Diane Mastrull: Maple Shade company's innovation, the Grout Gator, to get QVC debut

Posted: December 25, 2012

What do shopping-center development and grout cleaning have in common?

His name is Robert M. Hill.

Not that the president of Retail Sites L.L.C. in Maple Shade has spent any time tackling the detestable chore of scrubbing between the bathroom tiles in his Moorestown home.

"Not any more than the typical American male," Hill said of his cleaning involvement.

But his Grout Gator is headed for mega-exposure - most likely, next month - on QVC, to be pitched by a guest host who estimates that he has sold between $75 million and $80 million in home-improvement products over 13 years of appearances.

Should loyalists of the shopping network go wild for the Grout Gator, Hill, a 53-year-old father of three, might even be motivated to clean. His brother regularly does, which is how the Grout Gator came to be.

Not that brother, Vernon Hill, founder of the Commerce Bank chain, for which Robert, who is 14 years his junior, did site-development work.

No, dirty grout inspired the youngest of Hill's five siblings: Jim, 51, a former track standout at the University of Oregon who now runs SportHill, a successful company in Eugene that designs, manufactures, and sells athletic clothing.

"I just walk around all day and think of ideas - two-thirds of them are stupid," Jim Hill said.

For the Gator inspiration, he wasn't walking. He was "toiling away" with a brush on the floor grout in his home and thinking, "God almighty, there's got to be a better way."

There was, but he said he had to concoct it with Super Glue, duct tape, chicken wire, brushes, and a long handle.

"It worked really well," Jim Hill recalled in a phone interview last week, especially because it kept him off his knees.

He started wondering whether there would be a market for such a product, but then the recession hit and he had to focus on his clothing business. The Grout Gator was put on hold until 2011, when Jim and Robert, who share a passion for running and had always wanted to go into business together, formed Gator Cleaning Products L.L.C.

Grout Gator is premised on the idea that four brushes - or more - are better than one. With its standard four-brush assembly, the Gator is designed to clean four lines of grout simultaneously. More brushes can be added to the soft-grip handle for smaller tiles. The Gator is designed for tile sizes up to 12 inches.

Other accessories include a sponge/squeegee attachment for floors and windows and a telescopic pole that extends to four feet.

Manufactured in China and distributed from a warehouse in Oregon, the Gator retails at www.groutgator.com and a growing number of small retail outlets for $29.95.

"We're still working on getting into big retailers" such as Lowe's and Home Depot, Robert Hill said.

The brothers would not disclose how much it costs to make a Gator, whose name is the joint effort of Jim and sister Diane Turrell, a graphic designer. She did all the work on the logo, which features a sharp-toothed alligator standing on a tile floor.

"I just thought, let's make it fun-looking, versus another black or blue hunk of plastic with no character," Jim Hill said. As he was thinking of words to go with grout, gator popped into his head, partly because the reptile's "teeth looked like bristles on a brush."

Sometimes, there's just no explaining the mind of an entrepreneur.

Robert Hill said he knew they were onto something when they introduced the Grout Gator at a janitorial, cleaning, and sanitation trade show in Chicago in May.

"Everybody kept saying, 'Holy cow, this is great," said Robert, not known for overstating things.

They have sold nearly through their first order of 4,100 Gators; a second order, for 4,500, is on the way from the manufacturer, Robert Hill said. He's using his contacts as a site developer for Giant Foods and CVS, among other retailers, to try to recruit more distributors and attract more users.

But the big payoff could be just weeks away, when Grout Gator debuts on QVC. Lawrenceville, N.J., pitchman Jon Mueller, whose QVC repertoire has included the Bionic Wrench and AR Blue Clean pressure washers, expects a strong response.

"It's so unique, and it's so different," Mueller said. "What works on QVC is it's got to be unique, solve a task, be efficient and a great value."

Robert Hill said he was not at all bummed that the Grout Gator did not have a pre-Christmas showing on QVC. He doesn't think holiday sales would have been that brisk.

At least, they shouldn't have been, he said.

"If you bought this for your wife for Christmas, it would probably end your marriage."


Diane Mastrull:

See Robert Hill, president of Retail Sites L.L.C. of Maple Shade, demonstrate the Grout Gator, and hear him explain what inspired the invention and how his brother Jim was involved at www.philly.com/business


Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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