the great recession of 2008-09. “It took longer than we thought,” Tracy said. But from what he learned at the Tent Expo in Florida, “the industry is alive and well.”
Fred’s Tents has gone into the printing field so it can place printed materials and graphics on its tents, as well as on the sides of tractor-trailers and other large trucks.
The company has also expanded into what it calls “Better Fabric Structures [BFS]” which have metal support systems. For example, the company will fabricate a 30-foot-by-100-foot structure for the storage of heavy equipment or for warehousing.
When the company was formally created in 1996, the winter months were relatively quiet. Not anymore. Tracy said the company ships a lot of tents south to Houston and Dallas, as well as to customers in the Caribbean.
“When it’s snowing up here, it’s warm down there,” he said.
In the company’s nearly 100-page catalogue, there are tents, portable garages, canopies and tent components. The products include the Stillwater series of large event tents and straight-beam structures with a selection of roof panels. One of the large (66-feet by 123-feet) Stillwater series event pole tents can cost as much as $40,000 with accessories.
Mike West of Big Top Tent Rentals in Cairo has been buying tents and accessories from Fred’s for several years.
“He just makes good products. He can customize and he’s always very timely,” West said.
“You can take an idea to him with angles and sides [and he can make the tent or structure],” West said.
Big Top Tent Rentals, which serves the greater Capital Region and downstate New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, has also expanded over the years. West said the company started with a staff of two and grown to a staff of 40. He said the tent rental company can accommodate everything from a small backyard gathering to a commencement ceremony for 15,000 people. He has rented tents for commencements at Yale, Brown, the University of Hartford and Hartwick College.