Swimming with ‘sharks’
Sugar Grove couple’s trackless train scores investors on ABC show
SUGAR GROVE—An appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank” was just the ticket for Sugar Grove residents Stan Krozel and Kevin Ullery, who scored two billionaire investors for their trackless train amusement ride in an episode that aired April 11.
The Sugar Grove pair appeared on the popular reality show to pitch their business, Fun Time Express, which offers rides on a trackless miniature train in shopping malls, to a group of wealthy entrepreneurs—the “sharks”—who look for new businesses and products to invest in.
“Shark Tank,” now in its fifth season, currently stars billionaire Mark Cuban, owner of AXS TV and the Dallas Mavericks, as well as real estate investor Barbara Corcoran, QVC star Lori Grenier, technology innovator Robert Herjavec, fashion and branding expert Daymond John, and venture capitalist Kevin O’Leary.
Krozel and Ullery flew out to Los Angeles last fall to ask the sharks for $125,000 in exchange for a 20 percent stake in the company so that they could further expand.
Despite a dramatic presentation where they rode into the room in the train, the company nearly didn’t get an investor. Grenier changed her mind at the last minute when Krozel modified the pitch to sweeten the deal, offering to pay back the $125,000 out of this year’s profits. She agreed to put up half of the $125,000 if O’Leary would partner with her—a moment that left both Krozel and Ullery cheering.
“We are going to bring a trackless train in every mall in America!” Krozel exclaimed in the episode.
It’s a great opportunity for Krozel and Ullery, but it wasn’t easy to get there.
Developing the perfect pitch for the show was one of the biggest challenges for the duo, who had only one chance to sell the concept to the sharks.
“Before you go out, they know nothing about you, and you get one shot,” Ullery said. “So you really need to be prepared, and it’s very nerve racking.”
Krozel said that presenting a clear financial picture was key to securing investors.
“We were really very prepared with our numbers, and we had evaluated our business and what it was worth,” Krozel said.
Fun Time Express is in its third year of operation—the first train began running at the Cherry Vale Mall in Rockford, Ill., in 2011—and the business has tripled since then. Eight trains are now operating in five states, including three in Illinois, and the company’s gross revenues were $300,000 in 2013, up from $96,000 in 2011. About 30 percent of that is profit, Ullery said.
Krozel handles the company’s business operations and finances, while Ullery handles the company’s marketing, website and graphic design. It’s been a good business pairing for the couple, who said working together has strengthened their relationship.
It isn’t the first time they’ve worked together. They also own Royal Service Realty, a real estate company that they opened in 2002 in Aurora, Ill. After the housing market crashed in 2008, the couple had to close their main office in Aurora, which Ullery describes as one of the toughest moments in their lives. Though they still own and operate Royal Service Realty—a smaller office survived—they needed to find a second source of income during the recession.
When Krozel first suggested the idea of opening a business specializing in train amusement rides, though, Ullery admits he didn’t think it was the wisest idea.
“I thought he had lost his mind,” Ullery said.
But Krozel was serious, and when Ullery went to see a similar train in action, he realized that the business had real potential.
“I thought, ‘Oh wow, we can really do this and take it to a whole other level,” Ullery said. “If you had told me four or five years ago that I would be running choo-choo trains in the mall, I would’ve said you were crazy. But it’s been amazing.”
Fun Time Express has been growing, but Krozel and Ullery thought it had the potential to be much bigger. Purchasing more trains—each one costs about $37,000—and negotiating with malls was a challenge, though.
“There’s always an uphill battle with any new business,” Krozel said. “Some of the concerns malls have is how you’re going to drive a train through a mall with shoppers.”
The trains operate at walking speed, Ullery said, which makes it easy to avoid shoppers, and because they don’t stop at stores, there’s no issue with people trying to get on or off while the train is moving. They’ve never had an accident.
An appearance on “Shark Tank,” the couple realized, could help them gain the money and contacts they needed to expand further, as well as increase the visibility of their business. They applied to be on the show a year ago, and producers were interested enough to ask them to submit a video application to see how they did on camera.
After that, producers flew them out to Los Angeles to meet the production team and film the episode last fall, but there was no guarantee they’d make it in front of the sharks until they’d worked through part of their pitch.
They were required to keep their appearance and the show’s result secret for nearly six months until the episode aired.
“It was so hard to keep it a secret,” Ullery said. “But the nature of the show is keeping people guessing. It was difficult, but it was also fun to surprise all our friends and family.”
Though their pitch was condensed to 12 minutes for television, Krozel and Ullery met with the sharks for over an hour.
“Even though it’s condensed on air, we were in front of them for four or five times as long,” Krozel said. “There were a lot more details behind the scenes. (Viewers) don’t see how they come up with their questions, but there are more details about the finances and specific details about the product and where the businesses are located.”
Some of the details about the filming aren’t supposed to be revealed, Ullery said, but each business creating a pitch is assigned a producer who helps them design the pitch.
“It’s really up to you to get it right,” he said. “We just practiced over and over.”
Producers also came out to Sugar Grove to film the couple at their home, offering a glimpse into their home and personal life, which doesn’t happen with all contestants. The “home package,” as Ullery described it, was somewhat less realistic—the episode showed the pair sitting in rocking chairs on their front porch, which they rarely do—but otherwise the show is absolutely real, he said.
“Of course they edit for television, but ‘Shark Tank’ is the real deal and the negotiations are legitimate,” he said. “The producers and everybody involved were nothing but wonderful.”
In the six months since Grenier and O’Leary committed to investing in Fun Time Express, the partnership has been moving forward. Grenier and O’Leary are serving as financial backers for the company, but the business itself hasn’t changed much yet.
“They want small businesses to keep doing what they’re doing,” Krozel said. “They are just offering advice and contacts. There’s a limit to how fast a small business can grow, and this is a catalyst to help you grow quicker and bigger.”
Their appearance on “Shark Tank” and securing investors has been an amazing experience overall, Ullery said.
“I can say this: this was one of the proudest moments we’ve had as a couple,” he said.
“Shark Tank” airs on Fridays at 8 p.m. on ABC. To watch the episode Krozel and Ullery appeared on, visit ABC’s website at abc.go.com/shows/shark-tank/ and select Episode 24; the Fun Time Express pitch is the third segment.