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On Track

After a slow, agonizing start, the Pineapple Express is the little engine that could

Like other tourist attractions in Hawaii, the Pineapple Express train ride in Wahiawa is well orchestrated.

DOLE TRAIN: The Lady Liberty, which holds 42 passengers, was purchased four years ago to complement the original Pineapple Express train. Together, both trains carry up to 1,500 passengers daily.

Before boarding the train, passengers sport leis and pose for a staff photographer. Then, for the next 20 minutes, the train passes two miles of pineapple fields, lush landscapes and native crops, as a narrated soundtrack by musical trio Na Leo Pilimehana touts pineapple’s role in the Islands. On the last leg of the journey, passengers listen to the bouncy tune, Pineapple Express, composed especially for the tour. They then eat fresh pineapple on toothpicks while exiting the train. Some pause to peruse their photos, nicely mounted on a display board.

The Pineapple Express is a lucrative concept blending tourism with agriculture, retail and entertainment. Last year, it grossed $1.9 million in ticket sales and hosted between 600 and 800 passengers daily. Passengers exceed 1,500 when both trains, the Pineapple Express and Lady Liberty, simultaneously run in the summer. “A million people come to the front steps of the Dole Plantation every year, and that is why I wanted to do this. This was a grand-slam, home run from the beginning,” says Barry Levin, president and founding partner of Ironhorse Development Co. LLC, which owns the Pineapple Express tours.

SPEEDY RECOVERY: Once, a backhoe accidentally lifted the train tracks off the ground, forcing the company to close operations for half a day. Employees and their families came to the rescue in this photo. photo: ironhorse development

Well, maybe not in the beginning, when business was bumpy for Levin and his business partners Karene Kunimura, Roy Kobatake and Sanford Hasegawa. In the first year, 2002, the company imported a brand-new English train that performed badly. Banks initially scoffed at their business plan. As few as 200 people rode the train daily in the first year.

And a backhoe once went awry, lifting the tracks off the ground and shutting down operations for half a day. “Something went wrong, then the next month, another thing went wrong. It was a nightmare,” Kunimura recalls.

Still, the partners pushed forward and persevered. They even repaid their five-year bank loan in two-and-a-half years.

Prior to the launch of the Pineapple Express, Levin and Kunimura were partners in Regency Marketing Corp., a distributor of Hawaiian quilts, Christmas decorations and plush toys. Regency Marketing ran a kiosk at Dole Plantation and a store on Waimanu Street. Today, it owns My Little Secret at Ward Warehouse and a distribution office on Kamaile Street.

In 1999, Castle & Cooke approached Levin with the idea for a passenger train at Dole Plantation. The plan: Levin would build, own and operate the train. Castle & Cooke would help to promote it. Castle & Cooke Hawaii is a $453 million company that ranks No. 18 on Hawaii Business’ Top 250 list. It owns Dole Plantation, among numerous holdings.

“I was absolutely stunned, because I thought it was such a good idea,” Levin says. “I was surprised C&C didn’t do it on their own, but they knew the train project would take a lot of research, a lot of time and money.”

For the next few months, Levin chatted with visitors at Dole Plantation and found there was a demand for a train tour.

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS
Purchased: 2002, England
Price: $260,000
Engine: 59 horsepower diesel fueled
Drive: Diesel hydraulic drive
Capacity: 84 adults in four coaches, plus the engineer
Weight: 44,500 lbs. (including coaches and engine, with full-passenger capacity)
Track Gauge: 24 inches
LADY LIBERTY
Purchased: 2003, Florida
Price: $200,000
Engine: 90 horsepower diesel fueled
Drive: Diesel hydraulic drive
Capacity: 42 adults in two coaches, plus the engineer
Weight: 30,000 lbs. (including coaches and locomotive, with full passenger capacity)
Track Gauge: 24 inches

He then encouraged Kunimura, Kobatake and Hasegawa – retail and insurance specialists – each to invest $100,000. The partners named their company Ironhorse Development Co. LLC. “We all had our own expertise, and we all got along really well,” Kunimura says.

The partners took a crash course in trains and sought assistance from Bob Schuster, a Florida-based expert from Trainland Railroad Services Corp. Schuster had built eight trains in tourist venues on the Mainland and was thrilled to work with Ironhorse Development. He immediately flew to Hawaii, laid down two miles of tracks and ordered a $260,000 custom-made, diesel hydraulic train from England. “This was a unique circumstance, because Dole Plantation, as a destination, was what made it work,” says Schuster.

Levin continued to pound the pavement, asking financial institutions for up to $1 million. He asked for small-business financing and applied for guarantee-type loans. He pitched. He pleaded. But no one wanted to take the risk. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had just occurred. What? Levin wanted to put a train in the middle of a pineapple field in Wahiawa? People were scared to board planes. Was he insane?

