How RI Maker Tracey Gear & Precision Shaft Endured Amid COVID

A photograph of founder Leo Tracey in the Tracey Gear & Precision Shaft showroom in Pawtucket.

PAWTUCKET – Leo Tracey was on to something during World War II, something that would one day connect his family with millions of soda cans, the space program, and the US nuclear arsenal, before the COVID pandemic upset the world. economy.

Tracey, the son of Irish immigrants born in Pawtucket, had risen through the ranks at Potter & Johnson, a machine shop in what is now Hasbro’s corporate headquarters on Newport Avenue.

As the American engagement in the war entered its fourth year, Tracey had ascended to the position of night foreman. He reorganized the schedule the way the work was done on the factory floor. He made it more efficient. So much so that his night shift began to outperform the day shift.

Not bad for a guy with a ninth grade education.

“He was very lucky to have a job,” his grandson, Doug Tracey, recently told the Providence Journal. “He was a super confident guy who believed in himself.”

This belief – plus the fact that he and his wife were expecting their fifth child – prompted him to go see his bosses at Potter & Johnson.

He asked for a raise.

They laughed at him.

Tracey Gear & Precision Shaft manufactures parts for elevators, automotive transmissions, oilfield and aerospace equipment, as well as the US Navy.

He told them, “Okay. I’m getting out of here, ”according to his grandson.

Fortunately, Pawtucket was at the time a major center of the textile industry and factories were in constant need of spare parts for their machines. And Leo made connections with the foremen in the factories.

He bought a gear hobbing machine – a machine that cuts teeth into gears – for $ 100 with money borrowed from his in-laws and moved into his garage. Then he drove off in his paneled station wagon.

“He used to go to all the factories and cut the gears for them,” said Doug Tracey.

The company that is called now Tracey Gear and Precision Shaft was born on April 12, 1945, the same day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died.

Tracey Gear & Precision Shaft in Pawtucket

The challenges of a growing company

The company was only Leo until the 1970s, although most of his 12 children – eight boys and four girls – eventually worked for the company, including Stephen Tracey, Doug’s father.

Leo, who was himself one of 12 children, eventually moved from his garage to a store on York Avenue, then expanded it before the company ended up buying a taller building about 400 yards from the ‘avenue.

Work came and went over the years. At one point, Stephen had to leave the company because there wasn’t enough to do. At other, slower times, Stephen and his brothers did not receive a paycheck.

“They always made sure the guys got paid first,” said Doug.

During a recession in the 1990s, their biggest customer, Devlieg-Bullard – who ironically made the types of lathes and mills Tracey uses to make her products – went bankrupt.

It was around the time Leo died in 1994 at the age of 81.

Another recession – called the Great Recession – struck in 2009, sparked by bad mortgage decisions by banks, which stalled the housing market and spilled over into the wider economy. Not only did work start to dry up for Tracey, but stranded banks were reluctant to provide short-term funding for the business.

Vice President Doug Tracey on the floor at Tracey Gear & Precision Shaft in Pawtucket.  The company founded by his grandfather is once again looking for larger premises after going through the pandemic.

“We were still on the brink,” said Doug. “We barely got out of that one alive.”

In 2019, the business was booming and overflowing.

“We’re pretty maxed out here,” Doug said.

He began looking for an existing building, at least 30,000 square feet, with 20-foot ceilings, within 15 miles of the York Avenue store.

“I can’t go too far because I don’t want to lose my workers,” he said.

He found the perfect location in East Providence.

In February 2020.

The COVID pandemic turned the world upside down before a deal could be struck.

Tracey Gear & Precision Shaft went from a business that had overtaken its facilities to a business that wondered if it would survive.

“It was tough,” said Doug.

Bronze shavings cover a work area after fabrication of bronze parts for use in elevators at Tracey Gear & Precision Shaft.

Masks were out of the question. Machine operators wearing masks would mist their safety glasses, dangerously reducing visibility. “It’s really easy to get injured on this machine,” he said.

Doug thanks Dave Chenevert, head of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, for standing up for his business and the state’s manufacturing sector.

The association has worked with state officials to develop COVID security protocols that have allowed manufacturers to stay open while operating safely.

Much like diners seated at tables in restaurants, machine operators were allowed to remove their masks once at their workstations.

But Tracey Gear & Precision Shaft had to maintain social distancing, requiring rescheduling of workers to stagger their shifts.

“It more or less halved the workforce that was in the building at one point,” said Doug.

Every morning and then again at lunchtime, the whole building was disinfected.

The workers had their temperature checked before work each day. They were sent home if they showed signs of a fever and told to stay home if they felt sick.

But they would still be paid for the day.

“That kind of kept people from sneaking around because they didn’t want to miss a paycheck,” Doug said.

So far, only three of some 31 employees have tested positive during the pandemic, and health officials have determined that the disease has not spread throughout the store, he said.

always trying to move

Today, the company is again looking for a new building. The “Perfect” in East Providence is no longer available.

Doug, 49, who joined the company in 2008 and is now vice president, described the company as “custom machine parts,” adding, “There is no product line. send us prints. “

Vice President Doug Tracey points out a piece designed for NASA by Tracey Gear & Precision Shaft.

These clients included:

â—˜ Nasa

In her office, Tracey exhibits a piece she made for the space agency about ten years ago.

What was it for?

“They didn’t want to tell me,” Doug said.

â—˜ Marine

Tracey made turbine parts for nuclear applications, but that’s about all the Navy told Doug.

Could this be for submarines made in Rhode Island at General Dynamics Electric Boat?

“They could end up there,” Doug said. “I do not know.”

â—˜ The spaceship company, a subsidiary of Virgin Galactic

Was this part intended for space?

All Doug could say, “I know this was critical for the flight.”

In addition to – perhaps – ascending into space and descending into the depths of the ocean, parts made by this Pawtucket company are also used for more mundane uses.

Tracey manufactures parts for oilfield equipment, elevator gearboxes, and aftermarket automotive transmissions, but not original auto parts or medical equipment parts.

He even makes gears for high speed equipment that paints labels on beverage cans.

Whether it’s steel or bronze, or even plastic and aluminum, Tracey takes care of it.

Said Doug, “The pieces really all come in different shapes and sizes.”

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