When time is money - lots and lots of it - a quarter-million-dollar SUV conversion from Becker can be worth every penny.
By Todd Lappin, Business 2.0 Magazine senior editor
Reprinted from Business 2.0, April, 2006
Some executives soar with eagles. They're the power brokers who fly in peerless comfort, efficiency, and style on wings made by Gulfstream or Learjet. Yet there's another breed of titans who keep their feet firmly planted on terra firma. These moguls are rich, yes, and their time is also very valuable, but in the course of doing business, they're more likely to shuttle between, say, Long Beach and Burbank than to jet from LAX to JFK. Whether they're real estate developers or fast-food kingpins cruising from one Pizza Hut franchise to the next, they need to be productive on the road.
I'm sitting in their dream ride--a $250,000 mobile office masquerading as just another hulking SUV. It's a 2005 Ford Excursion painted Darth Vader black, with rear windows tinted so deeply they look like granite countertops. But this is no gaudy stretch limo on prom night. Quite the opposite: Though the rims are chrome and the roof is slightly raised, the vehicle's length is unchanged and the manufacturer's nameplates have been scrupulously purged from the exterior. Like a crisp black suit, this vehicle exudes understated power.
Inside, however, there are amenities galore. I'm stretched out on a handcrafted leather chair that looks like a business-class seat on an overseas flight. There are curtains on the windows, and my feet are propped up on an electric footrest that a dentist would envy. In front of me, a 32-inch LCD screen acts as a divider that quarantines me from the driver's compartment.
A full-size Dell PC rides shotgun up front, so my big screen can function as a standard computer display, with high-speed Internet access provided by a Verizon EVDO card. A wireless keyboard sits on an airplane-style foldout tray, and I can control the cursor using an infrared pointer that nestles in a custom-fitted leather cradle. With a twist of a big chrome dial next to my right arm, however, I can change the picture entirely to see our position on Interstate 405 using the GPS navigation system, or view the freeway for real from either of two closed-circuit video-cameras, or watch car chases on the local news via DirecTV , or even play Grand Theft Auto on the PlayStation 2.
The screen is my window on the world, because, with the curtains drawn, the view through the windshield blocked by the divider, and layers of sound-deadening material maintaining a churchlike hush, the cabin feels eerily isolated from the sun-baked frustration of the grinding L.A. traffic outside.
Which is exactly the point, according to Howard Becker, the founder of Becker Automotive Design. His company built this particular rolling corner office for an L.A. asset manager, and at his vehicle conversion facility in Oxnard, Calif., Becker maintains a busy staff of 40 mechanics, metalworkers, upholsterers, leather craftsmen, and electronics experts.
All those people make a lot of noise, so when I dropped in, he led me to a nondescript Ford van parked in a corner of the workshop. The doors felt heavy (armor plating, he explained), and the interior was engraved with the coat of arms of a prominent Middle Eastern royal family. Silence enveloped us when the doors thumped shut, and as we settled into the reclining seats, Becker explained what his clients pay him to do. "They're looking for a seamless kind of motion in their lives," he said. "They want the vehicle to be a place where they can concentrate, rest, reduce stress, and focus."
Becker combines the gregariousness of a car stereo salesman (which he once was) with the worldly attentiveness of a personal tailor (which he sort of is). To build a mobile office, he starts with an SUV fresh from the dealer. Every vehicle is crafted to the owner's specifications, which typically means stripping the interior down to the bare sheet metal and starting over. Fixtures are fabricated, seating is stitched, the electrical system gets a high-voltage upgrade, handpicked electronics are wired in, and everything gets wrapped in acres of soft leather. As a finishing touch, Becker replaces the standard solid axle with a custom-made independent rear suspension that does much to smooth out the ride for the lucky VIP who sits in back.
Today that happens to be me, so en route to a meeting at Fox Studios in Century City, I try some perfunctory Web surfing to feign productivity. But soon I yield to temptation and begin exploring my cocoon. In addition to the big chrome dial, I find four remotes controlling four different devices. Figuring out how to operate my arsenal of personal electronics is befuddling at first, but for this Howard Becker is not to blame--I challenge any visitor to my home to divine what combination of buttons must be pressed to channel music from my iPod through the living room amplifier to the patio speakers. It's not hard, but doing it quickly requires familiarity with the intricacies of the interface. And indeed, after a few minutes of fiddling, I bring the DVD player to life. Top Gun begins to play on the LCD screen. How perfect.
Twenty blissful minutes later, as we arrive at Fox Studios, the 11-speaker sound system is filling the cabin with the roar of Maverick's F-14. Two security guards usher us into a parking space reserved for oversize vehicles and ogle the interior as I step out. As my eyes adjust to the sudden flood of daylight, I feel conspicuously refreshed. Energized, even. And most certainly focused. Becker has worked his magic. Seamless motion may not be a luxury everyone can afford, but it turns out to be a quality that anyone can learn to appreciate.