Pimped-out vans for CEOs beat peak-hour pain

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 a more fertile base for DC's designs than Mumbai: private vehicle numbers there have risen 57 per cent in less than a decade; 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 in the US—just ask Californian 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 LA. "Now? It's totally unpredictable, and you have to leave a minimum of two hours early to get to a meeting even close to on time."

America's premier car up-fitter

He tapped Howard Becker to address this, the owner of Beverly Hills-based Becker Auto Design. Since starting out 40 years ago customising cars with high-end stereos for clients such as Cher and Michael Jackson, Becker has moved into the mobile office space to become the US'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 — in other words, for American drivers, the post-Recession turnaround is a stop signal. Per Inrix spokesman Jim Bak, traffic trends show congestion is worsening in urban centres where the tech sector is strong, such as Austin, Seattle, and San Jose, adding them to the list of already-gridlocked cities such as New York (53 hours wasted in traffic per year) and Washington, DC (40 hours). Nowhere is worse to drive, of course, than Becker's local market of 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 LA. "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'."

All aboard the JetVan

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 is based off a Mercedes Benz Sprinter that he's dubbed the JetVan.

Clients such as Mark Wahlberg, Dr Dre, Johnny Depp, and Ben Affleck have opted for this version, which can accommodate up to seven people like a truly mobile (and luxurious) 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).

Advertisement

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 practised as you'd expect from a man who has thrived in a four decade-long career in sales.

Pedalling power

Each project begins with a consultation, after which Becker's team will create a 3-D animated walk-through of the customised 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 New York Stock Exchange-listed 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.

"He told me 'I can't imagine living without cardio—can you do an exercise thing for me'?" Becker recalls. So the designer took a recumbent exercise bike and chopped it in half, replacing the standard seat with an alternative that was safety-certified for cars, then wedged the Frankenbike into the back of the SUV. "He could sit back there and pump his little heart out to his heart's content and still wouldn't go flying out if there was a front collision."

Given such complex conversions, it's not surprising that the average project takes around seven months to complete and costs between $US250,000 ($321,800) to $US450,000 ($580,000) for a Mercedes Sprinter re-fit.

Onroad and online 

Beverly Hills-based Becker isn't the only such car customiser offering traffic jam-besting mobile office vans stateside, though. Matt Figliola runs AI Design in New York State's Westchester County. A favorite of Sean Combs, Figliola charges between $US150,000 to $US350,000 for a similar project, plus the cost of the car. He usually installs a Pepwave mobile bonded router in his vans, a device that he claims offers speeds "similar, if not better sometimes" to that of standard Wi-Fi. It combines subscriptions to four different data providers and then bundles the bandwidth, so large data files can be simultaneously split between two plans. He's even tried to snare real airline seats for his upfits, albeit to no avail.

"They're fabulously costly things, and I tried to get them a few years ago, but they won't sell them to you unless you're FAA-certified," he sighs, speaking by phone from his office. "If you're not in the airline world, one of those seats is like a unicorn."

Another kind of seat, though, could be a real, well, convenience—a bathroom. Philip Daskal of INKAS, a Toronto- based firm that began offering armour for luxury vehicles before moving into custom interiors and mobile offices, refitted a Sprinted for $US750,000 for a celebrity businessman in the Philippines. (Daskal estimates that emerging markets like India comprise more than 75 per cent of his business.)

"What could take 15 minutes to drive in North America, could take two to three hours in Manila, so it's forever to get to places," Daskal recalls. So alongside the 50-inch flatscreen, satellite phones, and massage seats, came the client's more practical requirement. INKAS turned to the same kind of lightweight eco-friendly toilets common on high-end yachts, installing it at the rear complete with chrome sinks. "It even had its own exhaust, so the smell wouldn't linger."

BLOOMBERG