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You Can Take It With You

Hard-driving entrepreneurs hit the road in their high-tech mobile offices.
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SOHO Beyond

The view from Russ Abney's office window changes constantly: bald eagles, pristine lakes, aspens, pines, and mile after mile of asphalt, gravel, and dirt.

Abney's office is the front seat of a white 1999 Chevy van. Though the van lacks a coffee machine and other trappings of corporate life, Abney wouldn't dream of trading in his aftermarket Recaro driver's seat with lumbar support for a swiveling leather desk chair. Abney runs a three-year-old, $400,000 forklift-sales-and-service business called Western Industrial Equipment, in Moorestown, Mich. His V8-powered office adds an extra dimension to his working life, he says. "It's that much more freedom and that much more excitement" over and above the sense of independence most entrepreneurs enjoy, he says.

CEOs in the trades and services have always spent a lot of time in their vehicles, dashing from supplier to customer to job site. Abney himself has 30 years of experience at working out of his truck -- enough to know how to make a tuna sandwich while barreling down an expressway, and enough to know better.

But today technology is changing the way Abney and others like him manage their time. "Cell phones, laptops, wireless -- in the last five years these have taken off," says George Phirippidis, CEO of the Mobile Office Outfitter, a manufacturer and retailer of car- and truck-office organizers in Pleasanton, Calif. "A lot of people don't have to have an office. They can do everything right out of their vehicles. The efficiency, time savings, and reduced overhead make it the right formula for entrepreneurs." Entrepreneurs like Abney, who need the flexibility of a home office with the added benefit of near-infinite mobility. Call it SOHO on wheels.

It works for Abney. One of his favorite on-the-road gizmos is a global positioning system device called the Garmin StreetPilot. To use it, Abney punches in a customer's address, and the StreetPilot's color screen displays a map, directions to the address, and a tiny cartoon car indicating his van's location. "Previous to owning this, I'd go to obscure, out-of-the way places, and I couldn't find my way around," he says. "I've been late several times, and I got very tense. This relieves a lot of stress."

Besides navigating boreal Michigan, Abney's biggest challenge is staying in touch with his customers and his vendors. A few years ago Abney bought a wireless phone that doubled as a portable fax. But in the remote areas where he services forklifts -- at farms, warehouses, and forestry and fishing outfits -- his connection often conked out. He also tried using an alphanumeric pager but found that only people with the same setup could return his text messages. His inelegant solution: ditch the useless fancy stuff and make do with two Nokia cell phones, a Motorola pager, and a Casio handheld computer that sits in a cradle mounted on the dashboard. Abney is "impatiently waiting" for the all-in-one smart phone his service provider has promised.

Until that sleek machine arrives, Abney knows that his communication kludge is key to his ability to make a living in the wilderness that he loves. "Last summer I was salmon fishing on Lake Michigan, and I handled a sale from the boat," he says, adding that the deal was worth $5,000. "It would be very difficult to do what I'm doing without help from technology," he concludes.

The view from steve fogel's office is different from Abney's -- Fogel sees dogwoods rather than aspens, and a lot more houses -- but it's just as dynamic. Fogel owns one-year-old Platinum Exteriors Inc., a $1.2-million roofing company in Oakton, Va. He does all his own selling and manages every job himself. His office is the cab of a charcoal gray 2000 Chevy Silverado with heated seats and leather trim. "It's like sitting in your living room," he says. "I bought a really nice truck, because driving is such an integral part of what I do."

Fogel spends 70% of his working day calling on prospects and shuttling between jobs. A Hitachi notebook computer, on which Fogel estimates jobs and manages accounts, rests on the front seat. A Palm III handheld computer, in which he stores contacts and a daily to-do list, sits on the nonskid armrest. "Just like in a good office, you have everything at your fingertips," he says.

Of all his tech tools, however, Fogel reckons his Motorola digital phone with Nextel Communications' two-way radio service is the most important. His $170 monthly phone bill includes membership in Nextel's Builders' Network, a nationwide circle of vendors and contractors. Fogel can summon a contractor -- a carpenter framing a new building, for example -- to find out whether a job site is ready for his roofers. Then he can order supplies and dispatch a crew with the same radio. "It's a major, major time-saver," he says. Fogel estimates that his electronic toolbox has boosted his productivity by 40% to 50%. Now he has his eye on a BlackBerry wireless E-mail device that he could use to correspond with the tech-savvy homeowners who make up his customer base in northern Virginia.

Like Abney, Fogel isn't envious of the watercooler crowd. "I thought of merging with a larger company that wanted me to come in," Fogel says. "But in the end, being in control and flexible with my time, being able to see my kids and do things on my own without answering to anybody, won." Still, it's lonely out there. DJs talk, but they don't listen. So Fogel and three fellow moving targets -- a carpenter, a remodeler, and a mason -- meet two to three times a week for lunch or happy hour at Fat Tuesday's, a local watering hole. "We call it 'the boardroom," Fogel says.

Automakers started catering heavily to the truck-cab CEO in 1994, when Dodge introduced its new Ram pickup. "They had studied customers and found that lots of them were using their vehicles as mobile offices," says Dale Jewett, industry editor at Automotive News magazine. "One of the significant features was a very large center console that folded down from the bench seat that could hold laptops and cell phones." The 2002 Ram has no fewer than 17 cargo compartments inside the cab.

Other car companies are competing by offering special storage areas for everything from briefcases to blueprints. GMC's Sierra Professional, a truck that's targeted specifically at contractors, will roll off the assembly line this fall featuring a "vocational center console" with power and storage stations for cell phones and handheld computers -- not to mention a removable lunch cooler. "People were working out of their trucks anyway. Why wouldn't we want to make it easier for them?" says Rick Asher, assistant director of communications at Pontiac-GMC.

The mobile office, it seems, is growing up. The Mobile Office Outfitter's Phirippidis says that sales of his front-seat gadget organizers are outstripping sales of the traditional trunk-based filing systems he started selling to traveling salespeople 10 years ago. And features like OnStar, an onboard safety and security system, are evolving into mobile Internet services for cars, or "telematics" -- a $1.3-billion industry, estimates Rob Hegblom, a senior analyst with market researcher Strategis Group, in Washington, D.C. You can even have a computer installed directly into the dash, like the Q-PC (starting at $2,895).

Unfortunately, there's one thing that no technology company can provide, something that Steve Fogel says he would like to have more than any computerized toy: a driver.


Fogel's SOHO Essentials

  • Office: 2000 Chevy Silverado pickup with interior-upgrade option package, $34,000. Hitachi America notebook, $2,400.
  • Mobile: Palm III handheld computer, $300. Motorola digital phone, $225. Nextel Communications' two-way- radio service, $170 a month.
  • Background noise: Sports radio.

Abney's SOHO Essentials

  • Office: 1999 Chevy van, $21,000. Recaro lumbar-support driver's seat, $800. Casio Cassiopeia handheld computer, $500.
  • Mobile: Garmin StreetPilot GPS, $800. Nokia cell phones, $209 apiece, plus $60 a month in service charges. Motorola pager, $59 plus $15 a month in service charges.
  • Background noise: Anything from blues to motivational books on tape.

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