I Invented The Weed Eater, George Ballas Invented The Industry

I Invented The Weed Eater, George Ballas Invented The Industry.

One of the most enjoyable periods in my life was when I worked at Weed Eater, Inc. George C. Ballas, Sr. was one of the most charismatic, enthusiastic and creative people I ever met. Mr. Ballas created the company known as Weed Eater, Inc. based upon his vision of the commercial need for a “string line trimmer”. So when I say , “I invented the Weed Eater”, let me explain that while I invented a way to cut grass using a nylon line, I saw a customer potential of only one-me. Here's what happened.

I grew up in a house in a Houston neighborhood know as “The Heights”. It was on the near northwest side of downtown Houston. A great place to live in the '40s and '50s. Our house was built in about 1921. For winter heat, it had a fireplace, a coal stove and natural gas heaters. For summer, there was an attic fan which was so powerful, it would suck the wall paper off the walls if you turned it on with no door or window open for it to draw air in. As was customary in those days, we like many other homes, had an oyster shell driveway. Oyster shell was in abundance in those days. “Stabilized” oyster shell used for both a drive way surface and as a base for asphalt paving. It had several drawbacks however. It was messy-white dust in the dry spells-white stuff that tracked into the house when wet. In the summer it was tough on the bare feet of kids, like me.

Well, there came a time when our landlord, who worked for a construction company, brought home most of a load of hot asphalt that was surplus from a job. Some how we were able to spread that asphalt all the way from the street to the detached garage that sat on the back property line. The drive was two cars wide from the street to the corner of the house then narrowed to one car lane until it passed the rear of the house. It then flared to two car widths creating a parking area in front of the two door garage. There were no curbs or even defined edges of the asphalt. But after it was there for a week or so, the asphalt cooled down, hardened and eliminated the undesirable qualities of the shell driveway. It was my job as a boy of 11 or 12, to mow, rake and edge the lawn. Edging was easy along the sidewalks but it was difficult along the asphalt. Soon the St. Augustine grass would have runners extending onto the asphalt surface. I used a hoe, hand clippers and even hedge trimmers to create the appearance of a trimmed edge. Nothing really worked to my satisfaction. In fact things like the hoe could damage the edge of the asphalt.

Now, every October Sunday, there was an event called the Huntsville Prison Rodeo. My research tells me that it played those dates from 1931 to 1984. It really drew the crowds. Since it was only about sixty miles from where we lived to the rodeo, we had a family outing that took us to that rodeo. As a souvenir, my Dad bought me a small bull whip. I got to where I could pop it really well. The only problem was that I wore out the “poppers” fairly quickly. We had a roll of nylon parachute shroud line in the garage and I made poppers out of it. Maybe you can see the plot developing here. One day I was popping my whip at a large leafy weed growing in the back yard. I started slicing off pieces of leaves, Then stems. Eureka! I turned around and went over to the driveway. There were runners extending out onto the surface. Guess what? I popped them off and without damage to the driveway. But I had more driveway edge than I had stamina to cut them with a bull whip. So I went into the garage to see what I could rig up. I found an electric drill, some ¼ inch “all thread” and the nylon parachute cord. So, here comes my first “weed eater”. I cut off about a 3 inch piece of the all thread. I then sawed a slot in one end about ½ inch deep. I “chucked” it up in the drill. I then took a 12 inch length of shroud line and wedged the center of it into the slot in the all thread leaving about 6 inches extending on either side. Now for the moment of truth. I hooked the electric drill to an extension cord and squeezed the trigger. It was an “instant on” drill and wrapped the cord around the chuck and almost yanked the drill out of my hands before I could let off the trigger.

I sat down to think about this for a minute. I decided that what I needed was a variable speed drill with a higher speed top end. We didn't have one but I knew a neighbor who did. So I borrowed it and tried again. Guess what? I trimmed those pesky Saint Augustine runners to a straight line. Twenty feet of driveway edge took about twenty minutes, created a lot of nylon fuzz and required the reload of shroud line two or three times. Except for the fuzz and the slow speed, thats about the way most nylon string line trimmers work. But as the commercial potential of one, I was happy. So was my Dad. I would only trim with my drill powered trimmer about once a month. It would be about twenty years later that I would see the commercial Weed Eater unveiled by George Ballas.

I had met George Ballas through a close friend named Don Woods. Through the years, Don and I explored many things together. He was close to Mr. Ballas and as such was involved in some land deals with him. Don brought me into a few of those which were profitable to me. But as life went on, I was recruited away to Dallas to work for a company that pioneered the “ATM” business. Another story there. So, one day in Dallas, Don called and asked when I was coming to Houston. I told him that I would be in the following Friday. That worked out because George Ballas had a meeting lined up with a few investors to show his new invention, The Weed Eater. I came, I saw, I was amazed. It was many years later that I would tell Mr. Ballas about “my weed eater.” As far as Mr. Ballas' story, there are lots of places on the Internet to search for his story. It happened that after about five or six years from the events I just described, I would join Weed Eater, Inc. as Director of Technical Services. This allowed me to get a closer look at the man, his family, his management style. Speaking of his family, I don't know where they all are but one of his sons, Corky, along with his wife, have become world champion Flamenco dancers. And at the time of this writing, their son, Mark Ballas, is on the “Dancing With The Stars” television show.

