These insane vans for CEOs redefine the meaning of working on the go
In India, where private drivers are already a middle class staple, one man has created an entirely new category of executive wheels: the mobile office.
Indeed, the handiwork of Dilip Chhabria, an erstwhile GM engineer, is discreetly visible across India. His firm, DC design, co-opts battered Toyota Highlanders and retrofits the interiors with amenities like Wi-Fi, touchscreen TVs, sound-proofing, and airline pod-style seats expressly to answer one of the city's biggest problems — traffic. Conveniently transformed, these SUVs now make short order of ever-longer commutes, turning them into just another day at the (mobile) office.
Nowhere is more fertile a base for DC's designs than Mumbai: private vehicle numbers there have risen 57% in less than a decade, and by one estimate, 200 new cars join the traffic jam every day. It's typical of many of the nascent megatropolises in emerging markets, from Bangkok to Brazil, Moscow to Mexico City, where the roadways have begun to buckle in the wake of the economic boom. Unfortunately, and increasingly, the situation isn't much different stateside — just ask California businessman Mark Hyman.
"I'm born and raised in California, and years ago traffic was predictable," he explains, on the phone from his home just outside L.A. "Now? It's totally unpredictable, and you have to leave a minimum of 2 hours early to get to a meeting even close to on time."
He tapped Howard Becker to address this, the owner of Beverly Hills-based Becker Auto Design. Since starting out 40 years ago customizing cars with high-end stereos for clients like Cher and Michael Jackson, Becker has moved into the mobile office space to become America's premier car up-fitter.
It's an increasingly lucrative market, especially given Becker's location. According to the most recent figures from traffic tracking firm Inrix, as GDP rises, mph falls — for American drivers, the post-Recession turnaround is a stop signal. Per Inrix spokesman Jim Bak, traffic trends show congestion is worsening in urban centers where the tech sector is strong, such as Austin, Seattle, and San Jose, adding them to the list of already-gridlocked cities like New York (53 hours wasted in traffic per year) and Washington, D.C. (40 hours). Nowhere is worse to drive, of course, than Becker's local market Los Angeles, where residents waste on average 60 hours (that's 2 ½ days) every year in their car.
"Even in the first world, the major metropolitan areas are all behind in infrastructure," Becker says by phone from L.A. "What drives our business is the ability for our customers to get things done even when they're driving, as opposed to sacrificing that time. The candy red Ferrari is still in the garage for fun at weekends, but they're thinking, at least on weekdays, 'I can't afford to drive myself any more.'"
Sure, Silicon Valley might have solved this quandary by providing school bus-style transport for its middle managers, but CEOs and celebrities require the limo world's answer to a private jet. Becker offers two core mobile offices, one of which based off a Mercedes Benz Sprinter that he's dubbed the JetVan. Clients like Mark Wahlberg, Dr. Dre, Johnny Depp, and Ben Affleck have opted for this version, which can accommodate up to seven people like a truly (and luxurious) mobile conference room, or a cosier alternative hewn from a Cadillac Escalade ESV (though that, too, can be discreetly stretched to squeeze in four conference seats).
They may not look anything special from the outside, but most deskbound execs would envy the in-motion amenities he offers: plush leather seats, fine wood inlays, blazing fast Wi-Fi, Crestron media systems with touch screen menus offering live TV, video-on-demand, and local programming from any major city. You can even get a printer if you want it. "My clients can basically run most of their world, if not the world, from that position," Becker promises, his patter as smooth and practiced as you'd expect from a man who's thrived in a four decade-long career in sales.
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Each project begins with a consultation after which Becker's team will create a 3-D animated walk-through of the customized fit-out. They can then explore the vehicle together with the client and tweak its features before work begins. Often, his tech-savvy clients are keen to incorporate prototypes or beta test software on board, so Becker works with a team of IT staffers to adapt it to a car. "We're the bridge, the catcher's mitt, putting something that operates at 110 or 220 to use reliably on a 12-volt oriented vehicle," he explains.
His strangest request so far was from the CEO of a NYSE company (that he declined to name) who had moved the firm's headquarters from one city to another but decided not to move house himself. The corporate relocation therefore added an hour to the executive's commute each way, squeezing his daily routine so that exercise was almost impossible.
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