Via Financial Post April 17, 2018
HAMPTON, ONT. — Garry Burns has a toothy grin, an easy manner and a raft of stories he could tell a listener about Wayne Conrad, his childhood friend and present employer at Omachron Group, a research and development outfit based in a tiny village 75 minutes northeast of Toronto.
But picking just one isn’t easy, Burns says, since Conrad isn’t like anybody else he knows. Conrad, he adds, certainly wasn’t like any of the other students at Anderson Collegiate Vocational Institute in Whitby, Ont., who were knocking their heads against the wall to maintain C-pluses in the ’70s while not doing a ton of thinking about what they might do when they actually grew up.
Conrad was always thinking.
“Wayne was the same crazy scientist back then that he is today,” Burns said. “If we wanted to know something, well, we didn’t have Google, but we had Wayne. We could ask him anything and he would have an answer for it, and I can’t really ever remember him being wrong.”
Burns is sitting in a conference room in the basement of Conrad’s stone mansion, a family home in Hampton that doubles as a laboratory/business headquarters, which is obscured from the road by an imposing stone wall, a row of mature fir trees and a locked security gate.
Just beyond the conference room is a wall-length aquarium, and just beyond that is a locked door leading to a hive of temperature-controlled workshops where one of Canada’s most prolific, independent and almost entirely unsung inventors beavers away with a staff of engineers, tool makers, technicians and other handy types on an array of electro-mechanical gadgets.
Their creator can’t speak about the works in progress, at least not publicly since they haven’t been patented yet, but in a moment of excitable candour he lets slip that, “The future of vacuum cleaners is being made here right now.” If so, it will only help Conrad achieve his life’s ambition: to top Thomas Edison’s career patent total before he is done.
In theory, Conrad got an early enough start to pull such a feat off. He was 15 when he founded his company and he currently has close to 600 patents, if you count the ones still pending approval. By comparison, Edison, the Babe Ruth of inventors who gave humanity the motion picture camera, the phonograph and the electric chandelier, notched 1,093 patents.
“Over the years, the (Edison) record becomes a little less important,” the 55-year-old said. “What you achieve and what you do to help people becomes more important, but I still might get there.”
Like Edison, Conrad is a jack of all creations. Today’s gadget could be vacuum cleaners — his innovations helped transform Boston-based appliance maker, SharkNinja Operating LLC into a billion-dollar-plus global player — but tomorrow’s gizmo could be who knows what.
In addition to all the vacuum-related ideas, Conrad’s patent portfolio features a space-age water treatment system that NASA adopted for the International Space Station, ozone generators, automobile air conditioners, pulse power systems, cyclonic particle separators, vortex mixers, tabletop-sized plastic mould extruders, a portable personal watercraft and even an indoor barbecue.
It’s Conrad eclecticism that partly distinguishes him from your run-of-the-mill uber-nerd inventor with the three PhDs who zeroes in on one tiny corner of the innovation universe. Conrad — who left the University of Toronto a credit short of graduating — sees ideas everywhere he looks, including the kitchen, where the thought of cooking outdoors on a bitter winter’s night inspired the aforementioned barbecue.
“I’ve worked with a lot of inventors, but Wayne is in a different category. He is just really unique, where his knowledge of different industries and technologies is so broad that he is able to pick from different areas, almost like a buffet, and bring things together with ideas that are different,” Omachron’s president Alan Millman said.
“What you will get with a lot of people is a great depth of knowledge, but it is narrowly focused, which leads to incremental innovation. But with Wayne you have this breadth of knowledge, and that can lead to out-of-the-box thinking. And he’s actually got a good business sense.”
Conrad already had a few home runs under his belt prior to meeting SharkNinja founder, Mark Rosenzweig, a native Montrealer, and the third generation of his family to get into the appliance game.
Millman, Conrad and another business contact drove to Boston in a Dodge Durango to meet with Rosenzweig in June 2005, killing time, en route, by discussing science, philosophy and world events while stopping for the odd spot of junk food. (Conrad’s Achilles’ heel is an inability to resist McDonald’s French Fries). The meeting was scheduled for an hour with a 9 a.m. start. The parties were still talking at 6 p.m.
The rest is vacuum cleaner history.
“Wayne was very smart, unusually smart,” Rosenzweig recalls of that first meeting. “He has been a great partner for years now, but in the beginning he was critically important. We were selling (hand and stick) vacuum cleaners, but I don’t think they were good enough, and without Wayne I don’t think we could have brought them to the level they needed to be to start creating this Shark brand where people really loved our upright vacuums.”
Pre-Conrad, SharkNinja’s annual sales were in the neighbourhood of US$300 million, according to Rosenzweig, a number that has ballooned to almost US$1.7 billion. (The privately owned company has also expanded its range of appliance offerings over time).
“What Wayne has an ability to do is develop things that aren’t just relevant in the lab, but are relevant to the consumer,” Rosenzweig said.
The lab is Conrad’s creative space, but it is upstairs, on the main floor of his home, where he hammers out the nuts and bolts of his business deals, holding meetings in a room that is a replica of an English pub.
