Reprinted from Valuerich, September, 2004
A convoy of shiny black vehicles smoothly snakes its way along Pennsylvania Avenue and glides into the grounds of the White House, barely attracting a second glance from the ever present tourists and curious bystanders.
Unless you are close enough to notice the small state pennants fluttering discreetly on each side of the windshield, there is nothing about the well-appointed, black sport utility vehicle to give onlookers a clue as to the importance of its passenger: King Abdullah II of Jordan on his way to a state visit with President Bush.
"There was nothing conspicuous or ostentatious to indicate a royal leader was part of that particular entourage. And that's the way it was meant to be," custom SUV manufacturer Howard Becker told ValueRich magazine.
"We felt very honored. King Abdullah's drive to the White House was the maiden voyage of one of our custom-designed Excursion SUVs, tailor-made down to the last detail by our company to the specifications requested by King Abdullah himself."
Jordan's monarch is only one name on an impressive, fast-growing list of international personalities who are turning to efficient, luxurious, and discreet customized SUVs - primarily Ford Excursions, GMC Denalis and Cadillac ESVs - and leaving behind the more overt trappings of power and wealth such as in-your-face stretch limos.
With this in mind, it would be stating the obvious that Becker and his exciting vehicles happen to be in the right place at the right time - providing refreshingly new and welcome means of transportation for security-conscious executives, celebrities and assorted dignitaries.
But it's also true that nothing happens in business by pure accident. Becker Automotive owes the major share of its success to president and CEO Becker's entrepreneurial skills in developing the modest car radio business he took over from his father.
With degrees in business and psychology, he is more that equipped to cope with present challenges and deal with future issues.
When a well-meaning critic suggested that his SUV limousines were a tad pricey, Becker responded succinctly: "They're certainly not overly pricey. If you consider the value of a businessman's time gained by commuting in one of these, it virtually pays for itself"
For obvious reasons, Becker is reluctant to go into great detail about celebrity clients whether they're entertainers, captains of industry, sports figures, politicians or heads of state.
Suffice to say, past and present customers of this unique privately owned company include Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Steven Spielberg, Bruce Springsteen, Sylvester Stallone, Barbara Streisand, Tiger Woods, King Abdullah II and corporate customers such as Dell, Disney and Dreamworks.
Becker Automotive Design, based in Oxnard, Calif. - where a staff of 40 is currently working on 15 vehicles at a time - has an early foothold in a business that, for obvious reasons, is going to be around for some time to come.
SUVs are no longer most popular as the transportation choice of harassed soccer moms. They also have evolved onto today's luxury stealth vehicles - vehicles that appear everyday ordinary from the outside, but inside are a pleasure to behold. As Becker himself says, "They've become the elite vehicles in today's world, popular with every segment of the population."
For those requiring more room and seating, or the added comfort of recliner seating for four to six executives, Becker offers custom conversions of Ford and Mercedes Benz Sprinter Vans with a variety of floor plans that include everything from luxury shuttle seating to limousine configurations inside a completely private compartment.
To establish itself as the unchallenged design group for these vehicles, Becker has come up with the ultimate transportation for all occasions - a high-concept but low-key d ream machine in which you can travel in style, feel secure and be productive, while remaining incognito.
It's a mobile office and conference room equipped with on onboard PC or personal laptop docking station, wireless keyboard, mouse, printer, and wireless Internet connection via cellular or secure satellite networks. The computing desktop id displayed on the 20- or 30-inch screen perfectly coordinated into an entertainment system on a par with the best home theater instillations.
The end result is a high-tech communications and entertainment center where international movers and shakers can conduct their business while they are securely in the lap of luxury.
And for the seriously security-conscious, one fascinating extra is the option of automotive armoring. Based on your risk assessment, Becker's vehicles can be armored to .44 magnum handgun or powerful assault rifle specifications, and include top-echelon features, such as bullet traps in all the doors, designed to deflect hot shrapnel, and fully functional windows. Additional security features include custom machined anti-grab door handles, ram bumpers, Runflat tires, remote engine start and GPS tracking. And, of course, the best security feature of all is the inconspicuous exterior.
Getting into the armored car business was not a Becker business plan. But clients kept asking for the security and Becker acquiesced - but only if the security innovations dovetailed with his discreet transportation concept. Unlike most armored vehicles, Becker's conversions remain completely luxurious and appear normal, inside and out. "Unless you've been in an armored vehicle, you have no idea how oppressive they can be," says Becker. "With our design, you hardly notice anything unusual."
Sitting inside a Becker product is an experience in itself. Once you got over the initial thrill of an impressive array of state-of-the-art entertainment and wireless communication installations, you can relax and enjoy plush luxury you'd most likely associate with a multimillion-dollar Gulfstream jet.
Becker SUVs have taken their inspiration from the best of everything - Maybach-type leather seats, Rolls Royce burl wood veneer and Mercedes-Benz upholstery. Comparing the exquisitely detailed Becker coachwork interiors to the plush cabin of a private jet is no accident or coincidence.
"Describing them as Gulfstreams of the road - as some people have - is okay with me," says Becker, acknowledging the comparison compliment. "In many instances our interiors are equal to and often surpass what you'll find on a expensive jet.
"Many dignitaries and celebrities who buy our SUVs already own private planes, yachts and European luxury cars. They are used to the best. And we will continue to supply them with that luxury but in a subtle stylish way with no exterior ostentation whatsoever.
"So if our interiors do seem aviation-oriented, it's not by accident. We are re-creating, in a SUV, the same luxurious appointments they are used to in their privileged lifestyle. Whatever the latest technology is for - business or entertainment purposes - we can provide it with total luxury thrown in as a bonus."
Becker and company didn't set out to become the foremost manufacturer of custom-converted SUVs. The company's initial idea was to create a limousine without resorting to a stretching process.
Eventually, Becker found that a Ford Excursion, 7 ½ inches longer that GM's Denali and other SUVs, was perfect for what he had in mind - except for the suspension. Becker was very discouraged to learn that the Excursion suspension was a tooth rattler on the cobblestones and potholes of New York City.
"Since 40 percent of our production goes to New York, we had to make a tremendous investment and develop an independent rear suspension for the Excursion," says Becker. "Now the Excursion gives a smoother and quieter ride on New York streets than a Cadillac."
Although the Excursion is ideal for his purposes in terms of its length, Becker says that any or most SUVs could be adapted if requested. The adapted Excursion provides a comfortable ride for five rear passengers, with walled-off privacy from the driver's compartment.
Since Becker Automotive got off the ground in the mid-1990s, its popularity and business have increased by leaps and bounds. Just recently, Becker shipped 10 all-wheel-drive Chevy Express Vans to Tokyo. Becker conversions can be found around the world in places such as Romania, Africa, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, Mexico City and Beijing. A showroom in Moscow is in the works.
The base price for one of Becker's conversions starts at $85,000, but prices typically range from around $120,000 and frequently go as high as $200,000.
Becker's armored packages, excluding the cost of the car and interior accoutrements - start at around $75,000 and go up to about $145,000. A fully armored vehicle with a complete interior package can cost $365,000.
A Becker conversion is all about options, and they don't come cheap. But as Howard Becker would put it, "The best option is the option to conduct your business using the latest secure mobile wireless Internet technology, in privacy, safety and comfort even though you're stuck in traffic for an hour on the way from the airport."