Howard Becker's van conversions make one suite ride.
By Larry Armstrong
Reprinted from Business Week, January 16, 2006
From the outside it looks like an airport van, the kind that whisks you from baggage claim to a hotel. Inside, though, it's more like a Gulfstream G150 or Dassault Falcon executive jet. There's a curved ceiling with indirect and pinpoint LED lighting, sumptuous leather seats with electrically deployed leg rests, hand-veneered tray tables that stow away in armrests and consoles. A wide-screen TV pops up in the front of the cabin; another drops from the ceiling in the rear.
Welcome aboard the Becker JetVan, a Dodge Sprinter passenger van outfitted with the amenities of a private jet and all the tools of an airborne office, including satellite phones, a docking station for a laptop, and a high-speed Internet connection. It's the brainchild of Howard Becker, a veteran of the custom car business and owner of Becker Automotive Design Inc. in Oxnard, Calif.
"I call it my stealth limo," says Mitzi Perdue, who bought one so her favorite charities could ferry guest speakers and celebs in style from Philadelphia or Washington airports to fund-raisers in her rural Maryland hometown, a three-hour trip. "If I can provide them with a mobile office, that's not wasted time," she says. "They can get some work done on the way."
The same logic appealed to Eric Holm, who with his wife, Diane, owns 36 Golden Corral and Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q restaurants around Atlanta and Orlando. "If I'm driving myself in traffic, I'm not getting my work done. But if I'm sitting in the office, I can't visit the restaurants," says Holm, who likes to stop by each location at least once every other week. Holm stores the van in his hangar at the DeKalb Peachtree Airport north of Atlanta. He likes the $250,000 JetVan enough -- "the interior is just like a private jet," he says -- that he plans to buy a second one to keep in Florida later this year.
The vans are sleek, six-figure propositions by the time Becker is finished with them. He starts with the $44,000 long-wheelbase, high-roof version (a six-footer can stand up in it) of the Dodge Sprinter passenger van. Built in Dusseldorf, Germany, it's sold as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter outside North America. Becker restores the Mercedes (DCX ) trim, tunes the turbo diesel engine for more power, and tweaks the suspension for a softer ride.
From there it's whatever the customer wants. Options can drive the price into the $200,000-to-$300,000 range. Becker offers a choice of six "standard" floor plans that seat from four to seven, not counting the driver and one passenger up front. Most buyers opt for a partition between the driver and passenger compartments; when the privacy window is up, it holds a 30-inch flat-screen TV for entertainment and computer displays.
But it's the aircraft-style interior, with its extensive use of lightweight, honeycomb, and composite materials, that sets the JetVan apart from ordinary van conversions. Becker's newest option takes the private jet look even further: electric window shades, essentially folding blinds sandwiched between the outside glass and inside plastic. Depending on the number of windows you want covered, that can cost up to $40,000 extra.
Becker will also personalize the interior to his customers' tastes. Perdue, daughter of one of the founders of Sheraton Hotels & Resorts (HOT ) and widow of Perdue Farms Inc.'s Frank Perdue, wanted hers to reflect the color scheme of a bejeweled Faberge-like egg she designed. Becker obliged, finding a handmade Pakistani rug with similar colors, refinishing the Rolls-Royce toggle switches for the lighting controls to brushed gold instead of the customary silver, and piping the leather seats in a complementary color. The final touch: He mounted the egg on a Waterford vase that guests pass by when they climb into the van.
Moving On Up
Becker got his start right out of college working at his father's car stereo store in Los Angeles. In the '70s he moved to a storefront half a block south of Beverly Hills and began pitching upgraded sound systems to Hollywood celebrities and entertainment moguls. As the business grew, he found himself doing complete conversions, revamping big SUVs with posh interiors and lots of electronics. Five years ago he found his customer base changing, too, from the likes of Barbra Streisand and Eddie Murphy to businessmen such as Eric Holm and real estate developer John Scardino, so he decamped Beverly Hills for an industrial park in Oxnard, 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Scardino appreciates the look and feel of the JetVan. He normally travels in Pilatus PC-12 and Falcon 50 jets and often commutes from Los Angeles to California's central coast in his L39 fighter jet. But what he really needed was an office. "My 'offices' are basically the trailers at all our building sites," he says. "There's no phone, no water, no nothing." He prefers to drive himself, so he's having a sliding door put between the driver's compartment and the passenger cabin, and he wants a clothes rack and tiny bathroom in the cargo area behind the rear seats.
Earlier, Scardino tried building an office into a 40-foot mobile home, but it was so difficult to drive and park, that he sold it within six months. When he gets his van in January, it will have a computer, printer, fax, phone, and high-speed Net access. And it will provide a businesslike environment for meetings with his bankers and partners. "If you think about it, it's where I work and where we scout out our properties," he adds. "So now I can have my office in the middle of nowhere, too."