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Speak softly and carry a luxury briefcase

Pulling a business proposal out of a manila envelope may have worked well for Melanie Griffith in the hit movie Working Girl, but today’s CEO needs a bit more finesse when making presentations.

The look and condition of an executive’s briefcase or attaché is about as important as the contents it holds. “They are working tools,” says Vittorio Vellano, president and CEO of Fiat USA. “They are literally part of doing business.”

The CEO’s desk away from the office invariably holds some of the most important items he owns. “Once I’ve got it in my hands, I never let go of it,” says Pat Foley, CEO of the express carrier DHL. “It becomes more important than my clothes.”

And like a suit, the case had better be in good condition. “If you pull out a document from a beat-up or frayed case, it will reflect poorly on the person and the presentation,” says Richard Epstein, president of the case maker Ventura.

Business cases come in all shapes, styles and sizes, but there are two main types: the briefcase and the attaché case. Briefcases, which are soft and expandable, were named by lawyers who used them to carry their legal files. Contrary to what the name implies, a briefcase is best for those who need to take advantage of its expanding capabilities. The attaché, on the other hand, gets its name from the diplomatic service, where it was used to lug official documents overseas. Like a portable chest, it is made of hardwood, metal, or high-impact composites, and depending on the model, is covered with leather, ostrich, or crocodile. Opened, one has a complete view of what lies in the main compartment of the case. A recessed file divider is often built into the top.

Pan Am’s Tom Plaskett prefers a pilot’s case, the roomiest of all business cases. “I carry my laptop computer inside,” says Plaskett, who was introduced to the pilot’s case by Bob Crandall, chairman and CEO of American Airlines. Crandall, an avid believer in the use of the pilot’s case, was responsible for reconfiguring all American Airlines seats to accommodate the larger case.

“I can never make up my mind which papers I want to take with me, so I take them all,” says Plaskett. “When it’s full, it weighs about 18 pounds.”

Fiat’s Vellano, who travels frequently, also uses a pilot’s case. “The inside is so organized that when I open it, I can immediately find my passport and tickets, while my documents are filed in another compartment,” he explains.

While pilot’s cases are great for travel, a slim brief or attaché case to present your ideas to the board is a smart consideration.

“Many executives use two cases -one for everyday use, and one that they keep in excellent condition for important meetings and presentations,” says Epstein.

Foley agrees. “If I have a few papers or documents to carry, I use the thin one. Otherwise, I go with the big one.”

Vellano says he uses a slim, brown, three-compartment briefcase for everyday use instead of his pilot’s case.

“Brief and attaché cases are becoming a necessity to those who dress for success,” Epstein adds. The case itself need not be a luxury item, but some manufacturers are experts at making them into works of perfection. Gucci has luxurious cases made of ostrich ($2,275) or crocodile ($7,500). For a less ostentatious look, there’s the

Derby” grained leather case with zip-down exterior desk for a mere $545.

For those executives who carry “top secret” material, there are cases that serve as mobile safety deposit boxes. Halliburton’s classic and patent-protected metal cases are also luxury list items. Fragile tape recorders, calculators, portable copiers, and cellular phones are protected by the hardwood sides. Brief and attache cases alike are equipped with key or combination locks.

Whether your case is bullet proof, IBM compatible, or just plain brown leather, make sure it enhances your professional look. Sometimes even movie stars don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

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