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Grout Gator

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Local inventor hopes to clean up

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The Registar Guard

Sherri Buri McDonald

Jim Hill, an entrepreneur known locally as the founder of the SportHill brand of outdoor sports clothing, is trying his hand at another venture.

He has invented the Grout Gator, a tool intended to speed up the time-consuming household chore of cleaning grout between tile. It’s shaped like a squeegee and comes with adjustable brushes that can be positioned to clean different sizes of tile, up to 12 inches. An extension pole can be attached to scrub the grout in tile floors and in hard-to-reach areas.

Hill, 51, and his brother and business partner, Robert Hill, 53, a Pennsylvania real estate developer, already have sold several thousand Grout Gators and are hoping that a six-minute spot on the QVC channel later this month will result in even more sales — and visibility.

Locally, the Grout Gator sells at Jerry’s Home Improvement stores and the True Value hardware store on Willamette Street in south Eugene.

“Like most new items it sometimes takes a little while to get off the ground,” said Terry White, manager of the south Eugene True Value store, which has carried the Grout Gator for the past several months. “If people aren’t even aware of it, they’re not asking for it,” he said.

Jim Hill said he’s hoping the QVC appearance will help spread the word among consumers. But for now, he’s encouraged by the buzz the Grout Gator is generating in the janitorial/sanitation industry. A recent appearance at an industry­ trade show in Chicago resulted in several hundred sales leads, and some international orders from as far away as Panama and the Philippines, he said.

People in the cleaning industry “want a solution right now to get their cleaning done more efficiently,” said Annie Loe, Grout Gator’s sales and marketing director. “They see this thing and their eyes light up. It makes so much sense to them.”

Anywhere there is tile is a potential market, Hill said, adding that the product is so new that it’s hard to predict how large that market might be.

“It’s all blue sky,” he said. “We have no idea.”

Something Hill has on his side as he embarks on his newest venture is a 28-year track record running SportHill, which is based in west Eugene and has about a dozen employees.

Hill doesn’t disclose any financial figures for any of his businesses. But SportHill, which is best known for its running and skiing apparel, supplies large customers, such as the U.S. military, REI and L.L. Bean, as well as a range of specialty running and ski shops.

There is no crossover of SportHill and Grout Gator’s markets, but Hill said his experience with SportHill has helped him know what steps to take with the new company.

He takes a stack of SportHill catalogs to Grout Gator trade shows because it puts buyers and dealers at ease to find out that Hill is a seasoned businessman, he and Loe said.

Nathan Lillegard, program manager of the University of Oregon’s Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship, said it stands to reason that someone who establishes a successful company would have a leg up when launching subsequent companies.

“It’s just a gut instinct that any entrepreneur who’s been through the process of getting something into the market once, the second time you go around that merry-go-round it’s a whole lot easier because you know where the pitfalls are,” he said. “You have an instinct of what to do when and how to prioritize the things you need to do to get a product to market.”

Hill said his SportHill contacts also helped identify a partner in China to produce the Grout Gator, and he’s using SportHill’s warehouse and shipping departments to distribute the Grout Gator.

“That makes it easier to have that here,” Hill said. “We either do it here or pay to have some fulfillment house do it somewhere.”

Thanks to his previous experience, Hill said, he also is more at ease this time around with the unknowns associated with starting a business.

“I’m much better now at rolling with the punches — realizing some things will work out and some won’t,” he said.

Hill came up with the idea for the Grout Gator in 2007, when he became fed up cleaning grout at home.

“I was the guy in the house that did that job, and I’d rather be skiing, or running, or something,” he said.

“This was basically the competition,” he said, holding up a long-handled scrub brush. “I thought, this is silly. ... There’s got to be a better way.”

With the help of a friend who had a wood shop, Hill added several brush heads to a squeegee, which enabled him to clean several rows of grout at once.

When the recession hit in 2008, Hill put the project on the back burner and focused on SportHill.

Then, about a year ago, he started working on the grout cleaner again, perfecting several prototypes and ultimately finding the manufacturer in China to produce them. Hill said he looked into having them made in the United States, but couldn’t find anyone who could do it, or do it affordably.

Hill, who ran for the University of Oregon and earned a degree in finance in 1984, has been a designer and tinkerer since childhood.

He said that as a middle-schooler growing up in Virginia he filled notebooks with drawings of hiking boots. He sent an idea for retractable spikes on running shoes to footwear manufacturer Tiger, which the company politely rejected, he said.

And he said he spent hours building long boards with a neighbor years before they hit the skateboarding scene.

Hill said he doesn’t know where he gets his urge to invent.

“Dropped on my head as a baby,” he joked.

The “caboose” of six children, Hill said his dad owned a business and he and his siblings all work for themselves.

“It runs in the gene pool,” he said.

Sister Diane Turrell, a graphics designer in Pennsylvania, created Grout Gator’s alligator logo.

Even today Hill keeps notebooks and files brimming with ideas for new products.

“I’ve got to concentrate on the ones that will make money,” he said.

Hill hopes he’s hit on a winner with the Grout Gator.

SportHill’s business is very seasonal, peaking in the winter, Hill said.

“It would be fun and helpful if (the Grout Gator) took off and was more of a spring/summer item,” he said.