Taking Your Desk On The Road

It's a familiar scene: executives holding court around a conference table. One manager types notes on a laptop. Another grabs an incoming memo from the fax machine. The CEO swivels her chair to peek at the stock ticker zipping along on CNBC. Business as usual? Not quite.

The meeting isn't taking place inside corporate headquarters. It's in a souped-up office-on-wheels. A handful of companies across the U.S. are supplying custom mobile-office suites built into full-size vans. The makeovers let salespeople, insurance agents, and entrepreneurs get things done while they're out cruising the highways.

Office vans, costing $55,000 to $80,000 or more, may be outfitted with leather swivel chairs, fax machine-computer printers, and file cabinets. For an extra $7,700, you can add satellite television, complete with a dish on the roof. For an additional $130,000, your office van can be armored against heavy artillery. "This is America, and if there is any way to spend more time working, then we will," says Tom Martin, president of Seven O Seven Industries, a vehicle converter in Elkhart, Ind.

That doesn't mean you can readily turn your family minivan into a custom office. Because of safety considerations, everything must be nailed, bolted, or screwed down. You would have to gut your van and more or less start over. So the cost of conversion is prohibitively expensive. Most buyers order office vans from a specialist. You might get a referral on a customizer from a conventional auto dealer or at a trade show. In either instance, finished conversions can be delivered where you live or work.

Big Three auto makers usually supply the chassis and power train. A van-conversion company adds the floor, ceiling, seats, and other accoutrements. Seven O Seven's Executive Carrier, for example, costs $55,000 and is built on a Ford body. The vehicle is appointed with cushy leather seats that swivel to face passengers seated in the rear, a fold-down walnut conference table that can accommodate five, and a satellite navigation system. Onboard power outlets connect a VCR, TV, and other appliances. Chicago-based Landjet's $80,000 executive suites are built on a full-size GMC chassis and come loaded with three cellular phones, a combined fax, copier, printer, and modem, and a refrigerator.

PRACTICE SWING. Although many businesses use the vans for meetings and other office functions, some customers employ them to display products to potential clients. Choo Choo Customs in Chattanooga converted a van for the Arnold Palmer Golf Co. The company bought the vehicle so its sales force could use it as a traveling showroom, says Scudder Graybeal, a vice-president at Arnold Palmer. The $28,000 van was equipped to display clubs and apparel and let customers sit in a seat that swivels to view the entire line. What's more, a raised ceiling provides enough room for a medium-height duffer to check out his or her swing.

The mobile office is probably going to make its way into minivans. Chrysler has been demonstrating just such a Town & Country concept vehicle at various auto shows. And Honda unveiled a mobile-office version of its new MV-99 minivan at the Detroit Auto Show. For now, neither company has announced when, or if, these office minivans will go into production. If they do, you'll have to trade off significantly smaller interior space for easier handling and better gas mileage. But you'll probably be able to fit the thing in your garage.

There's a certain irony in these offices-on-wheels. Remember those brightly-painted hippie vans of the countercultural 1960s? Who would have thought that, a generation later, the van would become a vehicle for spreading the gospel of capitalism on the road?

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