Company perk is a Corvette

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Last Christmas, as fledgling technology companies in the northern Virginia suburbs melted like snowflakes, businessman John McEwan made a spirited announcement.

Every employee at the headquarters of McEwan’s Technology Advancement Group Inc. who followed his lead and leased a new Chevy Corvette would receive $500 per month to help pay for the sports car.

TAG workers had to agree to a few restrictions: They must use the cars to commute to the office. They must display special license plates bearing the company’s name and keep the fiberglass-bodied beauties clean. Three employees so far have jumped at the deal, and a fourth has a car on order. TAG pays the full lease costs for a vice president.

"The economy, as you know, is not doing too well," McEwan said recently. "This is the least we can do to help. … It makes people feel good about themselves."

Big-ticket perks may have gotten a bad name of late for the way they were freely dispensed by dotcoms in the days before the Internet meltdown. But McEwan, 47, doesn’t consider himself part of that trend. His tech company does work for the federal government. And, he said, he’s compelled to make the offer as much as a way to build esprit de corps as a means to introduce others to the Corvette mystique.

McEwan fell in love with the car in the mid-1970s, as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. Exotic sports cars filled the parking lots, but the thing to have was a Corvette. Only seniors were allowed to keep cars, and McEwan jumped at the chance in 1975.

These days, the car tends to be more popular with nostalgic baby boomers than with twentysomething techies. The Corvette first appeared in 1953, as General Motors sought to appeal to American GIs who had developed a taste for the Jaguars, MGs and other European sports cars they encountered during World War II. The two-seater’s muscular design quickly became an icon.

Even today, fans meet each weekend to race, talk shop or make pilgrimages to the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky. Amazon.com sells a Corvette area rug for $58.95, plus shipping.

McEwan has a simple answer to the essence of his longtime devotion: "Are you kidding me? It’s babelicious."

TAG’s crowded parking lot is close to running out of space for minivans and sedans. But McEwan refuses to budge on his edict that spots for the gleaming Corvettes be extra wide, lest the cars suffer unsightly scrapes. As for the few employees who requested the car subsidy be extended to Mercedes-Benzes or BMWs, it’s not going to happen.

"This is a private company," McEwan said with a smile. "There are some perks to that."

George Cole, director of research and development who now drives a white Corvette, chimed in: "It’s not a car program. It’s a Corvette program."

Plenty of other companies revved up plans to offer their workers free or low-cost vehicles in the past three years. Some of those stunts, born of the difficulty in catching and keeping prized employees during a tight labor market, are now on the wane, as are the fortunes of some of the companies that offered them.

Yet government contractors remain. TAG provides services such as help-desk support to the Defense Department and other federal agencies. Earlier this month, TAG won a $3.15 million deal to supply equipment to the Defense Information Technology Contracting Organization.

McEwan figures the car allowance adds up to a $6,000 annual bonus for each worker who takes him up on his offer, a small price to pay for job satisfaction.

"If you can actually have somebody stay with a company (for $6,000 per year), it makes sense," said McEwan. "But really, I just like Corvettes."

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