A born entrepreneur, Joe Conrad hails from Cincinnati, Ohio, where his father was an electrical engineer by profession, but also an entrepreneur who has owned a number of businesses.
Growing up, Conrad always had an affinity for cars. While in high school, especially once it was legal for him to drive, he was ‘messing around with’ and fixing cars. The path he chose to travel is different than the other kids he hung around with. Even his part-time jobs were working with and around cars and trucks.
One of his jobs was maintaining cars and vans from a fleet of service vans. “I also worked for my dad’s company. They were in the 2-way radio business,” said Conrad. “I used to install radios and different electrical equipment in police cars. That was all before I really had my driver’s license.”
Conrad learned to do a lot of mechanical work on these vehicles, and at another of his jobs, he befriended a person who painted cars and he learned how to do that, too. Before long, he was painting his own cars. “I was one of those people who was into the car scene.”
He also did some excavating on the side. He had a backhoe service— all this while still in high school. During this time, one of his father’s friends had an airplane and his father was learning to fly, so Conrad hitched a ride in the plane. “I guess I got the flying bug as well,” he said. “So when I finished high school, I went to Bowling Green State University and graduated with a degree in aerotechnology, which is basically aviation maintenance and business management.” For his thesis, Conrad did a paper on starting a business in aviation.
While still in college, he was painting airplanes during his summer vacations, and when he graduated, he made this into his own full-time business. He actually designed and built a downdraft spray-booth for small planes. He hired some people and began to grow the business.
Conrad continued expanding his business for twelve years. He moved a bunch of older hangars that had to be removed, and relocated them. He owned those hangars and rented them out on a lease basis. “That led to me running the airport that the county owned.”
“I had a flight school, maintenance shop, avionics shop, sold fuel, mowed over 100 acres, and used to buy a lot of small planes, fix them up and sell them,” Conrad said. He started a charter company and ended up with a 10-passenger turbo prop, among others. The owner of one of the companies who used his service became interested in the business and ended up buying the charter company, the flight school and everything else in 2007, with the exception of the hangars, which Conrad still owns.
You might be wondering what all of this has to do with the green industry…so, here goes.
Conrad was not necessarily looking for something to do once he’d sold the companies. At the age of 41, he felt like he was semi-retired. But as luck would have it, and as the mind of an entrepreneur works, one day the light bulb went off as he was cutting the grass at his home. He was having problems with his zero-turn mower— he had replaced the hydraulic pumps and the mower kept giving him trouble. He had about five acres to mow.
Being the car buff that he was, Conrad had always been interested in electric cars. He says he was ready to convert a smaller car to electric. He thought, “You know, why isn’t there such a thing as an electric mower that could cut a fair amount of grass?”, and the wheels in his head started turning. “Something like this can be done,” he thought.
He converted a mower, used it as a mule to carry all batteries, the motors, and everything else, and began experimenting. What he came up with was pretty rough, but it worked reasonably well, so Conrad began drawing what he felt the equipment would look like. He built the first mower in his garage.
Once he made the electric mower for himself, Conrad felt that maybe there were others who could use this type of equipment. He took it to a home and garden show, and generated a lot of excitement—even got a few orders.
“I quickly realized that there wasn’t really anything out there that could last very long on one charge. I thought I’d go ahead and make a few, see what they’re like,” said Conrad. “At this point, my son got involved and started helping with the design of the equipment and adding bigger battery packs, to get more runtime. We were still using lead-acid batteries at that time, so they were really heavy. It’s hard to exchange them, but we made it so that you could. We were slowly just selling them as we went along.”
Before they knew it, they were in business, which they called Mean Green Mowers. Even though they weren’t selling many, they were learning a lot on every one they made.
They kept upgrading and making motors more powerful, and controllers better. They began to develop a couple of different models. Their first one was the zero-turn; the second one was the 33-inch walk-behind. Other models followed, including an aluminum 20-inch push mower and a 48-inch stand-on. Every year, they came out with something new.
On the personal side, Conrad met his wife, Chris, when he was in college; they married shortly after he graduated. They have three children: his son Matt, 25, and two daughters, 21 and 14, who are both still in school. Matt went to college and took engineering and business courses and is involved in the business. Chris also works in the business, managing the back office.
As for the future, Conrad says, “Last year, we developed hand-held tools for commercial users. We have a battery backpack commercial-grade string trimmer that looks, feels and is as powerful as any gas-powered commercial trimmer. We also came up with a battery backpack blower that is very quiet and as powerful as most gas backpack blowers.”
He continues, “We’re seeing and expecting and planning on some pretty rapid expansion. The new lithium battery technology that we now use just keeps getting better, and we’re small enough that we’re on the leading edge of it, so we’re able to make changes quickly. We’re able to get the new systems into our mowers before anybody knows about them. That gives us the edge to keep ahead, while still trying to expand the business.”
Joe Conrad and Mean Green Mowers are on the cutting edge, building equipment on a fast track that will stand up to the contractors’ needs. They can be the workhorse of the future.