Genesis Casket Company Now Has 60 Independent Distributors and 14 Consecutive Months of Sales Growth
Rough pine boxes these are not.
The graveyard-bound products coming off the assembly line at Genesis Casket Co. are painted and polished and architecturally styled. They have hinged handles outside and screw lifts inside and a mattress and pillow to prop up the deceased just so.
“You tell me if you’ve ever seen a shine on a casket that looks like that,” says Nick Proctor, pointing to a line of caskets in shades like sky blue, “Truman gray,” ruby or onyx. “That looks like a car, doesn’t it?”
The car comparison is apt.
Genesis’ owner, it turns out, is Spanish metal-stamping giant Gestamp, a supplier of metal bodies to many of the world’s automakers. A few years ago, Gestamp realized its metal-bending and finishing prowess could be applied to the business of the dead.
While it’s a stretch to go from making parts for one of the showiest consumer products on the face of the earth to producing a box to inter consumers six feet under, Gestamp seems to have made the transition. With some hiccups.
To oversee its Indianapolis startup, Gestamp initially hired a longtime casket industry executive who’d worked for Indiana’s Batesville Casket Co.
After a slower-than-hoped ramp-up and some product quality glitches, Proctor was brought in as the new president in 2012. He’d been overseeing all of Gestamp’s North American stamping plants and previously ran its Tennessee plant that makes metal parts for Volkswagen.
“Not a casket guy” is the way he describes himself. In fact, Proctor even muses that he might not opt for a casket burial himself if he had his druthers.
But Proctor knows metal stamping and he was soon able to raise the quality of Genesis’ metal caskets to the finely finished, high-gloss levels that buyers want. Car-like, in other words. He also set up a distribution system for Genesis’ caskets that includes six direct-sales offices and a network of more than 60 independent distributors.
That seems to have won over the tradition-seeped casket business, which has little regard for newcomers.
“It’s very, very difficult to penetrate the market very quickly. It’s kind of like Missouri — show me,” Proctor said. “There’s a lot of that mentality in this business.”
Proctor points out the overlap between making caskets and car outerwear. Genesis’ casket lids, for instance, come from a Gestamp plant that supplies high-quality metal stampings to a BMW auto plant. “Being metal-formers, it’s a way to diversify and take our expertise into other markets,” Proctor said.
While the start-up issues “set us back a little bit,” Proctor said, Genesis has racked up 14 consecutive months of sales growth as of January.
It helps Proctor that his director of distributor sales and product development is a longtime casket guy, Todd Hinners, who’s been in the casket business 25 years and formerly ran a small casket company in Cambridge City.
“They had some issues. They had a slow rollout there. But they corrected those. They seem to be moving in a more positive overall direction,” David Nixon, a Springfield., Ill., management consultant for funeral homes, said of Genesis.
Nixon said Genesis has gone to market with fixed, no-haggle prices for its caskets, avoiding the variable pricing that’s common in the industry.
“They don’t want to get caught up in the discount-pricing model,” Nixon said. “I’ve had a number of clients who’ve told me they like that, because they are tired of the (pricing) games.”
Genesis is trying to pry its way into a concentrated market, where nearly two-thirds of the nation’s caskets are produced by just three companies. Two are based in Indiana: Batesville Casket in Batesville and Aurora Casket Co. of Aurora. The third is Matthews International of Pittsburgh, Pa.
The show-me part of the equation hasn’t come cheaply for Gestamp. The Spanish company has spent more than $15 million the past two years to convert the former SMC auto-parts plant at 3011 N. Franklin Road into one of the most automated and efficient casket-making lines in the country.
Proctor offers a look inside the 225,000-square-foot Far-Eastside building, where the casket-making process starts with raw metal sheets, some flat, others bent beforehand into desired shapes.
To become sides, bottoms or lids, the metal must be crimped, hemmed, drilled or otherwise worked over. The focus on efficiency is evident. Most of the work is automated, with humans as mere button-punching overseers.
It takes just 55 production workers to run one shift on the assembly line. In one area, just one busy worker runs three SUV-sized machines that hem, weld and laser metal sheets to precise specifications.
The star of the factory floor is the paint line. It winds for about 500 feet through the plant. Carried on conveyer belts, partly assembled caskets are washed, dried, primed, dried again, brushed, sealed and, finally, painted in a glass-enclosed spray booth by two robotic machines. They twirl like mad dancers, misting every square inch of casket with a glossy coat of paint in a synchronized, three-minute routine.
After a final quality check, the painted and finished caskets are outfitted with liners, gaskets, a bed frame and accessories. They also get a paper tag that proclaims, “Manufactured in the USA.”
“People love that,” Proctor said. “There are a lot of caskets made in China. A lot of people don’t want Chinese caskets.” Many funeral homes leave the USA tag hanging on the casket in their showrooms, Proctor said.
Genesis’ backers are counting on a jump in yearly deaths, as the baby boomer generation ages, to keep casket demand firm. U.S. annual deaths are projected to rise from the current 2.6 million to 4 million by 2040. That means plenty of casket sales in coming years, even with rising numbers of Americans opting for cremation.
Proctor winds up his tour at the shipping docks, where finished caskets are wrapped in thick plastic and set upright until they’re trucked off.
“And that,” Proctor says, “is pretty much the end of the line.”
(Photo: Charlie Nye/The Star)