It's a pretty quiet operation, except for the five forklifts that buzz from one row of inventory to the next throughout the day, filling and emptying trucks at 11 loading docks.
In fact, if you don't know what you're looking at, this warehouselike building seems unremarkable — no different from any other distribution facility that stores and ships any kind of product. But look a little closer, and you'll find that here in Tinley Park, Illinois, one hour's drive from Chicago, there are more caskets stacked in one place than you've ever seen in your life: more than 2,000 caskets, to be exact, with room for 4,000 more.
This is the busiest distribution hub of the nation's biggest casket company, the center from which Batesville Casket Co. (BCC) ships thousands of caskets of all shapes, sizes, and colors to funeral homes throughout the Midwest every day. It's a large, complex, impressive operation — but it's only a small piece of a much larger system. In fact, BCC's lifeblood pumps from the largest of the company's five manufacturing facilities, located in Batesville, Indiana — a small, rural town (population: 4,000) that stretches down Highway 46, a quiet, single-lane road that lies halfway between Indianapolis and Cincinnati. In Batesville, the century-old operation manufactures more than 1,000 metal caskets daily.
To most people, the casket industry is not, to put it politely, a top-of-mind topic. If anything, it is a subject to be avoided — both for yourself and for those you love. After all, there is something innately morbid about products designed to be used only once — if permanently — as receptacles for dead bodies. And yet, death is an unquestionable certainty; it's completely inevitable — and positively big business. Every year, more than 2.2 million people die in the United States, and collectively families spend more than $11 billion annually on funerals and related products and services. In this industry, BCC is the biggest player of all: More than 40% of all funeral homes in the United States use BCC products.
Since 1906, Hillenbrand Industries Inc., a $2 billion publicly traded company in Batesville, Indiana, has owned BCC. Hillenbrand also owns Hill-Rom Co., a large medical-products and furniture company, and Forethought Financial Services Inc., a provider of insurance and trust-based financial products for the preplanning of funeral services. Caskets are the centerpiece of BCC's business, but the company also manufactures cremation products such as urns and provides its funeral homes with a variety of publications to help families deal with death, grief, and mourning.
The business of taking care of the dead is an ancient one — as old as humankind. And, in many ways, the elemental tasks of dealing with death have changed little through the ages. Or so it seems from the outside. But according to Bob Putzier, 60, general manager of the Tinley Park distribution center, the funeral business in general, and BCC in particular, have undergone dramatic changes during his 17-year tenure with the company. "A lot of people seem to think that the funeral industry is staid," he says, "but that's simply not the case. I've been in this business a long time, and things are constantly changing: The questions change. The demands change. Customers' needs change."
Like most businesses in the United States, BCC's changes in recent years have been driven by the demands of baby boomers. But this time, the legions of consumers who opened their wallets for education, entertainment, and exercise equipment are now in the market for something else: a different kind of funeral experience. As they hit the back end of their life cycle, baby boomers seek more personalized funerals, including different kinds of funeral services, different kinds of music, and different kinds of caskets — caskets that make a statement.
Like most other businesses in the United States that have been confronted by the demands of baby boomers, BCC has had to respond by making dramatic changes in the way the company produces and distributes its product. In 1997, for instance, to fill growing orders for personalized caskets, the company redesigned its production and distribution processes based on just-in-time manufacturing methods.
The point is, again, the same as it is for almost any other industry: growth. The only way for BCC to make its business grow, says Joe Weigel, 45, director of communications, is to provide new products and better services that meet the needs of demanding customers. "We can't grow the market like other industries," he says. "And because there's nothing we can do to increase market demand, it's all about serving our customers better." The result? When a funeral director calls BCC with a customized order, the casket usually arrives at the funeral parlor within 24 hours. Just call it fast caskets.
Every 53 seconds, a new casket rolls off the assembly line in Batesville. That's more than 1,000 caskets per day, in hundreds of designs, all made to order. Within 24 to 48 hours, most of the caskets will have already arrived at a customer's door. Those customers, licensed funeral directors across the country — and, in some cases, around the world — depend on Batesville to deliver. So how does Batesville get each of those caskets to the right place on time, every time?
Part of the answer to that question lies in the tight control that the company maintains over its entire supply chain, most of which it owns. From the tools that are used to make metal casket components at its stamping plants, to casket assembly, to trucking, BCC runs the whole show. According to Weigel, this tight integration is a major factor in the company's success. "None of our competitors own all of their facilities," he says. "Also, most of them use jobbers, especially for shipping. We own our entire distribution channel, so we can control every step of the process."
