Moving the Corner Office Into Your SUV

Fancy conversions have caught on with mobile VIPs

Reprinted from the April 22nd, 2002 issue of Business Week

On the outside, it looks just like any other hulking $40,000 Ford Excursion or Chevy Suburban. But peek inside, and this is what you see: a personal limo that seats four or five with wet bar, deep pile carpeting, and luscious leather seats that recline to nearly horizontal. Press a button, and the divider between driver and passenger rises, revealing a wide screen television.

More and more, there's an office tucked in there, too. The computer is nestled in the cargo area behind the rear seats (next to the refrigerator), with a wireless keyboard and mouse - plus printer, copier, and fax machine - in the passenger compartment. Want satellite phones for those annoying moments when your cell service fades in and out? That's another option: four lines and a satellite Internet connection for $16,000, plus $1.19 per minute - perfect for video conferences.

Kareem Burke, better known as Biggs in the music industry, gets around in one of these babies. One of the three owners of Roc-A-Fella Records in New York, part of Universal Music Enterprises, he spends more time in his car than his office, crawling through traffic to meetings and music studios. He uses the time to listen to new artists, catch up on phone calls, and check e-mail. "It's like having a Bentley or Gulfstream IV, but it's hidden inside a Ford Excursion," he says.

Burke paid a near-Bentley price, $200,000, for his Excursion at Becker Automotive Design in Oxnard, Calif. Howard Becker, 53, took over his father's electronics store, but made his name installing custom sound systems in the cars of Hollywood celebrities. When the SUV craze hit in the early '90s, he was well placed to do SUV conversions for them. "They wanted a big American SUV, but the hated the seats, the carpet, the fit and finish," he says. What they wanted was the look and feel of a European luxury car, so Becker took off all the chrome, buffed up the paint job, used better wheels, and installed wood interiors, expensive sound systems, and luxury seats and carpets.

From there, it was a short step to personal limos for executives who already had a driver. They want privacy and a mobile-office environment but don't want to attract attention or create resentment among their employees by plying the streets in a showy stretch limousine. As his business gravitated toward chauffeur-driven vehicles - nearly half of which are in the Northeast, according to Limousine and Chauffeured Transportation magazine - Becker shuttered his retail store outside Beverly Hills, Calif., and moved to an industrial park in Oxnard, 50 miles north of Los Angeles.

Becker has built 50 limos since 1998 and an equal number of SUV conversions for the drive-it-yourself crowd. Now, close to half his production goes to executives instead of celebrities, though he admits there's overlap. Buyers include film producer Arnon Milchan, New Jersey Nets owner Lewis Katz, and New York real estate executive Andrew Farkas. Vincent Chhabra, chief executive of USA Prescription, an Internet pharmacy, will take delivery of his any day now. Diet queen Jenny Craig just ordered one as a gift for her husband Sidney.

Prices start at $85,000 for a basic Excursion limo with leather seats and no exotic woods. With a Rolls-Royce quality interior and all the executive toys, the price can easily top $200,000.

Since September 11, some customers are demanding even more: armor. Becker is happy to oblige. Enough steel and Kevlar and bulletproof glass to stop handgun fire will add about $65,000 to the tab. For that amount, you can travel in style, securely and productively - and completely incognito.