By Cheryl Hall The Dallas Morning News.
Shark Tank star Barbara Corcoran will be tooling around Fire Island, N.Y., this weekend on a beach bike that wasn't just made in the U.S.A. but right here in Dallas.
The New York real estate tycoon's brightly colored cruiser was made by Villy Custom LLC. Villy and the guy behind it, Fleetwood Hicks, are among her favorite Tank investments.
"Fleetwood is a lovable free spirit -- someone who goes by and you say, 'Can I come along?'" Corcoran says. "It's contagious. When you go to his factory in Dallas, everyone is drinking the Villy juice."
Three years ago, Hicks was the first entrepreneur to strike a deal with both Corcoran and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on ABC's hit reality show.
They liked Hicks' concept, in which customers design luxury cruisers online and get personalized bikes shipped to their doorsteps within weeks. Each of them invested $250,000 for a combined 42 percent of Villy Custom.
The goal from the get-go was to build Villy Custom into a national brand and then sell it.
That's still what the sharks are after.
"Fleetwood has an amazing product. There is none better," Cuban says. "As an investment, it's gotten better. Fleetwood has learned that he has to share Villy with the world and create sales, which he is finally starting to do."
Cuban is happier with Hicks because the 52-year-old Richardson native has figured out a way to scale his custom-bike business from onesies and twosies to fleets of dozens and hundreds.
"We've always gone like this," says Hicks, his hand at a slight incline. "Now we're going straight up. We finally figured out that our big, big way to make money is doing large fleets of custom bicycles for big corporations."
Sales this year should be about $2 million, quadruple the results for 2014, he says.
Hicks' Shark Tank deal gave his company instant credibility and a spike in sales, but maintaining momentum has been difficult. "People think a $200 bike at Target is the same as what we do. It's not even close in quality and precision."
Corporate customers seem to understand that going on the cheap may be costlier in the long haul.
"Once Fleetwood got the first couple of corporate customers, he's corralled a lot more," Corcoran says. "Corporate fleets are smart for two reasons. They get the brand out there because you see a lot more of his bikes. And Fleetwood's become the go-to guy if you want to do high-end specialty branding."
Hot market Hicks sold 200 bikes to a seaside community at Alys Beach, Fla. Google bought 10 bikes for its new campus in Minnesota.
Barefoot Cellars bought 100 bikes for its Modesto, Calif., winery. And a luxury resort in Napa Valley is close to making a major deal.
Ten days ago, Hicks and his small crew of eight loaded 400 custom bikes into two 18-wheelers headed to Camping World in Kentucky.
The sporting goods giant wanted customized and painted bikes in earth tones and wavy-stripe designs to match the RVs and motorcoaches it sells.
Camping World paid about half of the $500 to $600 that a typical online customer pays. The margins were thinner, but Villy made up the difference in volume, Hicks says.
And Hicks made the $100,000-plus sale in one phone call -- at the instigation of Corcoran -- to Marcus Lemonis, owner of Camping World. Lemonis, who owns licensing rights for NASCAR, is now considering a line of bikes featuring the racing stars that Camping World sponsors.
Getting the attention of Ellen DeGeneres has been pretty good for business, too.
Late last year, Hicks got a call from producers of The Ellen DeGeneres Show saying that DeGeneres loved his bikes and wanted to feature them as the grand finale of her 12 Days of Christmas giveaway. Hicks couldn't afford $143,000 to make 430 freebies, so he got Folgers Coffee, whose president is a Villy enthusiast, to sponsor them.
DeGeneres talked about Folgers and Villy bikes for more than a minute before setting off a studio celebration by announcing everyone was getting her signature bike.
Hicks already has sponsors lined up for a DeGeneres beach-party giveaway in September.
Onesies and twosies are still Hicks' pride and joy, especially the bikes that are bought by celebrities, who typically go for tricked-out models that cost $1,000 or more.
Sean Payton, head coach of the New Orleans Saints, has two bikes for his Big Easy home and just bought two for his home along the Florida coast. Another bike is headed to Saints training camp.
Golden State Warriors all-star Klay Thompson just ordered one in the NBA championship basketball team's blue and gold colors. Sales push
Corcoran has two Villy custom bikes, one in Manhattan and the other on Fire Island. They ride like a dream, are built like tanks and don't rust, says Corcoran, who used to go through four bicycles each summer.
Cuban doesn't own one for himself, Hicks says. "Mark got his daughters each a limited-edition bike that we designed for Hockaday's centennial anniversary. I don't think he has time to ride a bike."
Hicks had to work hard to gain Cuban's confidence.
"Mark always wants more. He just does. And that's a good thing. He's always pushing me to sell more: 'Sales cure all, Fleetwood!'"
Since making his deal with Cuban, Hicks has never had a phone call or another face-to-face conversation with the Mavs owner -- except for a chance meeting in the locker room of Lifetime Fitness on Central Expressway, where they both work out.
Their business communication is strictly email -- and immediate.
Every two weeks, Hicks sends Mark Cuban Cos. an update. "I can send it at 1 on Tuesday morning, and I'll usually have Mark's response by 1:15."
Rachel Kuhr, who heads product design and innovation for Cuban's investment company, works directly with Hicks. He has the vision. She helps him bring them to reality.
Kuhr was instrumental in developing a tool to help even the most artistically challenged create a cool, personalized set of wheels. It's part of an entirely new platform that will tie in Villy's ordering, production, inventory and delivery.
"We definitely enjoy working together, and we listen to each other," Kuhr says. "Fleetwood has a contagious passion for making customers happy and getting every detail of our bikes delivered just right. We go back and forth, test ideas, and we find great solutions."
Communication Hicks' relationship with Corcoran is personal and pragmatic. They converse by cellphone, text, email, Skype and in person.
"I've been to Barbara's home, office, beach house and ski lodge. And she has been to visit my offices on numerous occasions," he says.
When Corcoran suggests something, he hops to it. Her marketing advice has been spot-on, Hicks says.
Corcoran says Hicks has exceeded her expectations and then some.
She was worried initially that Hicks was so focused on detail that he'd never be able to build a business.
"Now I'm alarmed when I see other businesses that I've invested in let things slip by," she says. "I used to think, 'Oh, good! They're big-picture thinkers.' No, they're just bad at details.
"I was wrong. He was right," she says. "I'm learning more from him than he is from me. That's the darn truth."