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Sunday, March 5, 2000

A ‘Love’ affair with a robotic lawnmower
By ROY A. JONES II
Senior Staff Writer

If Cindi Herndon Love had stuck with her first love she would probably be editor of the New York Times today.

Instead, the one-time editor of Abilene High School’s newspaper, The Battery has an earned doctorate in education and enough professional accomplishments in a variety of educational and business endeavors to fill a book.

Fortunately, for Abilene, she’s also still involved in a Love affair with her hometown.

That explains why the 45-year-old educator-turned-businesswoman picked Abilene to be the North American headquarters of the Israeli company that she was personally recruited to lead.

“I really was semi-retired to Abilene when they came along and made me an offer that was too good to turn down,” she said. “I finally accepted with the understanding I could stay in Abilene.”

Not that she doesn’t spend a lot of time traveling — including four trips to the Tel Aviv headquarters of Friendly Machines, Ltd. since late November.

“I’m putting all my computer training to good use,” she said with a laugh. “I do a lot of work on my laptop while I’m flying somewhere.”

You’ve probably seen the ads for her Robomow, a robotic lawnmower that allows its owner to play with the kids or sit in the shade sipping a cold drink while the environment-friendly machine takes care of the yard by itself.

“Its mamma was a sheep. Its daddy was a traveling alien,” says one of the signs being readied for Robomow’s Texas debut at the Big Country Home and Garden Expo Saturday and today at the Abilene Civic Center.

Another says, “Brains 1, Brawn 0.” Still another: “Smart enough to mow your lawn. Dumb enough to do it for free.”

Potential windfall

Cindi Love is not a hard-sell promoter. She’s content to let Robomow sell itself, as it has been doing quite successfully in Europe for several years.

If sales take off in the United States like she believes they will, Love stands to become filthy rich. Wealth isn’t what motivates her, but she admits that it would help her to attain a lifelong goal of helping her community through philanthropy.

“Don’t get me wrong. There’s a tremendous sense of personal fulfillment that comes with helping others through education and rehabilitation and community involvement and the other things I’ve been involved in, but most of the time those endeavors just pay the bills,” she said.

“I’ve seen a lot of people over the years who were just $1,000 away from being destitute or turning their life around and I always wished there was something more I could do to help them,” she said.

She listed the late A.B. “Stormy” Shelton, most of whose charitable work was done behind the scenes, as her role model for philanthropy.

“He was so modest that most people didn’t realize what all he had done for Abilene until he was gone,” she said. “But he left fingerprints all over Abilene — hospital, school, churches — I admire that.”

Love also had a built-in role model for business and civic leadership in her mother. Alamae Herndon found success in an industry dominated by men — petroleum.

Before her death in 1988, at age 63, Herndon had been secretary-treasurer of the Grisham-Hunter Corp., vice president of Delaware Basin Properties and co-manager of Delaware Basin Joint Venture, as well as a consultant to several large independent Texas oil and gas corporations.

She was also a charter member of the Petroleum Club of Abilene; president of the Altrusa Club and Women for ACU, and a 10-year member of ACU’s National Development Council.

“I got my drive from her,” Love said.

Her father, Leo, who still lives here, is retired from a long career as credit manager for Lone Star Gas.

Getting started

Love graduated from Abilene High School in 1972 and became interested in speech pathology through a visit to the West Texas Rehabilitation Center. She earned her bachelor’s degree in that field in 1975, then worked as a school speech pathologist in Shreveport while earning her master’s degree at Louisiana Tech.

She returned home to work at the Rehab Center and for the AISD, then taught at Hardin-Simmons University. In 1981, she founded C.H. Love & Co., Inc., and became the ComputerLand franchise. Over the next few years she earned her doctoral degree in education at Texas Tech University and restored three downtown businesses on Cypress Street for her growing businesses.

In 1990, the firm was named one of the fastest growing companies in the nation, based on a 3,201-percent increase in gross sales from 1985-89. Sales went from $363,000 to almost $12 million, she recalled.

The company was grossly undercapitalized and she wound up selling the firm in 1991 and accepting an MIT Fellowship.