Being in a boardroom can make people tense, he said. Sitting at the bar can make things happen. Decorated with assorted curiosities, including a framed piece of airmail that U.S. aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh delivered, as well as a painting of a Lancaster bomber and a vintage Pepsi Cola sign, the pub radiates a welcoming feel, as does its owner.
Conrad might seem like a crazy scientist and all, but he looks more like a dad. A middle-aged dad — with six kids — dressed in dad jeans, a mauve-coloured shirt, and with soft eyes, glasses, brush-cut hair and a middle-age belly. Rounding out the image of domesticity: he and his wife, Nina, share a passion for Broadway musicals.
The interior home life is the opposite of the nothing-to-see-here-you-nosey-people exterior vibe the mansion projects. Case in point: the Conrads’ house has many windows. Mid-afternoon, on a moderately warm and sunny spring day, the blinds are drawn.
Is the inventor hiding something?
“I am hiding the fact I am saving money,” Conrad said, laughing, before launching into a perfectly non-cloak-and-dagger explanation for the lowered blinds. The typical insulation value of a window is R-2, or, in other words, not very good. Simply drawing the blinds boosts the value to R-5, which, for an inventor who lives and works in a stone mansion, is enough to cut his energy bills in half.
Practicality is among Conrad’s many traits. Indeed, he doesn’t create stuff he can’t sell, or at least try to sell, which is perhaps something he can thank his parents for.
Ruth and Helmut Conrad were German immigrants, the latter a former prisoner of war. The couple arrived in Canada with very little, and adopted Wayne. There is a family photo of Wayne, the tot, baking Christmas cookies with Helmut. Another image shows him knee-high, wielding a tiny handsaw, and working with his dad — an aircraft builder at De Havilland — on a backyard construction project.
“Wayne’s dad was salt of the Earth,” Garry Burns said. “Wayne was this kid with infinite energy, the Energizer Bunny, but on steroids. Helmut had this kid with no boundaries, and would constantly be trying to get Wayne into new things. But finding new things became more complicated as Wayne got older.”
Conrad was 11 when he and his dad restored a 1929 glider. (He took his mom for a spin in it a few years later). At 13, he struck out on his own creatively, winning the 1976 Canada Wide Science Fair for a solar-powered car design.
The car caught the eye of Arthur Moore, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, and a world-renowned expert in electrostatics. Moore invited Conrad to Ann Arbor, Mich., where he would stay for days at a time.
Rochester, N.Y., home of Xerox Corp., was another frequent destination. Robert Gundlach, a physicist, and an inventor often referred to as the father of the modern photocopier, had piled up scores of patents. Like Moore, he took a shine to the young Canadian, adding his name to Conrad’s list of mentors, a series of influencers made possible, in part, because his mother was willing to drive her son wherever he needed to go.
The principal at Anderson CVI was happy to have Wayne play hooky, just so long as his parents were okay with the arrangement and he showed up for his exams and maintained an A average.
“My mom wasn’t a hockey mom, she was the inventor/businessman mom,” Conrad said, showing obvious delight in the memory. “I had this wide-ranging, diverse education, and I really think that’s the key for any young person.”
Conrad still exudes a sense of childlike wonder, a palpable enthusiasm, as he describes his various inventions, including the latest: a plastic extruder, no bigger than a desk, that requires minimal power and is capable of transforming post-consumer plastic waste into plastic wood and siding.
Imagine the possibilities, he said, for small-scale Canadian manufacturing: industry that wouldn’t have to be housed in giant facilities with elephantine machinery and astronomical energy costs, but could be run out of a garage or basement and employ two, maybe three other people, creating jobs and a perception that not everything in the world has to be made in China.
The technology could also be useful for an island economy, such as Haiti, a crushingly impoverished place awash in plastic debris and in need of cheap housing.
“A waste is only a waste if you’re not using it,” Conrad said.
The desire to minimize waste applies to Conrad’s living arrangement. His home is his office and his laboratory. If he has an idea at, say, 4:30 a.m., he can get cracking on it. Should he have a breakthrough at 8 p.m., he can work into the wee hours, knowing his bed isn’t an hour’s commute away, but a few flights of stairs.
But Conrad’s time, however maximized, can be somewhat elastic in its application. During a recent interview, the inventor informed his visitors that he had a 3:30 p.m. “hard-stop.” At 3:15 p.m., his wife Nina appears in the pub to remind her husband of the deadline.
At 3:45 p.m., Conrad is still talking, though now in his library/home movie theatre, a room with two levels and 25,000 books. He also has an inventory of 100,000 artifacts, early drafts and gadget prototypes reflecting 40-years worth of invention he can reference, when in need.
By 3:57 p.m., Conrad is back in his element, breezing through the basement laboratory, stopping to show off another invention he can’t speak about, at least not publicly, patent pending.
“When Wayne says, “I’ll be back in five minutes,” what he is really saying is, under the best of circumstances, in an ideal world, I’ll be back in five minutes — but don’t count on it,” Omachron’s president Alan Millman said. “That happens everyday around here. That’s just Wayne.”