But perhaps even more important is the FedEx-type hub-and-spoke distribution system that BCC implemented two years ago. All caskets are first shipped from one of the company's five manufacturing facilities to one of seven regional rapid-deployment centers (RDCs) — such as Tinley Park — depending on which facility is closest to a casket's penultimate destination. From the RDCs, caskets are trucked to a nationwide network of 81 local customer-service centers, which then distribute the caskets to funeral homes awaiting delivery. The caskets travel in one of BCC's 1,600 distinctive green-and-white trucks, among the largest private truck fleets in the nation.
At the end of each day, the seven RDCs send reports to Batesville central that detail exactly which caskets were shipped. Based on those logs, Batesville creates next-day orders to replenish each RDC with the caskets it needs. "The normal resupply procedure is to replace what was purchased," explains Ken Camp, 54, VP and general manager of the company. "Of course, some other logistics come into play as well. The resupply isn't always perfect — sometimes humans order in different patterns. But every day, we're a little closer to perfecting the process."
The new system represents a huge improvement in speed and service. Before the RDC hubs were built, inventory piled up at manufacturing plants and at customer-service centers — which made it difficult to fulfill orders on time. "We developed a system like FedEx's because we never had the right stuff in the right place when inventory was at the manufacturing plants and at 81 different customer-service centers across the United States," Camp explains. "If a funeral director in California wanted a specific casket, it might be located only in, say, New England. Now, when a customer calls the local customer-service center with an order, it can always be filled. That's possible because all customer-service centers are within a 10-hour drive of an RDC, which almost always will have the required casket in stock."
The result? In the first 18 months after the RDCs were implemented, the amount of shortage — caskets ordered and not delivered the very next day — was reduced by 75%. Today, 98.5% of BCC's caskets are delivered on time.
When BCC gets a call for a black, copper casket lined with army-fatigue fabric and engraved with a bald eagle, it makes it — within one day. Or an order for an oversize casket painted pink, with special handles, and lined with fabric printed with tiny red roses? It makes that, too — within one day. Batesville, in fact, will customize caskets down to the smallest detail. John Amberger, 49, custom-product marketing manager, is in charge of overseeing all of the custom orders that Batesville gets — and he's seen it all. "More and more people are interested in ordering a customized casket," he says. "And believe me, there have been some unique orders. One time, we made a casket with alternating red, white, and blue stripes on the interior for a woman who always wore red, white, and blue."
Nearly every casket that comes off of the Batesville assembly line is different. Altogether, the company offers more than 700 different casket designs (not including customized orders). Consumers can choose between caskets made of different woods or metals. They can also choose from more than 150 color combinations, 27 shapes, and thousands of embroidered panel designs for the interior lining of casket lids. And that's just for starters.
Customization takes place at both the manufacturing plants and at the distribution centers. BCC's custom shop is located in the Batesville manufacturing plant. All special orders are filled there — whether the request is for an unusual fabric for a casket's lining, or for an uncommon match between a particular exterior treatment and the interior decor. Another increasingly popular form of customization, engraving of casket lids, is performed on-site at the RDCs. Each of the seven RDCs has a laser engraving machine and can process an engraving order in an hour or less.
BCC is particularly sensitive to the needs of people who are looking for something special for a funeral. When a customer calls with an urgent, customized order, the company works double-time to build it and ship it on time. "We'll turn the world upside down for a special order," says Ken Camp. "And although this type of individualized process may not be the most cost-effective way to do it, our customers demand it."
How can BCC be so focused on customization when it produces caskets in such large volume? In part, because it has kept its manufacturing process so low tech. Orders are usually faxed between various distribution points, and the only computers immediately visible in the Batesville assembly plant are a few small, dusty overhead monitors that look as if they could be 20 years old. In fact, there's very little automation anywhere along the manufacturing line.
According to Camp, keeping things "high touch and low tech" enables BCC to strike the perfect balance between speed, change, and customization. "If our operation were highly automated," he says, "we could never satisfy the specific needs of our customers. And we also wouldn't be able to adjust quickly to changes in the market. If you have a big machine that does just one thing, and someone comes in with a great new idea that will require manufacturing changes, the new idea won't happen — that big machine will only do one thing, and it would take a lot of time and would be costly to change it. We intentionally keep everything less automated so we can implement great new ideas quickly."
In many respects, Camp says, BCC is a company that has to combine the best elements of service and manufacturing — the capacity to adapt as trends and tastes change in the funeral business. "Whether it's high tech or low tech, the key is rapid response," says Camp. "We always have an ear to the ground and always try to anticipate what the world's going to be like, what's changing, and what's going to be needed. In the end, it's all about listening, being willing to change, and having the systems in place to make those changes."
Lisa Chadderdon (email@example.com) is a former Fast Company staff writer. Visit Batesville Casket Co. on the Web (www.batesville.com).
A version of this article appeared in the December 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.