Gel Mats JL

Robb and Lisa McMahan own a company that makes gel-filled products in Waco, where they plan an expansion and hiring.

Staff photo— Jerry Larson

An Austin couple who launched Let’s Gel 12 years ago in their home are watching the business of making gel-filled floor mats grow by leaps and bounds, with their Waco manufacturing plant making products for Wal-Mart stores, manufacturing assembly lines, medical facilities and home kitchens.

“We’re the largest maker of operating room mats in the world,” said Robb McMahan, who founded the company with his wife, Lisa.

They are spending $1.5 million to add a fourth foaming line, increase printing capacity and build a 12,000-square-foot warehouse at their facility at 510 Precision Drive.

Let’s Gel produces mats under the GelPro name, ranging in length from a few feet for the home to nearly unlimited footage for industry. The expansion gives Let’s Gel the flexibility to develop new products, including a wider and longer GelPro Classic and a 9-foot GelPro Elite for large entertaining kitchens.

“Mats at the low end sell for $25 at Wal-Mart, and the longer ones can fetch $4,000 to $5,000 apiece, and they feel awfully good to those standing on a production line all day,” said Robb McMahan, 48, a Kentucky native who moved to Austin in 1992 and worked for computer giant Dell Inc. designing notebook computers.

He later chose to apply his expertise in engineering to starting his own business. He had a handful of helpers who joined him in pursuing his dream, watching it grow from a line for cooks to others for industrial settings and the medical field, including radiologists, pharmacists and surgeons.

4 patents secured

All the while, the McMahans have secured four utility patents for the design of their mats and have six requests for others pending.

“The gel itself is proprietary, and I also use a high-end polyurethane foam,” said Robb McMahan, whose gel products for the home feature coverings in an array of colors and designs. “My mats may not be quite as cheap as those from China, but they are made with better processes and better technology.”

And 90 percent are made in Waco, with the balance coming from a facility in Detroit, he said. The company employs 105 people between Waco and the corporate headquarters in Austin, where all sales, marketing and financial functions take place, he said. Nearly 80 work in Waco, which Robb McMahan said he visits at least twice a week.

“When we first bought the Waco plant in April 2015, Lisa and I drove up in our Airstream and lived next to it for six months,” he said with a laugh.

Now the company is expanding, having sold more than 2.5 million mats through retailers such as Wal-Mart, Bed Bath & Beyond, Target.com, Staples.com and Amazon. It advertises the mats in lifestyle, cooking and home-furnishings periodicals, among them Bon Appetit, Architectural Digest, Southern Living and Rachel Ray Every Day.

“We have spent more than $25 million on print advertising, and we do a lot of online marketing and advertising on social media,” said Lisa McMahan. “We started out in 740 Wal-Mart stores, but we’re in 3,200 now and will expand into 3,800 in the February or March time frame, and those are just residential mats.”

In-house production

Everything related to GelPro production is carried out in-house, Robb McMahan said, and the company does not contract out any phase of the process.

“We have a plant full of manufacturing molds to accommodate more styles and sizes than any competitor. We have our own machinist on staff, and we’ve created a machining center,” he said. “Waco’s great for that, has a tremendous talent base of people who have a machining, welding and manufacturing skill set.

“The company has had very little trouble finding extremely skilled employees, and we look forward to hiring more folks over the next 12 months as business grows,” he said. “We anticipate increasing sales by 25 percent next year, and it stands to reason we will grow the work force by a similar percentage.”

Production employees at Let’s Gel start at $12 an hour, with the company spending $300,000 to provide health, dental and vision benefits.

Besides those who work on production lines, Let’s Gel employs personnel for a computer-controlled machinery center that features equipment “that allows us to cut metal up to 84 inches long in three dimensions,” Robb McMahan said. “That’s a pretty cool piece of equipment that cost us $200,000.”

Robb McMahan said he and his wife own the company, “but the plant is run by folks there in Waco,” namely plant president Tom Kaylor. McMahan said the company is very much a family affair, with Tom Kaylor’s sons, Wesley and Thomas Kaylor, also employed there. He said children of staffers often serve as interns.

He said he and his wife are empty nesters, and they have talked about moving to Waco, in part to avoid having to travel construction-clogged Interstate 35.

“Moving will depend on the situation,” he said. “I have such a good management team that it is not necessary to relocate. I basically design and invest in products, oversee operations, sales and finance, while Tom oversees the manufacturing side of the business. But we will continue looking at Waco.”

Giveaway campaign

Lisa McMahan said the company “engages in random acts of comfort,” in that it has begun a campaign to give away 250 mats valued at $30,000.

“Founders Robb and Lisa McMahan want to say ‘thank you’ to some of their longtime customers, and they want to recognize people who spend a lot of time on their feet helping others,” said Denise Clarke, a spokeswoman for the couple, in a prepared release.

“The campaign began after the couple received a request from a woman in Marietta, Georgia, asking if they would consider gifting a GelPro mat to a friend of hers who spends the majority of her time on her feet canning fruits and vegetables for those in need.”

Lisa McMahan said the company also gives members of the military, teachers and first responders a 25 percent discount on products year-round.

She said those wanting to nominate someone to receive free mats are encouraged to visit the company website at www.gelpro.com.

To better health

Not only do GelPro products reduce wear and tear on the feet, Robb McMahan said, they contribute to better health overall and fight fatigue.

“We actually shrink during the day. You’re an inch shorter when you go to bed than when you got up,” he said. “But using our product contributes to joint flexibility and less spinal compression. It’s ergonomic and extremely beneficial to your health, which is why we’re growing in nearly every business area we serve.”

That includes the medical field, he said, noting that GelPro mats have become popular with doctors, pharmacists, surgeons and radiologists.