Successful entrepreneurs are marked by their passion for the companies they've founded and nurtured. But many small-business owners get almost as attached to their cars and trucks. That's because a vehicle often can play a key role in the success of a company and its founder.
We talked with some entrepreneurs about what they drive for their companies, and why. They told us that the following 10 points shaped their decisions. If you're an entrepreneur who's in the market for a new vehicle, their thoughts may just help you narrow your choices.
1. Putting practicality on a pedestal:
For many entrepreneurs, highly tangible practicality trumps every other consideration.
Sara Fisher of Atlanta, Georgia, for example, switched last year from a Nissan Maxima to a 2004 Ford Explorer because she is a professional organizer. She's continually hauling shelving and other organizing hardware to her clients' homes and offices — and, more often than not, dragging away much of their junk.
"It's just what I need," said Fisher. "The seats go down, and there are smaller compartments within the interior where I can put my tools."
2. Leaving the right impression:
Entrepreneurs are aware that in many situations, you are what you drive. For this reason, they pick their vehicles carefully, knowing that their choices can serve to create indelible impressions.
For Mary Bell, a general contractor of luxury kitchens and bathrooms, that meant buying a 2006 Hummer H2. It's crucial to create the right first impressions with her affluent clients. So that meant, obviously, "not driving up in a ratty old truck," said Bell, owner of BellReed Designs, in Houston. But it also meant not showing up in a Mercedes, "because I'm not a frou-frou decorator," she said.
"The Hummer is well designed and has a presence that most cars don't," Bell said. "Plus, if I need to take a client to a stone yard to pick out a slab of granite, they're thrilled to be able to ride in one."
3. Creating a mobile billboard:
Marketing experts say that turning your vehicle into a rolling advertisement is one of the most cost-effective gambits for a local business. And with new digital decaling, you can literally wrap your vehicle in your brand and message.
Brian Scudamore has built a highly successful franchising business, 1-800-GOT-JUNK, but he isn't above promoting his company all over his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. So he bought a 2007 Volvo XC90 and spent about $2,000 to have it covered with the company logo and other messaging, figuring it would be a good way to get more value out of his $600-a-month lease payment.
"I'll stop at a gas station or a park and people will come up and ask for business cards," Scudamore said. "So it gets noticed. And besides, I'm proud of the business."
4. Showing you belong:
A vehicle can help an entrepreneur communicate that he or she belongs to a rarefied world.
Alan Weiss understands that. The president of Summit Consulting Group Inc., in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, spends much of his time coaching CEOs and other top executives. So he picks up clients at the airport and squires them around in his $203,000 Bentley Continental GTC. "CEOs want to be around successful people, not vendors or subordinates," said Weiss. "If someone is threatened by the car, I don't want them as a client. If they aren't, then fees and money are never, ever an issue."
Genma Stringer Holmes uses her 2006 Ford F-350 to break through another barrier: gender. She owns Holmes Pest Control in Hermitage, Tennessee, and said pulling up in the Ford truck "disarms my competition. No one expects a woman to get out of it, especially jumping down in heels as I do," said Stringer Holmes. "It says, 'I have come to do business.'"
5. Hauling stuff:
Many vehicles lend themselves well to all the hauling around that's a way of life for some entrepreneurs. The Chevrolet HHR Panel truck, for instance, is a nifty cargo carrier without rear windows, to keep prying eyes away from what's in the back of the vehicle, and rear doors that only open from the inside.
Tsufit is a corporate motivational speaker and author who must haul around everything from copies of her books to podiums, display tables and props. Off the job, she also conveys her four children and their friends. So the Toronto-based entrepreneur — who goes only by one name — loves her 2000 Toyota Sienna minivan.
"It's reliable, as well as being big enough to haul everything," she said. "And I'm not that concerned about image: I've seen plenty of clients drive up in BMWs that they can't afford to pay for."
6. Taking the office with you:
Many entrepreneurs spend a lot of time on the road, so they want vehicles that will serve well as mobile offices. Increasingly, automakers are trying to accommodate them with new work-friendly features. The front passenger seat of the Volkswagen Jetta, for example, folds flat into a handy desklike surface for a stationary driver.
Tom Scarda is owner of Super Suppers, a Long Island, New York, "meal-assembly" studio franchise, so the cargo space and load stabilizers in his 2004 Yukon Denali sure come in handy. But what really thrills him are all the power receptacles up front.
"I can be charging my Bluetooth earpiece, my Blackberry and something else all at the same time because there are three outlets there," said Scarda, who also is a franchising coach.
7. Mixing business with pleasure:
Most small-business owners use their primary vehicles for work and home, taking care to keep track for tax purposes. So getting a single machine that can serve both purposes is crucial.
For Beth Shaw, it's a 2006 Range Rover. "It's not over the top, but it's a good-quality vehicle," said Shaw, founder of Yogafit, in Torrance, California. "I'm always hauling clothing and other merchandise. But I also can bring my three dogs to work."
8. Reducing taxes:
In addition to deductions for business miles driven, the IRS allows a popular deduction of up to $25,000 in depreciation in the first year after the purchase of an SUV that has a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 6,000 pounds or more, according to Eva Rosenberg, a business-tax expert in Northridge, California. Note that a vehicle's GVWR is its maximum allowable total weight when fully loaded.
Jeremy Brandt took advantage of that in buying his 2002 Toyota Land Cruiser. "It's a great way to get some benefit on the tax side," said Brandt, owner of 1-800-CashOffer, a Dallas enterprise that connects "motivated" homeowners with real estate investors across the country.
9. Showing your color (green):
More and more entrepreneurs want to use their choice of vehicle to demonstrate their environmental consciousness.
Robert Ansin, for instance, is a sustainable-real-estate developer in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who bought a 2003 Toyota Prius to replace his old Ford Expedition. "It dawned on me that it would just be a matter of time before someone would ask," said the CEO of MassInnovation LLC. "Our customers care about living their ideals."
But some business owners concede that going green has its, well, moldy side as well. As president of Glutenfreeda Foods Inc., a natural-foods company, Yvonne Gifford gave up her luxury sedan for a fuel-sipping 2007 Volkswagen New Beetle convertible "to show that we're environmentally conscious and are trying to carry that concept through to all aspects of our business," said Gifford.
"But frankly there are elements that aren't the most comfortable," she said of the small car. "And it's noisy. I wouldn't be happy if I had a long commute."
10. Putting on a demonstration:
For some entrepreneurs, their vehicles are the perfect platforms to demonstrate what they can do. Mike and Jon Abt, for example, own Abt Electronics & Appliance, a Glenview, Illinois, store that is the single largest such outlet in the U.S. One vehicle they own is a shared Mini Cooper that they've outfitted as a home theater on wheels — complete with two TV screens, including one on the underside of the hatch that they use for tailgating parties; a 20GB, 10,000-song hard drive stashed under the passenger seat; and three amps that deliver 2,000 watts of sound.
Dale Buss is a Michigan-based journalist who has covered the auto industry for more than 20 years.