LAKELAND -- Jerry Mathis went from careers in farming and the auction business to being an entrepreneur with his own company, a designer and an inventor with a new patent to his name.

Mathis founded Mathis Equipment Inc. in Lakeland eight years ago after acquiring the rights to produce a small mower, Model 761, used on sod farms. Mathis has since designed a much larger version of the mower, two sizes of graders, and just received a patent on a safety device to prevent 4-wheelers from being stolen.

Mathis said when he's working on a design, he works backwards from what most inventors do as he envisions the design in his head first, then builds a working model before he is able to draw the design on paper.

"I can see it in my head and I can build it before I can draw it out," he said.

Mathis Equipment has been selling the specially designed mowers from its location in Lakeland to sod farms across the United States and around the world for the past eight years.

The company began in a 2,500-square-foot building with three employees including Mathis and now operates from a 9,000-square-foot building with 11 employees.

"I had poured the concrete to add another 5,000 square feet, but that was before 9-11. Since then, business has been the slowest we've ever seen, but it's gonna come back," he said, adding that drought conditions across the country have also hurt business this year.

Mathis said he built his company on service. If there is a problem with the mowers he can't fix over the telephone, he will visit the sod farm to take care of it. All of the large mowers are personally delivered by the company, and Mathis said, "We set the machine up and the customer is mowing when we leave."

He is constantly finding ways to improve on his designs, which are completely built and assembled in the plant.

The mowers are too large for most private uses and are designed for sod farms. The largest model, the heaviest built mower on the market, is made to cut a 21-foot wide swath at a time, can be adjusted to mow from three-fourths of an inch to six inches high, and can mow 100 to 125 acres in a day.

Mathis is excited about his new patent on the security device he designed, which can also be used to lock down golf carts, and is working on ways to market it.

He said the company has never had a problem selling and shipping to customers in 48 states and around the world from its location in Lakeland. Mathis travels frequently and takes his products to turf trade shows, but said he's never been tempted to live anywhere else. "I was born and raised here, and I've never thought about moving myself or my company."

To contact Business Editor Kay Harris, please call 244-3400, ext. 280.

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