YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Some Independent Firms Go Under : Tough Times in Casket-Making Business

November 03, 1986|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

In some professions, burying the competition gets harder each year.

Just ask Robert B. Johnston, president of S&S Casket Co. of Glendale.

Never mind that S&S is the largest independent coffin maker on the West Coast. Or that over the years, Johnston has bought out four competitors, marketed aggressively to funeral home giants such as Forest Lawn Mortuary and built a business that employs 100 people and churns out more than 20,000 bronze, fiberglass, mahogany and pinewood boxes each year.

The $727-million-a-year wholesale casket industry is roiling with changes these days, and even comfortably established companies like S&S are anxious.

"We don't know what's going to happen . . . we're taking a wait-and-see attitude," the 64-year-old Johnston said grimly.

Nationwide, independent casket makers are a diminishing breed. Of 650 companies in 1965, almost half have gone belly up or been acquired, according to George Lemke, executive director of the Casket Manufacturers Assn. of America, a trade group.

It is happening as well in the Southland, where independent, family-owned casket manufacturers say their ranks have shrunk from 16 to four in recent years. The survivors are S&S, Golden State Casket Co. of Los Angeles, Inland Casket Co. of Riverside and Westwood Casket Co. in San Bernardino.

But they are small fry compared to the industry's two giants, Batesville Casket Co. in Batesville, Ind., and Amedco Inc. in Springfield, Ill. Between them, those two produce about 80% of the 1.8 million or so caskets made each year, according to Abraham Karp, who follows the funeral industry for the New York securities firm of Purcell, Graham & Co.

Both are owned by parent companies that have acquired funeral homes or insurance companies specializing in "pre-need" funeral arrangements. Analysts say such vertical integration is a growing trend.

This year, for instance, Service Corporation International, the country's largest funeral home company, bought Amedco, the country's second-largest coffin manufacturer.

Fear of Being Locked Out

It is mergers like this that make independent coffin manufacturers like S&S fear that they might someday be locked out of the business.

"You're probably going to see considerable disruption in the marketplace," predicted Jules Marx, who follows the funeral industry for the New York securities firm D. H. Blair & Co. "When you integrate in a vertical manner . . . it disrupts the alliance between the manufacturer and the distributor, in this case the small coffin manufacturer."

The coffin business has also been affected by sweeping changes in the entire funeral industry. More and more people today opt to plan and pay for their burials in advance; cremation is increasingly popular and people are said to be spending less on funerals.

The trend toward less expensive funerals or cremations has hurt the funeral industry, says Ron Hast, publisher of Mortuary Management, a national trade magazine. Gone are the days when relatives routinely lavished large sums on funerals, and cremation was favored only by obscure religious sects and eccentric Aunt Mildred. Funeral costs nevertheless average $2,700 today, according to the National Funeral Director's Assn. of America.

Cremation is increasingly popular, especially on the West Coast, where it was the choice for 36% of those who died in 1985, according to the Cremation Assn. of North America. The association estimates cremations on the West Coast will soar to 60% by the year 2000. Nationwide, the figure is lower, although it has also doubled in 10 years: Cremations accounted for 14% of all funerals in 1985, up from 7% in 1975.

"It has definitely had an impact," said Marshall Conzevoy, vice president of Golden State Casket, which produces about 15,000 coffins annually.

While the overwhelming majority of burials are still arranged through funeral homes, several retail stores around the country sell coffins directly to the public, and some customers even bring their coffins home ahead of time to use as coffee tables, bookshelves or wine racks.

Explains Assembly

Johnston is effusive about the business. Leading a visitor through his Glendale plant, he explained how workers assembled and welded the metal caskets and pointed out finished models that lay solemnly on metal racks, wrapped in bubble plastic or thick cloth.

Among the more specialized requests: all-wood caskets for Orthodox Jews, whose religion forbids caskets that contain nails or metal hinges. Thus the coffins are hand-tooled and fitted together using wooden dowels.

Then there are futuristic-looking bronze caskets (S&S' most expensive model), low-end caskets whose cloth coverings concealed inexpensive particle board, steel caskets, which account for 50% of all sales, and sleek, painted fiberglass, which is favored by the sporting crowd, Johnston said.

"Pastels are very popular these days," he noted, as two laborers sprayed peach-colored paint over a metal coffin.

Los Angeles Times Articles