(FORTUNE Small Business) – He was written off as a juvenile delinquent by the Long Beach Police Department. He has been derided as a second-rate grease monkey by some of his competitors. And depending on whom you talk to, he has been either revered or ridiculed for the length of his rap sheet and the number of tattoos on his biceps.
Lately, however, the accolades have roared past the criticism. These days Jesse James is being hailed as a master marketer and motorcycle maker with an expanding constellation of celebrity clients, including Shaq, Kid Rock, and Keanu Reeves, to name a few. James, 33, is also forging his own stardom as host of the Discovery Channel's prime-time hit Monster Garage. And, oh, yeah, People magazine recently recognized him as one of the sexiest men alive. "I'm just a glorified welder," says James, shrugging his wide shoulders, cracking a smile, and sliding his imposing muscular frame back into his seat. "I build things."
What he's built is impressive. He started West Coast Choppers in 1993 in the corner of his mom's garage. From there he hand-hammered his own designs and slowly crafted a reputation for making exhaust pipes, fenders, and gas tanks that more closely resemble Brancusi sculptures than motorcycle parts. Without investors or bank loans, his company has grown into a 50-person, 18,000-square-foot shop with an estimated $6 million in annual revenues. Alongside his parts business, there's also now a growing West Coast Choppers clothing line.
In a motorcycle market dominated by heavy-metal heavyweights like Honda, Kawasaki, and Harley-Davidson, how does Jesse James do it? Buzz and attitude. He found a niche--handmade custom bikes--and then used television, print, and word of mouth to build a community of enthusiasts who love everything from his bad-ass biker image to his legendary name (he's a descendant of the famous outlaw). "He's in the tradition of entrepreneurs like Coco Chanel and Martha Stewart," says Nancy Koehn, a professor and historian at Harvard Business School. "He's taking an iconoclastic approach to building his brand that's more than just motorcycles. He's selling a lifestyle that anyone can buy into with his shirts and belt buckles."
But it's his sexy bikes that invoke the most lust. Each one is as custom-tailored to its owner as a Savile Row suit, though there are a few hallmarks of his handiwork. Among them: insanely stretched-out front forks and 140-horsepower engines machined from a solid block of aircraft-grade aluminum. Then there are the .44- and 9mm-magnum shell casings arranged in six-shooter fashion that adorn his gas-cap covers and riser bars--an ode, he says, to his legendary namesake. Even if you can pony up Jesse's $50,000 to $150,000 asking price, you'll still have to wait to mount up. Average build time is about a year. And if you tick Jesse off by trying to bribe your way to the top of the production schedule, well, then, no bike for you. A case in point: Limp Bizkit's front man, Fred Durst. Despite getting a glowing reference from a previous West Coast Choppers client, supermodel and FOJ Tyson Beckford, Durst was turned down. Seems the rock star tried to buy his way to the top of Jesse's production schedule. Durst was politely told to go away. Says James: "I only build bikes for cool people."
Why would anyone pay that kind of money, wait that kind of wait, and put up with that kind of attitude? To be fair, Jesse James's bikes are flat-out sweet rides. That said, so are the custom bikes built by Ron Simms, Arlen Ness, and Roger Bourget. Who? you might ask. That's kind of the point. All three are bike-building legends, and some have been in the business nearly as long as James has been alive. But despite their impeccable reputation in the motorcycle industry, none of them has achieved the kind of fame, infamy, or mass-market appeal that James has. Whatever he may or may not lack in mechanical skills, he's more than made up for with slick marketing.
What sets him apart is an uncanny ability to turn liabilities into assets. The fact is, West Coast Choppers is equipped to build only about 15 custom bikes a year. So turning away customers is sometimes a necessity. As for the company's strict "You've gotta wait your turn" policy, well, that just adds to West Coast Choppers' aura of exclusivity.
What about the blue-collar, alpha-dog attitude and the unmistakable scent of testosterone and motor oil that trails him? That's just part of his chopper charm, says James. It may not fly in corporate America, but if you're trying to push motorcycle gear, attitude like his is what sells. There's the sense that he'd happily swap his company's Iron Cross logo for a middle finger. Of course, hosting his own prime-time hit certainly hasn't hurt his efforts to break away from his competitors. According to Monster Garage producer Thom Beers, "he's a natural star."
