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Thinking outside the box

ABC Caskets in East L.A. breaks new ground by selling customized models directly to the public, breathing some life into the business.

January 05, 2007|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

JOEY and Isabelle Conzevoy's factory outlet business sells the last product you'll ever need.

Amid the sounds of saws, hammers and power sanders at ABC Caskets in East Los Angeles, Isabelle guides families to a concrete-floored showroom that is more akin to a Home Depot than a mortuary.

"We can save you some money," she says warmly to Tracy Oxley and David Rancifer, whose mother had died two days before. They walk through rows of wood, steel and cloth-covered caskets, some of which had been rented to Hollywood prop masters.

"This was the casket from 'Flightplan' with Jodie Foster," Isabelle says, pointing to one model.

"That was a good film," Rancifer says, nodding.

Joey, 59 -- wearing a straw hat, casual clothes and sneakers -- watches as his wife makes the buyers feel comfortable at a difficult time.

"We are in the entertainment business, you could say, in a bizarre way," he says.

This was not the way his father, or his father before him, sold caskets. For more than 60 years, the family company -- originally named Golden State Casket Co. -- followed the traditional path of hundreds of casket makers across the nation: wholesaling to local mortuaries.

But a near-death financial experience, born of sweeping changes in the casket industry, led the Conzevoys seven years ago to shed the anonymity of wholesaling and meet the buying public.

They didn't change their location, which is in an industrial area across the street from a pipe manufacturer and junkyard. But Isabelle tried to soften the atmosphere by planting a garden -- complete with roses, plumeria and tangerine trees -- just inside the factory's barbed-wire-topped fence.

To turn their unusual setting for casket shopping into an advantage, the Conzevoys printed business cards that invited customers to "See How They're Made." And to reach a wider clientele, they turned to the Internet, where they purchased sponsored links to appear when searches were done on the word "casket" or the more old-fashioned "coffin," now seldom used in the industry.

The Internet is how Cecilia Estrada found the company. She called from a Phoenix suburb in September to order a casket for her mother-in-law, who had died of pancreatic cancer.

Price was a primary factor.

"Everything was coming out of our pockets," Estrada said. "I didn't care if I had to travel."

She ordered a $1,900 casket made of poplar with reproductions of Michelangelo's Pieta sculpture on the metal hardware. Then she drove 400 miles in a Chevy Suburban sport utility vehicle to pick it up.

"Isabelle told me to bring blankets," Estrada said. "I didn't want to get anything dinged."

DEALING with the public also means accommodating special requests.

"I am patriotic as hell and I wanted to be buried in a red, white and blue casket," said retired schoolteacher Glen Gillette of Las Vegas.

Gillette, 71, has a blood disorder and was told last year by his doctors that he had less than 12 months to live. After being turned down by casket dealers who couldn't fill his order, Gillette found ABC Caskets online.

He specified the design and the exact shades of colors. "I sent them swatches," Gillette said. The finished metal casket was shipped to a mortuary in Las Vegas for storage until, as is said in the industry, the time of need.

ABC once got a request for a casket covered in fake fur.

"It looked like a big bear," Joey said.

Then there was a call for a casket to fit a 900-pound woman.

"It had to be very, very strong, so we made it out of a multi-layered, heavy-duty plywood," Joey said. "All someone needs to give me is a height, a width and a depth, and I can build it."

The $1.5-billion-a-year casket business has been transformed by the same sort of consolidation that took out many family farms, mom-and-pop bookshops and corner hardware stores. By the 1990s, a handful of mega-manufacturers had become dominant, and many local casket suppliers closed up shop.

"We have gone from hundreds of manufacturers to no more than several dozen in all," said George Lemke, executive director of the Casket & Funeral Supply Assn. of America.

It wasn't just the economies of scale that the large manufacturers could offer. The product itself had changed.

BACK when the Conzevoy family company was founded in 1933, most caskets were made of inexpensive wood, covered in cloth. "All you needed to get into the business was a hammer, saw and a glue gun," Lemke said.

But after the Korean War, when steel became more plentiful, metal caskets skyrocketed in popularity. By the mid-1970s, they accounted for two-thirds of caskets sold.

Many local operations that didn't have the equipment to manufacture steel models went out of business. Golden State held on, buying unfinished metal casket shells for customization. It also had the equipment to make the more expensive hardwood caskets that were coming into vogue.

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