Looking back, she said, the business was almost designed to fail because it sold computers too cheaply in the competitive market and was unable to overcome the debt it assumed when it purchased three ComputerLand franchises which were in financial trouble.

“ComputerLand went from 756 employees to 178 in less than two years, and at the same time the effective (profit) margin on PCs went from 42 percent to 14. What we faced was no different than what small retailers face when Wal-Mart comes in to an area,” she said. “Once the bigger stores got into the mass marketing arena, and we had to stay competitive, we simply could not sustain the losses.”

She said directors decided to sell out to save investors a worse fate if the company was forced into bankruptcy.

She later founded Integration Control Systems and Services, which developed software to distribute irrigation industry products. In 1996, she sold out to the Toro Company, the largest turf care product manufacturer in the world.

As part of the buy-out she became a director in Toro’s Minneapolis headquarters until late 1998. Then, she returned to Abilene, intending to retire from everything but a little consulting work.

But last November, Israeli leaders of Friendly Machines, Ltd., sought her out and asked her to be chief operating officer for North America. They wanted her to introduce Robomow to the United States, she said.

She lined up more than 200 U.S. dealers so quickly that the impressed corporation directors elected her CEO of the whole company before a U.S. sale was made.

“I didn’t want to have to travel. Now look at me,” she said recently during an airport telephone interview between flights in Detroit.

After a recent public demonstration, she said she was moved by a 6-year-old boy who sent her a colorful drawing of a man walking behind a robotic mower, guiding it with a small device similar to a TV remote control.

“This is a safer way to mow. You can’t cut off your fingers and toes,” the child wrote. “And my Dad can mow again because he has a bad back.”

Love laughed when she added that the child also warned that the machines will become popular targets for thieves and suggested, “Make it say, help, help, someone is stealing me.”

Actually, Robomow’s makers have already thought of that, Love said. The latest models include a hidden honing device which could lead police to a stolen machine.

But drive-by thefts should not be a problem, she said, because the mowers weigh 121 pounds.

How does it work?

The key component of Robomow is a small electronic navigation device that acts as the “brain” of the machine. Once a wire, connected to a small generator powered by AA batteries, is placed around the perimeter of the lawn, Robomow is set to work. The mower moves in straight lines, turning at the end of each run with a natural overlap.

During cutting, the navigation module updates a map of the lawn in its memory, including obstacles. It does not require any knowledge of the area to be cut, or of any obstacle.

The company got its name, he said, from the fact that the machine is “friendly” to the environment. It uses no oil or gasoline and emits no exhaust. It runs on two 12-volt batteries that can be recharged overnight. It can mow about 5,300 square feet on a single charge, he said.

Love said she believes that Robomow, despite its $695 price tag, will make a significant dent in the 5.6 million walk-behind and 1.5 million riding lawn mowers that are sold in the U.S. each year.

Abilene salesmen of traditional mowers don’t see Robomow as a serious threat to their business — the lack of moisture is far worse a threat, they say.

Don Smith of Moore’s Bicycle Shop, who sells Toro, Honda and Snapper mowers, said most mowers here are sold to medium-size lawn owners who might find setting up a perimeter wire and getting the robotic mower all ready to mow more hassle than just getting a little exercise behind their old faithful walk-behind mower.

But Fred Hamilton, owner of Hamilton Supply, said he thinks robotic mowers are here to stay and will grow in popularity as competition drives prices down. He said Husqvarna, a 310-year-old company which began making muskets for the King of Sweden, began marketing a robotic lawn mower in Europe three years ago.

“It’s supposed to be released in the U.S. sometime in 2000, and we’ll be the area dealer,” he said. One model, he said, recognizes when it is running low on electricity, “quits mowing and drives itself to its portal and plugs itself in until it is recharged,” he said. “then it goes back and finishes the job.”

Another Husqvarna robot model runs off of solar power, he added.

“We’ll never replace walk-behind mowers, but this developing computer technology is going to make the future of lawn care even more exciting for us all,” he said.

For more information about Robomow call (888) 404-ROBO or visit the company’s Web site at www.robomow.com.

Roy A. Jones II can be reached at 676-6737 or by e-mail at jonesr@abinews.com

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