Company is rolling out computer carts

Fred Babaee plans to put his computers on wheels.

The owner of Chipco Computer Distributors in Northeast Richland said he's branching out from selling parts and making personal computers and laptops for stores to sell under their names.

Chipco next year also plans to roll out computer carts for hospitals and medical offices to make records portable, and for schools to use in testing.

"We're trying to make personal computers more user friendly," said Babaee, 48.

Meanwhile, some of Babaee's consumer computer business - the cornerstone of where he started 16 years ago - has gone to the world's largest retailer.

Four desktops and laptops that Chipco makes are sold on Walmart's Web site. Babaee said about 400 of the company's computers have been sold by Walmart since sales started in October.

Babaee came to the United States from Iran at age 18 soon after the Islamic Revolution. He studied math and computer science at USC, where he came because of a friend.

Babaee started Chipco in 1994, in part, from his experiences growing up in a family that ran an electronics equipment business in a Tehran bazaar.

At first, Chipco made computers for businesses and for stores that wanted to sell less expensive, store-branded units.

But by the middle of this decade, retail prices dropped below $1,000 as material costs fell and the Chinese started making computers, he said. "It's very hard to match prices now."

Still, he sells about 12,000 computers a year to resellers, including some family-owned Columbia-area computer stores.

Chipco started expanding in 2006 by selling a disaster recovery unit (think of a high-end computer backup system) with software from Columbia-based Unitrends and rugged computers meant for public safety and utility vehicles.

While most computers need to stay at room temperature, the systems sold under the Polaris Digital brand can withstand heat up 149 degrees and cold to -13 degrees, Babaee said. The computers have been sold to several law enforcement agencies in Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania, he said.

Still, in a tough economic year, Babaee expects sales to fall about 10 percent to $12 million this year.

So Chipco plans to go portable.

In the medical field, the carts will have computers where doctors, nurses and other medical workers can access patient records. Chipco makes computers for a hospital cart maker now, but the company now will make the cart, too, which Babaee said is lighter. He also plans to add a computer with longer battery life.

In schools, the cart can be used to take computer presentations around classrooms or used as a remote testing unit where students' answers can tabulated instantly, Babaee said. Students would answer multiple-choice questions on remote controls with the answers beamed wirelessly to the computers, he said.

Both carts will start at about $7,500, he said.

Babaee has no plans to add to the 24 workers at Chipco, though he hopes to add bodies with a boost in sales from potential customers getting federal stimulus money.