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Gene's Machine builds big, sees growth through the years (Video)

July 21, 2012 at 2:21 a.m.
Updated July 22, 2012 at 2:22 a.m.

Gene's Machine Shop started out as a small home business in the Northcrest home of Gene Pratka, but occupies over 52,000 square feet at their plant site on Leeper Lane.

A bit of ingenuity, a backyard workshop and some very patient neighbors. Those were the ingredients that gave Gene's Machine, a Victoria welding and machining company, its initial start.

And, decades later, the business is still going strong.

It all began when Union Carbide employee and gun enthusiast Gene Pratka started dreaming big, said Wesley Pratka, Gene's son and one of the company's current vice presidents.

He said it was 1979, and Dad wanted to quit his job to open a gunsmith shop. When the idea didn't fly with his wife, Gail Pratka, he settled on a workshop behind his Northcrest subdivision home.

Dad's dedication meant his skills improved, and evolved into larger projects, Wesley explained. Eventually, the tiny shop caught the eye of Skytop Brewster, a company that creates workover rigs for the oil industry.

They were looking for a vendor, he said, and wanted to check things out.

"It really seemed like they were more interested in the guns around the shop than the other things, but about a week later, Dad called them," Wesley Pratka said, noting the company then dropped a 2-inch stack of blueprints off for estimates. "He was up all night working on those, but they liked his pricing. He got the job."

The rest, as they say, was history.

Trucks rolled steel tubes into the Pratka family's front ditch and, as time wore on, so did a dirt path in the grass. It ran from the roadway, around to the shop, and out again - the route the trucks took to get their work done.

"This was a residential neighborhood," Wesley said with a laugh. "All I can say is, we had good neighbors. Because they weren't paying attention to noise restrictions or anything when they were getting their work done. And nobody ever complained."

In 1982, the shop outgrew its home and struck out on its own at 235 Leeper Lane.

With time, the business saw change.

The site transitioned from all manual to today's high-tech, computer-controlled incarnation. That component allows for quicker, more accurate work, Pratka explained.

"It would be impossible to run some of what we do on a regular manual machine," he said. "This allows us to do bigger work and stay competitive."

Wesley attributed the business' success to a couple of factors.

His parents balanced one another out, he said, explaining that, while Dad would overspend if given the chance, Mom wouldn't have expanded enough.

"I think that's the secret to it," he said. "They were able to run the business without much debt."

A well-trained staff also helped, along with the ability to build big.

The company's building saw six expansions, each evident on the concrete floors, where paved-over joints illustrate where the previous structure ended, and the add-on began. After a current expansion ends, the building will top out at a whopping 63,000 square feet.

Gene's Machine created its own niche market, buying larger machines to create larger equipment, Pratka said. The move allows the shop to do big jobs most similar companies in the area can't.

Tim Peyton, the shop foreman, recalled one job in particular where that heavy machinery paid off.

Gene's was tasked with creating a replacement swivel for offloading fuel from tankers in the Philippines. The existing swivel, in use since the 1970s, began to leak and spelled out trouble.

On a tight time crunch, the crew got it out.

"It might have left the Philippines without fuel," he said. "It was a big job."

Other projects included work in metal recycling - Gene's has crafted car crushers, for instance - as well as work for Caterpillar's mining sector in Lufkin, Peyton said. The majority of work, however, comes from oil and gas.

Although the current boom has meant non-stop work, the crew is careful to remain diverse. Oil and gas is a volatile market, Pratka said, and drilling won't last forever.

"An important part of being in business is being versatile," he said, explaining equipment can be modified to create parts other than oil field tools.

Looking ahead, Pratka envisioned further growth for the company he grew up with.

"You've kind of got to always be looking ahead," he said. "In this business, if you aren't growing, you're going backward."

As for Dad, he's come full circle.

The man who began his empire gunsmithing retired about two years ago and returned to his original workshop. Still, his sons - Wesley and the company's other vice president, Dwaine Pratka - make sure he knows he's welcome back any time.

"We'll still ask him what he thinks about Pratka things we're doing," Wesley said. "He's still involved. He'll always be a big part of what we do."

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