Apparently he can thank genetics for that. It's not that his parents were notable troublemakers. His mother is a florist for a funeral parlor, and his dad is an antiques dealer. "Actually he's more like a white Fred Sanford," says James, whose parents divorced when he was 5. "He sells junk at swap meets." To find any legendary crime in his chromosomes, you have to dig through about four generations of DNA. There, he says, you'll find the original Jesse James: his great-great-grandfather's cousin.
As a kid, James certainly tried to live up to his name. "I sure had a fondness for other people's stuff," he says. It was that fondness that put him on a first-name basis with much of the Long Beach police and made him a regular visitor at the California Youth Authority, the state's juvenile-detention agency. "I was always the kid that little old ladies were afraid of," says James. "I had to learn right and wrong the hard way."
He had a much easier time learning to work on motorcycles. It helped that his dad's business was next door to a major Harley-Davidson parts supplier. "I started hanging out there from the time I was 4 years old," says James. It helped, too, that the Long Beach of James's childhood was the kind of Southern California town where kids rode asphalt, not waves. The ride of choice wasn't a surfboard. It was a tricked-out bike or a lowrider that could just as easily bounce down the street as roll down it. "I can still remember the first time I saw a chopper," recalls James. "It was the '70s, and I was in the front seat of my dad's Impala. We were at the 91 Freeway and 55 Interchange going east, and there was this swarm of bikers that flew by just slow enough so that I could see them. They were all on choppers."
It would be a while before James built a chopper of his own. Still, he managed to get in a little practice at the age of 9. That's when he "tweaked" a Schwinn Straight Bar bicycle that his dad had given him. He decked it out with new chrome and pinstriping and then resold it at an antiques show for $850. "It's not that different from what I do now. Except now I get, like, 125 grand each."
Making a living as a custom-bike builder wasn't always a sure thing. For a while James, who stands 6-foot-2 and can bench-press 400 pounds, thought he might become a professional football player. After high school he briefly played college ball as an outside linebacker at the University of California at Riverside. But a knee injury forced him out of the game and into looking for another career. Once out of college he trained to be a professional bodyguard and toured with bands like Soundgarden, Danzig, and Slayer. During his five-year gig as a "brick wall," he learned something about the nature of celebrity. "It doesn't last," admits James. "But you have to respect it when it's around."
James eventually left bodyguarding much the same way he did football--by accident. During a concert in Detroit, James fell from the stage and dislocated his elbow. While on the mend at home, he decided to return to bike building, something he'd done between bodyguard stints. So he showed up on the doorstep of the industry's leading metalworkers and bike builders, including fabricator Fay Butler, custom-wheel designer Boyd Coddington, and Ron Simms, owner of Simms Custom Cycles. "He came here and said, 'I wanna be just like you guys,'" remembers Simms, happy to show James the ropes and throw a few fender orders his way.
From the start, Jesse James the entrepreneur was eager, ambitious, and very optimistic. Even before he'd set up a real shop, he had a batch of West Coast Choppers T-shirts made and began passing them out. James thought it was a cool marketing idea, but his buddies thought otherwise. "All my friends were like, 'What the f--- is this? You ain't gonna have no shop,' " recalls Jesse. "I didn't think I'd ever have a shop like I have now. But I had dreams."
In the beginning he also had a lot of headaches. While James is an artist with steel and a savvy marketer, he is by his own reckoning a "piss-poor accountant." Unwilling to take out a loan from either an investor or a bank, James operated pretty much from hand-built bike to mouth. "I'd finish a bike and use the money to buy more tools to build more bikes," says James. Since just one of his motorcycles can take anywhere from 500 to 800 man-hours, profits didn't come easy. Complicating the books was the fact that West Coast Choppers constantly owed money, largely because its customers owed it money. "We were running a revolving cash register," says James. "It blew."
It was a period that left an indelible mark. "It seems like money, it controls everything," says James, who has a big fat Benjamin tattooed across the width of his back. "At the time it seemed like there was, like, a half-million dollars floating around out there, but none of it was coming in." When the usual collection letters didn't work, he had the words PAY UP SUCKER! tattooed onto his palm.
