Can a five dollar molded piece of plastic change the world?
Maybe, if it’s Johnny Georges’ brainchild, the Tree-T-Pee, made famous on the TV show “Shark Tank.”
The invention, a cone of flexible plastic that fits around the trunk of a citrus tree, first popped into the Arcadia entrepreneur’s head back in the 1980s when he was working for his dad Rick Georges’ irrigation company. Johnny thought there had to be a better way to protect young citrus trees from frost. The father/son team began piling dirt around the bases of the trees and fashioning makeshift plastic protectors.
In 2008, when Georges was running his own irrigation company, he designed the mold for the Tree-T-Pee and tested out a few prototypes. He found that the black “teepees” not only saved the trees’ lives during a hard frost, but also conserved water and reduced fertilizer and herbicide use.
The humble invention works by acting as a shield for the tree trunk. A microsprinkler is positioned underneath the shield. The effect is a warm, dark area around the base of the tree that prevents grass and weeds from growing and constrains water and fertilizer delivery close to the tree.
I started buying hats and T-shirts and handing them out, Georges said, when he made his first batch of “teepees.” He was selling Tree-T-Pees in five counties in Florida when “Shark Tank” producers approached him in 2013. “I thought it was a big joke,” he grinned. “I had never heard of ‘Shark Tank.’”
When the hardworking country boy flew to Los Angeles to present his ideas to a panel of suited potential investors in front of the TV cameras, Georges said, “It was the scariest moment of my life.”
Georges had gone on the show without having watched it, and hadn’t prepared the lengthy monologue the show expected. Instead, he spoke from the heart, his nervousness showing, but impressed businessman John Paul DeJoria when he talked about his desire to help farmers as well as the enormous water savings the Tree-T-Pee produced. Georges also broke down when he credited his deceased father for inspiring him. The older Georges was the inventor of the microsprinkler in 1970, an innovator and a pioneer in the citrus industry.
The show was filmed in June of 2013 and aired in November 2013 as part of Season Five. Now, less than a year later, with the investment money and support of partner DeJoria, one of Georges’ biggest customers is Germany and he’s flying out to Israel later in the week. A letter on his desk from the Kingdom of Bahrain suggested that the Tree-T-Pee might be a “potential solution to the Middle East’s agricultural and environmental difficulties.”
Did he ever imagine his invention solving agricultural problems around the globe? Georges shook his head, saying “John Paul imagined that, not Johnny Georges.”
But Georges hasn’t built a mansion just yet. He runs Tree-T-Pee with his teenage son Wesley out of a building that serves as both their home and office. He has a handful of high level employees and continues to work his irrigation business, GSI Supply, Inc.
While business has definitely been growing, Georges said he’s not making that much per unit because he wants to keep his patented invention affordable for the farming families who are his biggest customers. It’s a point that got him lambasted by Shark Tank investor Kevin O’Leary, who wanted him to more than double his price. “O’Leary and I had a come-to-Jesus moment (off camera),” Georges said, adding, “It’s about doing right by the people who feed you.”
Field experiments published in Citrus Industry have shown that certain young trees protected by a Tree-T-Pee “grew 37 percent more trunk diameter after 21 weeks than standard conventional practice.” The report also stated that during the dry season daily water requirements for each tree were between .50 and .65 gallons as opposed to 8.6 gallons for trees that did not use a Tree-T-Pee to constrain the water. Fertilizer savings were calculated at between 80 and 87 percent with the same nitrogen levels recorded in the test trees and control group.
After appearing in a follow-up TV episode called “Swimming with the Sharks” just a few weeks ago, Georges also said he’s been pegged to take part in a documentary. He’s got a trip to the Middle East to take, plus he’s just gotten his product into 50 Home Depot stores, a huge win for the business owner who stated, “I’m pumped!”
Through it all, the Winter Haven native has remained a sturdy, down-to-earth, hard-worker who had the tenacity and courage to follow his dreams where they led. “I didn’t hope and pray, I believed and I knew,” Georges said soberly. He added his signature line: “Nobody owes you nothing. Life is what you make of it.”