The next “big play” in e-commerce may very well be a company recently founded in Billings, Montana.

It’s taken five years and millions of dollars to develop the new app, but WebBuy is now available to car dealerships throughout the country. The first-of–its kind, WebBuy is a fully integrated dealer-centric car -buying web application that allows customers to buy – from shopping to financing to licensing — cars on line, any time of day.

And more than the next “big play,” it could very well be the next big “global play,” according to the man who developed it, noted Billings businessman, Steve Zabawa. Zabawa co-founded WebBuy with Tom Murray, Chicago, Ill.

John Soares of Billings is also a partner.

Zabawa, Murray and Soares have known each other for many years. Thirty years ago, they were youngsters with no jobs and so began their careers as salesmen in the car business. Today, Zabawa owns several car dealerships in Billings under Rimrock Auto Group, including the Mercedes dealership in partnership with Soares. Murray was CEO of one of the largest finance contract service companies in the world, Resource Automotive.

They, along with some ten other investors, all of whom are owners of car dealerships, believe that WebBuy is the next Amazon.

Zabawa sees no reason that this new high tech business shouldn’t do just as well in Billings, Montana as in Silicon Valley. And, he has made every effort to “do it local,” which in large part is what the WebBuy app does for car dealerships, everywhere.

“Customers have been shopping for, and buying cars from, other online services for years – now it’s time to bring them back to where they belong: your dealership,” touts WebBuy promotion materials.

World headquarters for WebBuy is located next to Beartooth Bank on King Avenue West. But Zabawa expects to need more space in about two years, so plans are to build what will probably be a five to ten story building, just across the parking lot from their current location. Projections are that in two years they will be employing about 200 people – 75 in Billings and the rest located around the country.

The company has already started hiring the first of 40 employees who will promote the app to car dealerships, helping them to install it, training them to use it, and maintaining it.

Last week, Zabawa received a $200,000 grant from the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund which will help his company train the 40 employees. WebBuy applied for the grant through Big Sky Economic Development.

The fledgling company more than met the grant requirement that over 50 percent of their sales must be out-of-state. WebBuy will be marketing to some 17,000 new-car stores throughout the US.

WebBuy has already been successfully operating for the past 90 days in 30 dealerships including all of Rimrock Auto Group, which includes dealerships for Chevrolet, GMC Cadillac, Kia, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.

The goal is to add another 350 dealerships by the end of 2018; and to add another 700 by the end of 2019; 1050 more in the next year, 1400 in the following year — and to have 5000 dealerships using WebBuy by the end of five years.

For fifty years, cars have been sold in the same way, said Zabawa. But that is all projected to soon change. Industry experts predict that by 2019 some 10 percent of all new cars will be sold on-line, with millennials leading the way. Millennials already do more car shopping on line than any other group. When they purchase a vehicle they are most likely to arrive at the dealership knowing exactly what they want, because of their advance on-line research.

To have an app that allows customers to conduct a complete vehicle transaction on-line, with no salesman involved, has never been done before, but it is the obvious next step.

There are others, fast on the heels of WebBuy, trying to develop their own apps. “All big companies are trying to do it,” said Zabawa. A billion dollars has been spent in the last 36 months by the industry trying to develop “a button” – an app, that will essentially do what WebBuy will do. Zabawa believes that they are the first to succeed because they started developing the idea five years ago, which was at least two years ahead of everyone else.

For the past 20 years, Zabawa always strongly pushed technology as the best means to compete and to help employees do well.  In fact, WebBuy is not the first app that Zabawa has tried to develop. He had a couple of other ideas that didn’t pan out. But while those efforts consumed time and money, he learned a lot. In the process of developing WebBuy there wasn’t a day, he said, that he didn’t draw some bit of knowledge from those past experiences. Most important was the contacts he made along the way and being able to identify who had the expertise needed.

The process has been “a sruggle.” “It has not been easy,” said Zabawa, who drew upon the talents and knowledge of local technology entrepreneur, Stephen Dimock, a partner and developer of Webgrain in Billings.

Also, deeply involved in the venture is another local entrepreneur, Dana Pulis, owner of Kinetic Agency, who has developed the marketing tools for WebBuy.

Zabawa is pleased that he has been able to find local talent —  the product of local colleges and businesses – to help develop the product and the company. It’s an opportunity to give back. “Billings has been phenomenally good to me,” said Zabawa, who came to Billings with John Soares from Phoenix, Arizona, 24 years ago.

Zabawa said he started thinking about selling cars on line as he began to see brown boxes arriving more and more frequently at his home, as family members started doing more on-line shopping. “Why can’t we sell cars like that?” he asked himself.

In the past, there has always been a lot of moving parts in the process of buying a car. The steps were separate and numerous, requiring that the buyer interact with multiple individuals, consuming considerable time for both the buyer and the dealer.

WebBuy dramatically changes that, with a seamless transaction that is transparent and reliable, efficient and accurate. WebBuy connects customers, lenders and dealerships. The app allows customers to shop a dealer’s in- stock inventory on line. In an easy to understand and use app, the buyer can customize the vehicles to their preference, adjust payments to their budget, and to essentially structure their own deal.

They can get an instant trade-in offer for their vehicle – not just a quote. The trade-in offer stands even if the customer decides not to buy.

WebBuy puts the entire process in the hands of the customer. They can conduct the whole deal on line, only having to go to the dealership to pick up their new car. Or, they can decide not to buy. Or, they can lock in incentives, obtain their trade-in value, choose accessories, or they can just do the paper work to take into the dealership.

WebBuy processes the financing through approved national banks and captive lenders, giving customers an opportunity to compare interest rates and the option of choosing the lender they want.  Such transparency in financing is a first in the industry where financing has often seemed a mystery to the customer, declared Zabawa.

Much of the five years developing the app was spent establishing partnerships with the large banks that provide much of the lending for the automobile industry. There are companies which already work with those lenders through organizations and agreements that help streamline their services. WebBuy worked through those companies to develop an app, which would meet the needs of the lenders – all 1300 of them. 

While WebBuy has established a partnership with most of the major lenders there are still others who they will continue to contact and work with, in order to incorporate more competing lenders into the system.

It is in fact, the finance companies that bear the cost of using the app. While one might expect that the dealership would have to purchase the use of the app, such is not the case. WebBuy is made available to the dealers at no cost. Installation, training and maintenance are free. In fact, Zabawa calls the app a “freemium.” Costs are covered whenever a customer obtains a loan to purchase a vehicle.

Perhaps most astounding about developing the app is that it entailed incorporating all the different processes, regulations and laws regarding taxes, titles, and licenses as they are set by every state, county and municipality in the nation, so that no matter where a buyer is located they can conduct the entire purchase on line. Development required obtaining all those details, from each locality, and programing them into the app, with the result that the cost of every license, fee and tax can be calculated by the app “to the penny,” no matter where the buyer lives.

So efficient and quick is the process of buying a car using the WebBuy app that even if a buyer goes to the dealership to shop and purchase a vehicle, the dealer will likely offer some kind of incentive to get the customer to conduct the transaction on-line with WebBuy, because it handles the process so much better and more efficiently for the dealership, giving them more time to spend on managing the business.

Using the app gives dealerships the potential too of making more money through the sale of accessories and in allowing insurance companies to market their services through it.