That’s when Levin learned about a marketing campaign by a new guy in town named Mike O’Neill. “You remember that TV commercial, ‘Ask Mike?’” Levin says. “Well, I did!”

Levin called Bank of Hawaii and arranged to meet with O’Neill, the chief executive officer and president. “It was quite intimidating, but I got my point across,” Levin recalls. “Mike is a very matter-of-fact guy. He just wants the facts.”

In the two-hour meeting, O’Neill approved the loan for $800,000 – which Ironhorse repaid after two-and-a-half years. “Mike thought we were the only ones who would work. It turned out to be a good, fast decision,” Levin says.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Ironhorse Development only had two weeks before its letter of commitment was due to Castle & Cooke.

On Nov. 8, 2002, the Pineapple Express made its inaugural journey at the Dole Plantation with high-profile leaders and Wahiawa residents as witnesses. The journey was a success, except for one glitch: Passengers barely heard the Na Leo soundtrack. State-of-the-art speakers immediately were installed.

Ironhorse’s partners soon learned that the faulty sound system was just the beginning of many train-related woes. The brand-new train was a disappointment. It wasn’t the Pineapple Express. It was a lemon, badly in need of upgrades. “In a matter of six weeks, we realized something had to be done,” recalls Schuster, the train consultant. “We kept on babying it along, putting Band-Aids on it.” He hired an engineer from Chicago to upgrade the train.

A year later, the company purchased a second train, this one from Florida, for $200,000. The Lady Liberty seats 21 adults and comes out of storage during peak summer months. “The passengers love it, because they can wave at each other when the trains pass,” Kunimura says.

TICKET TO RIDE: Micah Ferrira takes tickets from passengers before they board the 20-minute train ride across the pineapple fields. A train station depot is scheduled to be built at the site before the end of the year.

More recently, staff members have had to cover the tracks with sand to prevent slippage. The reason: The train struggled in areas that were not flat. At one point, Ironhorse had to shut down operations for a day and a half to level the route to a 2 percent grade. “This is a high-maintenance business,” Schuster says.

The company today employs 14. It recently invested $75,000 to spruce up landscaping along the route and is planning to build a train-station depot before the end of the year.

Since opening in 2002, the Pineapple Express’ success has piggybacked on the tourism industry. Approximately 7.4 million visitors came to Hawaii in 2006, a 15 percent increase over tourism arrivals in 2002. If the future of Hawaii’s visitor industry mimics the past, Levin and his partners anticipate Ironhorse’s sales will grow 5 percent to 10 percent per year.

“We believe that it will only get better and better,” Levin says. “There’s a commitment to make this thing successful.”

THE CONDUCTORS
ROY KOBATAKE
Partner, Ironhorse Development Co.; investment executive, Tax & Financial Group LLC
Career: Self-employed insurance broker, CLU and CHFC designations  
Interests: Golf; working out five days a week at the Central YMCA
Mantra: “Do what is best for the client, and the rest will follow. Work hard and smart, and delegate tasks to become more efficient. Take time off to play.”
BARRY LEVIN
President, Ironhorse Development Co. LLC; and president, Regency Marketing Corp.
Career: Ironhorse Development LLC; Regency Marketing Corp.; Bakers Shoe Store, Pa.; Leeds Shoe Store, Hawaii
Interests: Travel, sports, relaxation and sudoku
Mantra: “Business is all about relationships. The quality of the relationship is directly proportional to the success of your business.”
KARENE KUNIMURA
Partner, Ironhorse Development Co. LLC; co-owner, Regency Marketing Corp.
Career: Regency Marketing Corp.; Hawaiian Electric Co.
Interests: “Golf, golf, golf ... what more is there to life?”
Mantra: “Don’t be greedy.”
SANFORD HASEGAWA
Partner, Ironhorse Development Co. LLC; principal and owner, IDS Architects Inc.; vice president, Knight Corp., a real estate development and management firm
Career: Used to be a manager for DFS Ltd.; started his design firm in 1991; projects include Rolex boutiques, Roy’s Restaurant, Crazy Shirts, Dole Plantation expansion and LeSportsac
Interests: golfing, cooking, yoga and coaching Little League
BOB SCHUSTER
Consultant, Ironhorse Development Co. LLC; president and chief executive officer, Trainland Railroad Services Corp.
Career: Trainland Railroad Services Corp.; Delton Locomotive Works (built eight railroads, including Gatorland in Florida; Tom’s Farm in California; and the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama; land developer and contractor prior to joining the railroad industry
Interests: trains

 

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