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Former UMD football players tackle the business world

Grant Schnobrich 1 / 3
Chaz Thomas2 / 3
The Slide Rack is a cargo rack that allows materials to be loaded onto the side opposed to traditional roof racks, thereby easing strain on the back by making loading easier. (Photo via Top Dollar Technologies)3 / 3

Grant Schnobrich and Chaz Thomas want to believe in what they sell, so they put their Slide Rack to the test.

This included using the Slide Rack to load 550 pounds of material onto the side of their Ford E-150 van during Memorial Day weekend before heading from Duluth to Los Angeles.

The load didn’t budge.

“It’s been field-tested,” Schnobrich said.

Now the former Minnesota Duluth football players, along with teammates and fellow entrepreneurs Jeron Johnson, Kenny Chowa and Austin Selvick, plan on showing off their product to a much larger audience as part of the California Construction Expo today in Long Beach, Calif.

Schnobrich said CalCon is Southern California’s largest construction expo, with 1,500 businesses represented and tens of thousands in attendance.

“We want our product to speak for itself,” Schnobrich said. “We’re fresh out of college. We’re going to go to this expo and be the youngest people there, and we don’t want people judging us on anything else but the product.”

Added Thomas: “I see our youth more as an advantage than a disadvantage.”

At 27, Johnson is the elder statesman of the group and one of the driving forces behind the Slide Rack. The other four are 23. They graduated in May and immediately headed to L.A.

The Slide Rack originally was patented in 2007 by a family friend of one of the players. He had his own home remodeling business and invented it for his needs and his workers’ needs but didn’t know what steps to take beyond that.

“We recognized it could be a global product and that thousands could benefit from it,” Schnobrich said. “We were all in the UMD business school, just sorting out what we wanted to do after college, so we decided to make a run of it. It made the most sense for us, instead of working for someone else and trying to achieve their dreams, to come together and try to achieve our dreams. We really feel it could be the new standard in transporting building materials.”

Schnobrich was one of UMD’s top offensive linemen while Johnson and Thomas were running backs, Chowa a defensive back and Selvick a wide receiver. They led UMD to a sixth straight NCAA Division II playoff appearance last fall and all but Johnson helped the Bulldogs win a national title in 2010 as freshmen. Now they call themselves Top Dollars Technologies LLC.

Selvick has an engineering degree while the rest studied business. This is their opportunity to apply business theory to the real world.

“The best experience is on-the-job experience,” Thomas said. “You never quit learning, especially in the business world because it changes every day.”

While they may have talked briefly about the Slide Rack last fall, their focus was on football. After the season, they had time to focus on their future, and the idea to get behind the Slide Rack started to take shape.

The Slide Rack is a cargo rack that allows materials to be loaded onto the side opposed to traditional roof racks, thereby easing strain on the back by making loading easier. While cargo racks can cost upwards of $1,500, Schnobrich said, the Slide Rack provides more benefits at a lower price.

For more information about the Slide Rack or to watch a video of the product, go to Schnobrich, playing the part of construction worker, is featured prominently in a video shot by Chowa.

“It’s a really cool design,” Schnobrich said. “There is nothing like it in the world, but at the same time, it’s just a couple bended steel pipes. It’s not super complex. It’s just a real ingenious idea. I can’t believe nobody invented it before.”

Chowa even used the product in his final UMD semester for the class, “Fundamentals of Selling.”

“I think the class was a little shell-shocked that this was actually for real,” Thomas said. “And Kenny was like, ‘Yeah, I actually own this company.’ We all bring something different to the table. We all know how to get things done.”

Minnesota Duluth coach Curt Wiese couldn’t be more proud.

Each year Wiese conducts exit interviews with his seniors and that is when he found out about their plans.

“I’m not surprised,” Wiese said. “The guys that moved out there were an ambitious, well-rounded group. They went into it with a well-thought out plan and are working on executing it right now.”

Johnson grew up in L.A. and is staying with family, while the other four are sharing a place, just like they did in college.

“I consider these guys like my brothers,” Thomas said. “It’s like family.”

They have some simple rules. Nobody talks over anyone else and waits until he is done speaking. If there is a disagreement, they vote on it. Thomas said the five are applying the same lessons learned in football to their new roles as entrepreneurs.

“I have always believed that football is more than just a game. It’s about life lessons,” Thomas said. “Football taught us about discipline, teamwork and trust. Those are things that if they stick with you, they will help you be successful through life.”

Both Thomas and Schnobrich were quick to credit UMD not just for their success and lessons learned on the football field but for the education they are now applying on a daily basis.

“I could have gone to a lot of other schools to play football,” said Schnobrich, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “I had friends who competed at other schools, and all they would tell me was how much they didn’t like it. They didn’t like that their league wasn’t as good, they didn’t like that their campus wasn’t as safe, or that their football program always lost. Going to Duluth, especially an incredible business school, it was tough, but I did learn a lot. I couldn’t be happier I chose UMD. It was the best five years of my life.”