Over the years, Precision Tool & Stamping Inc. in Clinton has manufactured some of the key parts to items and appliances used every day by people across the globe, from dishwasher panels to lighting components, backpack frames to lawnmower parts. Housed on an expanse off Warsaw Road, the locally-owned and operated business was founded over three decades ago and has offered down-home quality customer service on a large scale ever since.
Tart and Sue Lee own the business, Tart working mostly on the production side and Sue handling the finances — a fitting partnership. Tart is a “brilliant mind,” Sue noted.
“That is his expertise and this is mine,” she said of the roles. “We eat breakfast together, we eat lunch together, we eat dinner together —if we didn’t have a little separation we would probably be killing each other by now.”
Tart worked years ago with Hamilton Beach. Sue was an accountant with the hospital now known as Sampson Regional Medical Center.
“Tart and his boss decided they wanted to start a business,” Sue said of Tart and Joe Barrickman, who partnered with the Lees on the new venture. “They started in Joe’s garage. Joe was a good guy, a transplant from Ohio.”
After a short time in the garage, the operation moved into a property on Lisbon Street. In 1988, Precision then moved to its current Warsaw Road location, where it has expanded several times. They also own property across Warsaw Road for potential future expansion. The Lees reflected on those times, which actually began back on April 1, 1980, when both still held their full-time jobs and grew their own business at night.
“I was terrified,” Sue recalled with a chuckle. “I said ‘Tart, are we ever going to eat again? We both have pretty good salaries. We will never eat again if we do this.”
Tart would serve as a supervisor at Hamilton Beach from 5 a.m. until 2 p.m. and then work at Precision at night. Sue did the same with her hospital shifts. They did that for about a year, putting everything they had back into the business before ultimately diving head-first into the venture.
“We have done so much with so little for so long we think we can do anything with nothing,” Sue said, smiling. The two were married when Sue was just 19 years old. That was 45 years ago. “We didn’t have children for seven years. We enjoyed each other, did what we wanted to do, got a home and we’ve always taken risks. Sometimes Tart has dragged me there, kicking and screaming.”
One of the biggest risks was Precision itself. Barrickman was in his 60s when Precision began, a gruff man who smoked a cigar and wore a loaded .22 pistol in his belt buckle at all times, even at Hamilton Beach. They were different times. Some people warned against the partnership with him. But the bond worked, and the business’ foundation was solid. Barrickman loved the Lees and they loved him back. Everything was split 50/50 and if there was ever an extra penny it went to Barrickman.
After five years, in 1985, Barrickman came to Tart and said he was ready to retire. He would consult every now and then, but he was out.
“We miss the old fella,” said Sue of Barrickman, who passed away in the mid-1990s.
At Precision, there are now more than 30 employees who work to manufacture and prepare a variety of metal stampings for shipping to customers. The company offers a complete range of tool and die, metal stampings, CNC (computer numerical control) milling and wire EDM (electrical discharge machining) capabilities. The entire die building process is done in-house, starting at part development, if necessary, to tool completion and production parts.
“They send us a part print and we design a die to build that part, then stamp them out in mass production and ship them to them and they put them together,” Tart explained.
Sue attended Sampson Community College, while Tart went to Fayetteville Technical Community College. Sue recalled going on a field trip to a tool and die department, and loving the process. Tart was the same way. Tart can make and fix anything, Sue said. She recalled one particular occasion when some of the crew at Precision was attempting to fix something for 20 hours. Tart, who was out of town at the time, pinpointed the problem upon his return and had it repaired in five minutes.
Stamping capabilities range from 15 to 600 tons and expansions at Precision through the years have meant building around the massive machinery that makes that stamping possible. Customers include General Electric, Husqvarna and BSH Home Appliances Group to name a few.
“Our biggest customer is BSH dishwashers,” Sue noted of the partnership that began back in 2000. “We do more for them than anybody else.”
The first “big job” was a backpack for the government, in which they partnered with Brian Demay’s father. The Lees made the metal frame, while Demay did the canvas part. A huge hundred-year-old company initially won the contract, but went out of business during a down economy. The Lees and their modest Precision stepped in. Maintaining that contract meant trips to New York to get parts anodized. One day, after a full workday at their respective jobs, Sue and Tart loaded their 2-year-old son Brandon into the car and they drove to New York.
“Whatever it took, we did it,” said Sue.
After starting Precision on April Fool’s Day 1980, Tart went full time into the business in July 1981. Sue left the hospital in February 1982.
“That was a fairly sure thing,” Tart said of Hamilton Beach, addressing the prospect of leaving an established job for something he started. “I was maybe not as doubtful as Sue was. It wasn’t long before we were able to take money out of it.”
“A year,” finance officer Sue interjected. “He does nothing with the money. He has no earthly idea what his salary is.”
Love for the job is what keeps Tart and Sue going — and it shows in the crew they have assembled and the work they do.
Last year, General Electric named Precision Tool & Stamping its Lighting Supplier of the Year. Supplying General Electric lighting since 2007, Precision provides brackets, electrical enclosures and other components for high bay lights, street lamps and stadium and parking fixture components.
Precision has worked with GE to transition their designs and manufacturing to accommodate the increasing demand for LED lighting as older lights are phased out. Precision has also been involved with General Electric Lighting’s mission to return jobs from Asia to the United States by offering more competitive pricing and innovative design ideas.
Over the years, the company has manufactured cookie pans for Nestle, various parts for lawnmowers, dishwashers and copiers, as well as keys and other parts for Master Lock. There have been so many others parts big and small, many of which are displayed within the Precision plant. The plant keeps a low-profile, but the Lees would never consider being anywhere but in Sampson.
“I just love Clinton,” said Sue. She and Tart are both Sampson natives, Tart attending Midway High, Sue going to Clinton High. The two met in Raleigh and were married at Plainview Church on U.S. 701. “We lived in Raleigh the first six months we were married and I cried every day.”
The Lees’ two sons Brandon and Justin returned home after graduating as mechanical engineers at N.C. State and are heavily involved in the truly family business, which goes beyond blood relatives. Everyone is family.
As Tart and Sue walk through the gargantuan warehouse that houses mechanical beasts that stamp out parts sent across the world, there is an employee or two working hard at every station. It is a mass production operation, an assembly line process, but the Lees know everyone and pleasantries are exchanged.
Sue said they aren’t employees. That word isn’t used. It is closer-knit than that. There is minimal turnover. There have been divorces, deaths in the family and a lot of times it is the Lees who are there to offer a shoulder or an ear. There is a devotional on Monday and Friday on company time, led by one of Precision’s own, and the majority of the employees attend. There, prayers are offered.
“It’s just a bonding time,” Sue said. “They’re not our employees. They are our equals. We don’t say anyone works for us. We work together.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.