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Chopper fame revs up business empire

You want his wheels. You love his TV show. You even wear his clothes crave his food.  He’s not your typical Wall Street mogul.  By CNBC's Becky Quick
/ Source: CNBC

You want his wheels. You love his TV show. You even wear his clothes and crave his food.  He’s not your typical Wall Street mogul. At six foot three, 200 pounds and covered in tattoos, this grease monkey is more at home in a garage than a boardroom.

Living up to his name, Jesse James is an outlaw in his own right.

“If you’re not into what your product is and what you’re doing, you’re doing it purely for money and that’s not fun," said James. "I’m just trying to entertain myself. I do a lot of stuff that doesn’t make money."

Starting out of his garage in 1992, James is now in hog heaven. Enjoying the driver’s eat of a multi-million dollar empire centered around his custom motorcycle shop, West Coast Choppers. He charges up to $150,000 for his exclusive bikes. His star-studded clientele includes Shaquille O’Neal, Kid Rock and Keanu Reeves.

The Choppers may have sparked his fame, but now, with his business in full throttle, his ability to stay relevant and market himself as a relatable bad boy with blue-collar appeal has fueled his business from a struggling one-man enterprise to the brand he is today.

“Jesse James has made a lot out of this bad boy image, has made a lot out of this connection to the name Jesse James and this sort of Wild West romance,” said Advertising Age Editor-in-Chief Scott Donaton. "And I think he can make this a long-term brand if he can stay authentic and real, and stay connected to that."

Just this week, James adding the title of publisher to his growing business empire, with his takeover of Garage Magazine – a lifestyle monthly dedicated to custom cars and bikes. Also under the hood, his company, Pay Up Sucker Productions, and he’s behind one of the highest-rated shows on the Discovery Channel, “Monster Garage”, wrapping up in June, but gearing up for several new projects.

This alpha-male entrepreneur doesn’t stop there. James recently opened Cisco Burger, an eco-friendly restaurant chain named after his pit bull.  But the real moneymaker – his clothing lines. Two labels at West Coast Choppers, and two others available at high-end department stores.  Being married to actress Sandra Bullock, not bad for business, either.

“We probably lose money on every motorcycle we build still, and luckily we have other businesses to support the bike shop,” said James. "But, I love the quality of our product. I love to see other people’s mouth’s drop open when they see it."

James calls himself a gambler. He says he’s willing to be the farm on something he believes in -- proving that this hot rodder isn’t just along for the ride.