The Digital Skeptic: Disrupting is for Schmucks

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Jumpin' Joe Jebaily -- seriously, that's what his business card says -- is as certain as certain can be that, when it comes to manufacturing in the digital age, disrupting is for schmucks.

"I am very happy being the fingertip of GM ( GM)," Jebaily told me here in the corner of the lower floor of the New York International Auto Show.

Jebaily's company, the 55-person American Luxury Coach, offers mass-customized upfit manufacturing services, mostly to the truck divisions of General Motors. That's car-industry speak for serious modifications made to cars and trucks after formal production is over -- such things as fancy fenders, tricky trim packages and spiffy interior styling.

The Florence, S.C., firm's niche is to do these mods faster and more efficiently than a single mechanic -- and to a high enough spec that GM trusts Jebaily to cover his work with its full warrantee program.

"GM does 600 trucks a day," he said. "I can do 10. But I log a million miles a year making sure my trucks get sold at prices where the dealer can make a little money to keep the lights on."

Jebaily -- who says he earned his Jumpin' Joe nickname because he never stops moving -- has pioneered a hustling, face-to-face design and sales style that captures almost absurd margins in a car business commoditized by the Web and giants such as Ford ( F), Chrysler, Nissan ( NSANY) and Toyota ( TM).

His secret? Jebaily ingeniously reverse-engineers the role of the manufacturer to include not only design and making of car parts, but also marketing directly to customers and building exactly what they want on-demand. You know: the whole Web, mass-customization, desktop manufacturing song and dance.

But -- and this is a really big "but" -- he does it all without a serious Web presence or disintermediating General Motors or the car dealers, or anybody else in the drum-tight automotive supply chain.

"I don't need to sell a truck here to sell trucks," he explained. "I do not compete with the dealer. I do not compete with the factory. I'm here to see how people react to my trucks, then make a truck I know people want. And I go from there."

Money for something
Hanging out at Jebaily's Auto Show booth for even a few minutes confirms this Jumpin' Joe is oh so onto something.

His latest creation, a custom upgrade GMC Sierra done for Ducks Unlimited -- a Memphis, Tenn., waterfowl conservation group with about 600,000 members - has sold 400 units in its first few months. Duck hunters pay up for a mix of Jebaily's custom flake green paint, job, unique logo, modified interior and other features.

All of which create margins any investor would love.

"This is a $54,000 truck, with the base vehicle costing in the $44,000 range," he said. "In the age of the Internet, nobody does that in the car business. But my cars can't be had online. So people are willing to pay for the lifestyle."

Jebaily's approach? Pretend the Information Age does not exist. Even though he's a trained engineer, Jebaily spends almost no time on sophisticated modeling or preference algos to drive his products. Rather, Jebaily, and about a half-dozen sales reps, essentially live on the road, attending local group events looking for critical marketing masses at which to aim truck designs.

For the Ducks Unlimited job, that meant months of attending -- you guessed it -- waterfowl and hunting shows.

"You learn a lot about ducks," he jokes. "Items like the mufflers were incredibly complex. It turned out the Ducks Unlimited users wanted the feeling they were driving a powerful truck. It had to have a real rumble when it started -- but they wanted it quiet in the field. So we designed a muffler that would change tone as it warmed up."

Once he gets a set of options he believes in, Jebaily invests in building his own prototype -- a vehicle he shows not to customers, but directly to major dealers close to his already-identified potential buyers.

When he does it right, the dealer sees the value of Jebaily's truck and knows which customers to contact based on Jebaily's leads; the dealer then upsells his models over others. Those unique orders flow back through GM, then out to American Luxury Motors. And since Jebaily has already worked out the manufacturing kinks, he can build that exact model essentially on-demand.

"That way I can move 70 trucks a week and still offer warranties," he said. "No company can match that."

Make money making anything
When I asked JeBaily if other manufacturers or investors could prosper from his model, he looked at me like I was nuts.

"If I were in the fridge business I could make this work," he said. The trick, Jebaily says, is getting out from behind the stupid desk and seeing with your own eyes what people really want. After that, creating something unique that can't be found or priced anywhere else is simple.

"Customers happily pay for it," he said. "You build them a great product and you're not chasing some crazy website somewhere that kills you on price. You're selling a lifestyle. Not a product."

"You don't get to sleep much doing it this way," he said, "but it works."
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.