So George Ballas, Sr. is one of the most unforgettable people I have ever met. In business and industry, he is the top. In personal traits such as ethics and honesty, he is second only to my Dad. Mr. Ballas had a way of getting you on his team and stirring up your creative juices better than anyone I ever met. I believe this to be an accurate quote from him, “I want all of you to be a bunch of wild ducks. But I want you to fly in my formation”. Whether or not it was he who said it, that quotation captures the spirit of his management style. He had a grin and a twinkle in his eye similar to only one other person I have met in my life. But a totally different character. Mr. Ballas knew things instinctively that I was yet to learn. Like when we would have a departmental meeting, he would say, “OK. I want you all to feel free to say whats on your mind. There is no 'rank' on anyone's collar in my meeting. However, when there may be a disagreement, I reserve the right to decide the outcome.” There was seldom any disagreement. We all had respect for each other and we all tried to help each other. There was very little “politics” at Weed Eater, Inc. Mr. Ballas created a spirit of creativity, enthusiasm and cooperation. Whenever we were in a meeting, Mr. Ballas would say, “A wise man once told me that if you really want someone to understand what you are trying to say, you must say it thirteen times before they really understand it. This is the first time that I am going to say this...........” What would happen then was that you would have leaned forward in your seat so you could hear better. You had your note paper and pen in hand. And you had said to yourself, “I'll get this the first time he says it. He won't need to repeat it for me.” And as far as I can recall, he never did repeat a point made that way, at least to that group of people.

If you know the story of Weed Eater, you know the story about the pop corn can. (If not, look it up.) As would happen from time to time, I would come in on a Saturday to work on some project or presentation. When I pulled into the parking lot, I always looked to see if Mr. Ballas' car was there and more often than not it was. I would always go by a say, “Hello”. And if Mr. Ballas was not totally busy with a group of people meeting with him, he would always invite me in. He would ask about my family, my kids, my work. Always interested in everyone because he understood that his greatest assets were his people. He was the “entrepreneur's entrepreneur.” And knowing this, one day I told him of a friend who had invented a carburetor that would increase gas mileage 25% simply by bolting it on in place of the existing carburetor. And that my friend needed a few hours of precision lathe time like in the Engineering Lab and would work outside the company hours. So he asked me to talk to the head engineer, who was also a good friend of mine. The engineer and my friend worked out a schedule that was mutually favorable. At a later date, I was in on a Saturday again. And Mr. Ballas was in. I stopped by to say “Hello” and was invited in. My friend had already told me that he had a visit with Mr. Ballas while doing his lathe work. So, I expressed my apologies if my friend had disturbed him or solicited funds from him. To the contrary, Mr. Ballas said he enjoyed the visit.

If you know the story of Weed Eater, you probably know that the first power source for a large commercial Weed Eater product was produced by a company in Indiana called Hoffco and that Mr. Ballas had become good friends (as had several of us) with Dave Hoff, one of the founders. All of this is to set the stage for a question I asked Mr. Ballas about all of the “kooky” inventions and even “kookier” inventors who had paraded their ideas past him, how did he handle it. He said, “All I can tell you is what Dave Hoff said when I asked him the same thing. Dave told me, 'All I have to do is remember this Greek cook and dance teacher from Houston who, one day, walked into my office and told me I wouldn't believe what he could do with this popcorn can he was holding.' You know, I really try to keep an open mind.” He went on to tell me about a man who came in trying to solicit money to work on his invention. A way to create electricity using garbage. This inventor produced a test tube filled with composted garbage, installed the leads of a light bulb into the garbage and added some “enzymes”. Mr. Ballas said that when the light started to glow, “I was interested, then”. One thing for sure, Houston produced a lot of garbage for fuel. So, in trying to determine what the inventor thought his invention would do, it was estimated that it would take a cubic acre to just light up a house. So, Mr. Ballas sent him packing in a gentlemanly sort of way.

As the entrepreneur's entrepreneur, Mr. Ballas was called upon to teach a class on Entrepreneurship at The University of Houston, I think. He was a very relaxed man and as I recall him, wore a lot of Hawaii shirts. But Mr. Ballas was very concerned about making the right impression, so he wore a suit with a white dress shirt and tie. He was amazed that the classed dressed so relaxed. In fact he was relieved. So for the next class, he wore his customary informal attire. So he wasn't ready when he walked into his second session the next week. It seems that the entire class wanted to be correctly dressed and the all wore suits and ties. They shared many laughs over that incident.

I will always consider George C. Ballas as one of the most memorable people I have met. Memorable in the best way. He had sold Weed Eater, Inc. before I left the company. I think I might never have considered leaving were he still there except to retire, as I am now. And in all humility, I would defer all credit for invention of the nylon line trimmer to Mr. Ballas. He deserves all of the accolades.