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January 2009
The Performance Advantage
By Casey Jacobus
   From the time Tracy Trotter was 10 years old, he knew he had to live in North Carolina. Growing up in Texas, Trotter’s first passion was car racing, and North Carolina, he knew, was the place for motorsports.

“My goal was to be living and working in North Carolina by the time I was 23,” says Trotter.

As a child Trotter also dreamed of owning his own company. Raised by a single parent who depended on food stamps and free school lunches to feed the family, Trotter was impressed by a neighbor’s shiny new Cadillac. When the neighbor told him he could afford the Caddy by “working hard and owning my own business,” Trotter knew that he, too, would be a business owner some day.

Consequently, in 1989 when Trotter was 22, he convinced the company he was working with in Texas to open a branch in Charlotte and transfer him to assist in its startup and to help run it. Trotter had spent six years with John Crane, a mechanical seal company in Houston, doing everything from repairs to shipping, so he was well qualified to run their new North Carolina branch.

Soon after moving to North Carolina, Trotter met Harold Elliott, a Winston Cup engine builder who planned to start his own Teflon coatings business for racecar parts.

Elliott hired Trotter to be the general manager of Polydyne, a position that afforded him the opportunity to work with many companies and individuals in the racing industry. Five years later he was ready to start his own company. Trotter, along with two employees, opened Calico Coatings in 1997 in a small facility in Maiden, North Carolina.

“We worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week,” Trotter recalls. “I would work all day making sales calls and then spend the evening in the shop doing coatings. I would go home to take a shower and then go back to the office to do the shipping. I slept at the shop quite a bit that first year.”

The hard work paid off. Calico is now the leading business in the coating industry in North Carolina and one of the top coating companies among 50 to 60 nationwide. Twenty-two employees now work at the company’s main 6,000-square-foot facility in Denver and at a second 4,500-square-foot rental building just down the road where Calico’s PVD coating process is housed.

Plans are underway to build a new $2 million manufacturing plant on 4.5 acres north of the current location. The new facility will have 30,000 square feet and could expand to 80,000 square feet in the future. After the move to the new plant, planned for fall 2009, the company will still continue to keep part of its operations in the current building.

 

Performance Advantage

Trotter built Calico Coatings by selling his coatings to the racecar industry. Calico Coatings was able to find solutions for customers who had issues with heat, corrosion or excess wear by applying superior coatings that would reduce friction, save fuel and increase speed. Their coating solutions include Teflon, ceramic, dry film lubricants, and more recently, PVD or hard coatings. Trotter prides himself on thoroughly understanding his customers’ business challenges and works with them to customize a solution that meets their needs.

Crew chiefs, engine builders and drivers rely on Calico’s coatings to reduce friction under the hood, providing them with more speed. Engines overheating to the point of oil “breakdown” have avoided total destruction of expensive components such as blocks, rods and crankshafts due to the lubrication provided by coated engine bearings.

Originally, motorsports represented 100 percent of Calico’s business. However, other industries gradually discovered the small Denver company as Trotter began attending trade shows around the country. Gradually, Calico added customers in the U.S. military, as well as in the marine, oil, health care and food industries. Today, motorsports represents only 65 percent of Calico’s total business.

For the military, Calico uses CT-69, an extremely thin coating, on many of the integral parts of the equipment the armed forces rely on during training and on the battlefield. These parts include the ejection seat track and cam in the Air Force T-38 fighter jet trainer. During the ejection sequence, these parts are required to withstand extreme heat, bear a heavy load, and rotate quickly in order to properly and safely eject the pilot. Calico’s coating protects them from heat and reduces friction, minimizing the chance for malfunction.

The marine industry applies Calico’s CT-71 coating to their shipping vessels, where it prevents barnacles from adhering to the heat exchangers. This reduces maintenance and manpower.

Calico’s anti-corrosive coating, CT-8, is used for the wellheads on offshore rigs. This coating addresses the oil industry’s need for an anti-corrosion, chemical-resistant coating for cold, wet steel that can not only reduce corrosion, but can be applied in almost any temperature and to a surface that is constantly wet. Calico’s coating reduces downtime of equipment and ultimately increases productivity.

