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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 4 years ago

Tree Hugger

Finding a mentor can be a nice boost for a burgeoning business owner. Johnny Georges found his on a TV show, and the relationship sprouted growth.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

From citrus trees in Central Florida to date palm trees in the Middle East, a plastic cone developed in DeSoto County graces tree trunks worldwide.

Johnny Georges, the entrepreneur behind that product, Tree T-Pee, says he has customers in places such as Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Spain and across the United States. Not bad for a company in Arcadia, some 50 miles north of Fort Myers and some 50 miles west of Sarasota.

The Tree T-Pee can be used on a variety of trees and has several benefits, Georges says, among them water conservation and frost protection. After a successful appearance on the television show “Shark Tank,” he's on a mission to bring Tree T-Pee not just to more farmers in Florida, but also to farmers everywhere.

Along this mission Georges has learned a lot of valuable business lessons. The list includes marketing to a wide variety of customers; shelving his ego to follow the advice of trusted mentors; and that few things in sales work better than actually showing potential customers how well the product works.

Seeds of a Business

Johnny Georges' late father, Rick Georges, owned citrus groves from Winter Haven in Polk County to Arcadia. His father also invented a low-volume irrigation system for citrus in the 1960s, Johnny Georges says.

When there was danger of damage to trees in Rick Georges' groves from frost, they used to pack dirt around the bases of trees to help keep them warm, Johnny Georges says. But the job was time consuming and labor intensive. He and his dad wanted to find a better way.

In 1984, father and son implemented a different approach — a cone that would protect the bases of their citrus trees. For years, they had success using cones on their own trees. During that time, Georges also worked in a different capacity in the agriculture industry, setting pumps and motors for irrigation.

When his father died in 2002, Georges says he decided to bring the Tree T-Pee back to life — but bigger. He went all in. He sold the equipment he used in his irrigation job and switched his focus to Tree T-Pee. Then he redesigned the Tree T-Pee into a bigger device that could be left on a tree from the day it's planted until it's about 5 years old.

He made the initial Tree T-Pees himself, but now Georges uses a recycled plastic plant in Winter Haven for manufacturing. Each Tree T-Pee costs $2.95 to make. Farmers pay $4.50 to $6.50 each, depending on the quantity, Georges says. Homeowners who want a Tree T-Pee for their trees can buy them, too, online. Georges declines to disclose annual revenue figures.

In addition to frost protection devices, the plastic cones also function as water containment systems. The devices allow farmers to spend less water on watering what's around a tree — weeds and dirt — so they can concentrate the water on the tree itself.

The Tree T-Pee has what Georges calls a domino effect, helping farmers save water, herbicide and fertilizer — and money. “Farming is a business,” Georges says. “To the farmer, it's about saving money. When they see they can do that, they're in.”

Georges says the Tree T-Pee allows farmers to cut an eight-hour watering time down to about 15 minutes. “Water containment systems for agriculture aren't the future,” Georges says. Instead, he says, it's something farmers need now for the livelihood of the planet and their farms.

“We're not scientists, we're farmers,” Georges says. “When we put in investment in the ground, we need to get a return on it.”

In the Tank

Seeking a bigger return in the product, in 2013 Georges appeared on the popular ABC television series “Shark Tank,” to promote the Tree T-Pee.

Georges says he made it onto “Shark Tank” because a former Tree T-Pee intern had connections with the show and gave them information about Georges and the product. After a call from an interested executive producer, Georges recorded an audition video. He says it was nothing fancy — a one-minute video shot outside in the field. But it worked.

The night before he pitched Tree T-Pee to the panel of entrepreneurial sharks asking them to invest in his company, he was told a guest shark would be on the show. It was John Paul DeJoria, the billionaire behind hair care company John Paul Mitchell Systems and tequila brand Patrón Spirits Co.

Georges looked DeJoria up online. He says he saw he was “a real humanitarian” and “a real earth-first person.” He knew he wanted his deal to come from DeJoria.

The next day, Georges told his story to the sharks. DeJoria offered him a deal — $150,000 for 20% of the company. Georges took it. “I think he saw me,” Georges says. “He saw my work ethic.”

After the show, Tree T-Pee experienced a sales spike. It received lots of smaller orders immediately, and larger ones — for tens of thousands of Tree T-Pees — in the months following the show's initial airing.

Being on Shark Tank and getting a deal from DeJoria changed his life, Georges says. DeJoria has taught him about business and reinforced values for promoting — people, planet and profit — sometimes referred to as a triple bottom line.

Georges says DeJoria continues to provide him financial support and business advice, even five years later. They talk on the phone every Friday. “If I need advice, he's there,” Georges says. “The man ain't afraid to get his hands dirty. He just really wants to help others.”

Bet the Farm

It can be hard to convince some farmers the Tree T-Pee will benefit them. “The biggest challenge for Tree T-Pee is this — ideology,” Georges says.

Some farmers like to stick to methods they were taught decades ago, when, as Georges says, “people didn't care about water.” Now, it's becoming an ever more precious resource. “You've been doing your farming practices the way your great granddad did,” he says. “That's got to change.”

Georges' solution to skeptics and farmers hanging onto traditional methods? Give them a Tree T-Pee to try for themselves. The proof, he says, is in the T-Pee. “Some things,” Georges says, “you just have to let old farmers figure out for themselves.”

One farmer who's been convinced of the Tree T-Pee's worth is Bill Riddling, who owns Riddling Groves in Melrose, outside Gainesville.

Shortly after Georges appeared on ”Shark Tank,” someone told Riddling about Tree T-Pee. Riddling met with Georges to talk about the product, and he was impressed.

Riddling started using Tree T-Pees on his citrus trees in 2014. Now every tree he plants has one. He estimates his groves have about 650 to 750 T-Pees. “I would never plant another tree without a Tree T-Pee on it,” Riddling says. “It just makes economical sense.”

The Tree T-Pee cut down on the length of time Riddling needs to water his trees. It's also cut his fertilizer costs by 90%. “The cost of the Tree T-Pee,” he says, “doesn't compare to fertilizer savings and water savings.”

He's also seeing increased growth on his trees, adding that he wishes Florida would offer tax abatement on the purchase of Tree T-Pees because of the impact on the environment. “I can honestly say I get 18 months of growth using the T-Pee in 12 months,” Riddling says.

Georges says DeJoria, his business mentor, often talks about how “wealth unshared is totally wasted.” Through Tree T-Pee, Georges says he hopes to give back by helping farmers around the world save water and create sustainability for future generations.

Riddling, like many Tree T-Pee customers, is already there. “For me it's giving back to the environment,” he says. “We're not using the aquifer as much, we're not putting as much fertilizer into lakes and streams. It's a win-win.”

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