Don't Wait for Customers to Visit Drive the `Office' to Their Home

Compact, sophisticated wireless technology makes putting an office into a van practical

GREG COLLINS, a claims representative at Boston-based Plymouth Rock Assurance Corporation, meets with customers in his lushly carpeted office with windows all around. It is equipped with a cellular phone, a computer workstation, and walls engineered to reduce sound.

He also has windshield wipers and a defroster, and gets about 20 miles to the gallon.

Mr. Collins's office is a blue and white Dodge Caravan. Known in Plymouth Rock parlance as a ``crashbuster,'' it is one of 10 vans the company sends directly to customer sites. While it would be cheaper to have clients come to the company, ``service in the insurance sector is the name of the game,'' says William Kelley, vice president of claims at Plymouth Rock. The company bought its first van five years ago.

Plymouth Rock policy holders in Massachusetts and New Hampshire call into a dispatch center at headquarters and a claims representative/van driver is sent out, usually the same day, Mr. Kelley says. Clients sit in the van office, which is often parked right in their driveways, and receive the information they need.

Technology advances

While few companies have custom-designed fleets as sophisticated as Plymouth Rock's, improved wireless technologies may soon make those fleets more attractive options, says Gary Shapiro of the Electronics Industries Association, a trade group in Washington. The advances include credit-card sized modems that link cellular phones to personal computers and fax machines with adapters that plug into car cigarette lighters.

But it is the cellular phone, first introduced in 1985, that is the driving force behind the office on wheels. In 1993, 73 percent of company cars had cellular phones, up from 26 percent in 1987, according to Wisconsin-based management consulting firm Runzheimer International.

``The car phone started as sort of a novelty, but the business community took it mainstream,'' says Paige Fairchild, director of marketing at CellularOne in Westwood, Mass. ``It's valuable to any business that has a sales force, ... real estate [offices], contractors, and small-business owners,'' she says.

Because of advances in electronics and telecommunications, the business community is also requesting more commercial van conversions, changing the nature of what was once primarily a recreational family-vehicle business, says David Lampert, owner of Van-Go Inc., a small, independent custom van designer in Saugus, Mass.

``Commercial conversions have grown 30 percent in the past five years, and we're getting more inquiries ... for insurance claims offices, blood testing vehicles.... We even heard from a dog grooming business,'' he says.

Cost of converting a van

It can cost anywhere from $24,000 to $45,000 to buy and convert a van into an office, Mr. Lampert says. The total cost depends on the price of items such as personal computers, video cameras, fax machines, and diagnostic and medical equipment.

``But there's no rent, ... just car payments, and once the finance period is over, you are done,'' Lampert says.

Dan DeBaar is national sales manager of Zeeland, Mich.-based Mobile Office Vehicle, which spun off from a local furniture manufacturer early this year. So far, Mr. DeBaar has put 20 mobile office Chevy Astro minivans on the road and estimates that by the end of 1995, he will have sold more than 1,000 vans.

Mobile Office Vehicle vans contain everything from a desk and storage drawers to an ergonomic swivel chair. Also included are notebook computers, ink-jet printers, fax machines with built-in copiers, and a ``hands free'' cellular telephone and mobile telephone.

``We showed the van to General Motors in late '93 and they fell in love with it,'' Mr. DeBaar says, adding that customers can buy or lease the vans from Chevrolet or GMC dealers.

This year, DeBaar has been showing the van at high-tech shows, fleet shows, and even a kitchen and bath show. ``The salespeople were interested ... and so were plumbers,'' he says.

While purchasing a mobile office vehicle is not necessarily a spontaneous decision, sales are beginning to increase, says Chuck Lippert, president of Mobile Office Vehicle.

``With the phone, the fax, copier, and computer, you can open and close the deal.... No loose ends,'' he says. ``Plus, for about $600 a month, you'll be leasing your office, complete with equipment, and your company car.''

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