Small businesses need no longer seek out distant industrial parks for agreeable work space. Local and national real estate agents have been segmenting entire city buildings into cozy, move-right-in offices, renting them out for full- or part-time occupancy. These executive-suite rentals usually come with modern furnishings, designer lobbies, shared receptionists, and add-ons such as bookkeeping, data processing, and even concierge services. (The Executive Suite Network, at 800-237-4741, in Dallas, publishes a free list of its members' offerings and locations.)

Can a sole or nearly sole proprietor survive in relatively expensive square footage, even given the extras? Inc. surveyed a number of modest operations. Here are some typical cases:

Business Lessor Space/Rent

Bell Investment Advisors The Executive Offices 1,400 sq ft

San Francisco at 100 First St. (local) $950/mo

? Summary: Sole proprietor Jim Bell sought "a classy atmosphere." Wanted to avoid the impression of economic hard times given by excess of empty space some buildings had. Willingly pays 34¢/minute for a secretary, 44¢/minute for word processing, and a 20% surcharge on mail and messengers to get bills out with dispatch. Conference room and kitchen are both "very" available -- and free. Ditto the house concierge. Security team works directly for building owner; is well-trained, courteous. ? Best Feature: Support staff gives the impression it works only for him.

Chas. W. Dawson &
Executive Group Offices 156 sq ft

Associates (metro Detroit) $500/mo

Troy, Mich. (part-time)

? Summary: To get his benefits-consulting service started, sole proprietor Dawson used office two to three hours a week, as what the industry terms an "identity" tenant (since even sporadic occupancy lends a business an identity). For the fee, business owner also got dedicated-line phone answering, mail pickup, and word processing. Deciding factor for choosing this location over three competing suites: elegant appointments of relatively modern building. Once business grew to full-time, though, business owner moved to conventional -- and cheaper -- space. ? Best Feature: Marble foyer has a new marble floor.

Dan O'Grady The Professional Suite 728 sq ft

Psychology (local) $3,000/mo


? Summary: In O'Grady's four-year tenancy (so far), his operation has grown into a five-person office. Lessor lets him tap unoccupied space as needed on per-use or month-by-month basis. ? Drawback:Switchboard closes at 5 p.m., so he can't call-forward after hours -- a handicap for an around-the-clock practitioner. Also, O'Grady wishes he had his own thermostat. Suggests that a small company shopping for a shared suite be specific: How available (really) is the conference room? Are you allowed your own fax and copier? ? Best Feature: Renter isn't locked into long-term lease, as is often required elsewhere.

Grant Engineering Omni Offices 252 sq ft

Atlanta (national) $1,250/mo

? Summary: John Grant, who began his structural-engineering firm in a tiny space at home, now has a tiny, three-person office. Is willing to pay six times the ordinary space rate because "first impressions make a big difference." Feels he saves overall: he didn't have to buy (or shop for) furniture and didn't have to hire his own secretary. Cites paperwork convenience: all expenses itemized on one bill. Business-image notion paid off: he got a big contract after meeting with federal officials who were impressed with his office's sumptuous setting. ? Best Feature: Receptionist's determination to track him down to get incoming phone calls.

Lown Financial ESP 350 sq ft

Dallas (local) $2,500/mo

(includes service fees)

? Summary: Investment adviser John Lown at first shopped for conventional space, but determined it would cost maybe five times as much, given use of conference rooms, waiting areas, kitchen, top-of-the-line furnishings, and secretary. Landlord is responsible for providing secretarial services (even if secretary calls in sick). Executive-suite approach allows Lown to "concentrate on essentials, instead of worrying about problems." Can and does pick up and move freely among lessor's four sites, as operations and demographics dictate. ? Best Feature: "Absolutely gorgeous" setting.

Productive Head Quarters 100 sq ft

Strategies Executive Suites $650/mo

San Francisco (national)

? Summary: Scott Plakun was a part-time tenant when he started his management-consulting business in mid-1991, availing himself of mail and phone services and a conference room. Now full-time. Decision to remain in executive-suite surroundings was motivated by otherwise "scary" price of furniture, and availability of executive suite's very large conference room. Tried hotel space for classes, concluded it was "ungodly expensive." Actually found cheaper space than HQ's, but liked HQ's prestigious 50-story building. Appreciates fact that HQ supplies coffee and Danish for his attendees. ? Best Feature: Receptionist answers phone with the name of his business.

-- Michael P. Cronin