Calico also makes coatings that have application for the food industry, where they are used on everything from industrial bakeware and food chutes to coffee plate warmers, sandwich makers, and utensils. Calico recently moved into the locomotive industry, coating its first train engine to help reduce friction, pollution, maintenance and fuel usage.

Calico is always looking for new coating solutions. Over the past 12 months, Trotter has invested $1 million in equipment to provide customers with PVD (physical vapor deposition) coatings and he plans to add an additional $10 million over the next 10 years on this line. PVD coatings are used for cutting tools, punches and dies, mold components and medical parts. In addition to increasing the life of these tools up to ten time longer than uncoated parts, PVD coatings improve quality and increase productivity. 

 

A Winning Team

Trotter was drawn to North Carolina by his love of racing and his desire to own his own business. Not only has he built Calico Coatings into a highly competitive business, he has also found a way to feed his passion for racing. He is in his fourth year as a car owner with 22 wins to his credit. He owns the Calico Coatings Late Model Stock Car and two “All-American Driver Challenge” USAC midgets, one of which claimed the 2005 USAC National Ford Focus Championship. He is also the owner of the All-American Driver Challenge (AADC), a driver search and competition program.

Coming from a racing family, Trotter’s love of the sport came naturally. His father was a NASCAR late model driver and his uncle raced out of the shops of the legendary A.J. Foyt. Trotter raced go-karts as a kid, winning the Gulf Coast Rookie Karting Association Junior Rookie of the Year Award in 1982. He added more championships in 1983, 1984 and 1985. While he harbored dreams of racing professionally, he soon realized that he didn’t have enough talent, experience or money to succeed.

“Less than 100 people in the United States make a living driving race cars,” he explains. “Racing is a hard sport; it’s harder than running a business. You have to sacrifice everything to racing, even family and friends, and it can kill you.”

Trotter chose to direct his interest in racing into fostering up-and-coming young drivers who might not make it without help. He established the AADC in 2005 to identify talented young drivers and help them take the next step in their racing careers.

“I was looking for the very best drivers I could get, age 15 to 23, to drive my cars,” says Trotter. “We chose 100 kids who qualified through go-kart centers across the country, took them to Atlanta to the Andretti Karting Center and tested their driving skills, desire, strength and marketability.”

The top ten in Atlanta were invited to Hickory where they spent three days driving Trotter’s USAC midgets while being evaluated by an elite panel of judges from the racing industry, including famed open wheel chassis builder and car owner, Bob East. The winner of that first Challenge in 2005 was Bradley Riethmeyer, a student at Texas A& M.

“He’s a prime example of a kid who has talent, but not enough money to make it in racing,” says Trotter.

A second challenge in 2006 identified a 15-year-old from California, Tanner Swanson. Although he may continue the AADC in the future, for the moment Trotter has postponed the program to focus on getting his two new racers to the next level.

“We like racing and we like winning,” says Trotter. “If I can’t win, I don’t want to play.”

Trotter's desire to win applies to business as much as it does to racing. While the recent downturn in the economy has slowed business a little, Trotter doesn't see it making a great impact on Calico Coatings.

“I don’t worry about the economy,” he says. “I worry about what we can do.”

Calico Coatings’ 10-year plan calls for growing to a $25 million business with 50 employees. Trotter believes that is an achievable goal. “I expect to grow through acquisition,” he grins. “Money is cheap; companies are available. It’s a good time to buy low.”

At age 42, Trotter plans to keep working until the day “it is no longer fun.” However, his goal for the next 10 years is to find someone to replace him in the day-to-day running of the company and then retire to an advisory role.

“There are a lot of people who work here who are smarter than me,” says Trotter. “And I know that as you get older, you have less tolerance for risk. I’m always looking for talent who will help grow the company. Calico is a work in progress and we need to keep trying new things.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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