Keeping track of the company's red ink was James's first wife, Carla. "That was a big mistake," says James, who shares custody of their young son and daughter. "I'm a gambler, and I'll bet the farm to do new things. She wasn't into it." The couple's breakup was difficult not only personally but also professionally, since Carla largely ran West Coast Choppers' back office until early 2001. (For more on this topic, see "Is Your Business Ruining Your Marriage?" on page 63.) An outside management company was quickly hired to handle the company's growing financials.
It was a smart move, because business was about to amp up. In 2001 the Discovery Channel aired Motorcycle Mania I and II, and both programs centered on James and West Coast Choppers. "He was our top pick," says Beers, who produced those films before casting James as host of Monster Garage, a truly odd automotive show in which select mechanics can transform perfectly fine Porsches into golf-ball retrievers, or Chevys into Zambonis. Beers had considered other bike builders to profile and act as lead Frankenstein for Monster Garage's fraternity of gearheads. But they were history the moment he walked into James's shop. "It was like I'd died and gone to boy heaven," says Beers.
Indeed, the place is a shrine to machines and machismo. There are, of course, the requisite cars and bikes that look fast even while parked. Placed strategically on each is a not-so-customer-friendly message: PLEASE DO NOT SIT ON OR TOUCH, A------. Minding the shop are a pair of pit bulls (Cisco and Noodles) and a couple of pet sharks swimming ceaselessly in the gift shop's 700-gallon tank. "And then there was Jesse. He was handsome and articulate, and already had a small cult following," says Beers.
That following grew by 7 feet and 1 inch after the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal caught Motorcycle Mania I on TV. Impressed by what he saw, he called James and asked him to build a chopper customized to his somewhat mind-boggling measurements. Fitting and engineering something strong enough and cool enough for a client weighing in at 338 pounds, with an inseam of 49 inches, was a challenge. The result is an 11 1/2-foot-long purple-and-gold aircraft carrier of a bike outfitted with custom footpegs designed to fit Shaq's size-24 feet and brake levers to fit his enormous hands. The bike earned James about $150,000 and priceless publicity.
For those who can ill afford a Jesse James bike, take heart. Buying into his club and into James's elite brand of cool is possible. If you're a biker, you can get a piece of Jesse by ordering a set of his Hell Bent exhaust pipes, his Gunslinger fender, or an Iron Cross-shaped air cleaner. If you're not a biker but just want to look like one, a growing line of West Coast Choppers clothing can help you suit up. While his garage can grind out only a limited number of bikes each year, partnerships with select parts fabricators and apparel distributors are helping create new business. "Teaming up with partners is helping us grow faster than we could normally," says Renay Palome, James's office manager and consigliere. The key is making sure they adhere to her boss's strict standards. If vendors can't hack it, she says, "he'll cut them off, neat and clean."
At the moment West Coast Choppers' clothing line is the company's hottest seller. The sale of T-shirts, belt buckles, sneakers, and kids' clothes now represents 60% of the company's revenues. What's fueling that? In a word, television. Monster Garage, which launched last summer, is the Discovery Channel's top-rated new series. The show, combined with regular re-broadcasts of Motorcycle Mania I and II, is earning James legions of new fans and customers.
Not everyone's an admirer. In the bike-building biz there are as many petty jealousies, cliques, and rivalries as there are in a high school cafeteria. The hottest dish du jour is Jesse James. "Television made him," says Simms, who describes himself as a former friend and mentor. "And it's changed him too." Simms, like a few of the other bike builders and trade experts we spoke to, think James's marketing skills are better than his mechanical aptitude. James's response: Whatever.
For now, he says, there are better things to pay attention to. He's busy growing his business and living his life. He's filming Motorcycle Mania III and shooting new episodes of his TV show. There's also his new marriage to Janine Lindemulder, a former adult-film star with credits like Blonde Justice and Where the Boys Aren't 13.
What happens if the buzz dies down? Or if cameras and TV fans turn away? What then? Says James: "I'll go back to building bikes. Remember, I'm just a glorified welder."