Manufacturer crosses over from auto parts to caskets

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

There’s no doubt in Tony Colson’s mind that some of the first units off the line at Genesis Casket in Indianapolis will be destined for competitors’ shops in Batesville, Aurora and Pittsburgh, Pa.

If executives at the big three casket makers are anything like the rest of their industry, they can’t wait to pull apart this newcomer, which is backed by a multinational automotive supplier and led by a death industry veteran.

Colson Colson

Colson spent 17 years climbing the ranks in sales and marketing at Hillenbrand Industries’ Batesville Casket before leaving in 2004 for executive posts at other companies. Most recently he was CEO of a burial-vault company, Wilbert Funeral Services in Chicago.

As CEO of Genesis, the 51-year-old Colson, an Indianapolis native and Indiana University graduate, will try to take a share in a $1.3 billion industry dominated by Hillenbrand, which claims about half of all sales. Privately held Aurora Casket Co. and Matthews International in Pittsburgh split another 30 percent of the market.

Word spread quickly in the funeral industry when Gestamp North America tapped Colson for its unusual enterprise.

“There was a lot of buzz that Tony would leave his job to go to a startup,” said Clint Fendley, a stock analyst who follows Hillenbrand at Davenport & Co. in Richmond, Va.

Most startup casket makers are regional players specializing in custom design. Genesis is being launched with a $17 million investment in a leased manufacturing, distribution and headquarters facility on Franklin Road at East 30th Street.

Gestamp Automocion, the Spanish parent company, makes metal components for the auto industry, employing 18,000 people worldwide with 2010 sales of $4.4 billion. Gestamp has also branched into steel racks for solar arrays and towers for wind turbines.

Why caskets?

“They saw an opportunity to deploy their technology into an industry that hasn’t seen much innovation in 60 years,” Colson said.

Citing competitive concerns, Colson declined to discuss details of the Genesis manufacturing process, other than to say that it will borrow from the automotive industry. Genesis will make only metal caskets, which are about 70 percent of all caskets sold.

Using the same high grade of steel stamped into fenders and other parts of car exteriors, a single line will spit out multiple models. The process is highly automated but still requires hand welding and finish work, Colson said. Full production is expected to start in August.

Genesis expects to produce about 30,000 caskets in its first full year of production, Colson said.

The company chose Indianapolis because it’s a distribution hub, and the 241,000-square-foot building combined manufacturing, distribution and office space. (The building was occupied by pneumatics maker SMC Corp. until the company was lured to Noblesville in 2007.)

About 150 positions will be filled initially, but the work force is expected to grow to about 300 over five years.

Also for competitive reasons, Colson declined to disclose starting wages. He did say future casket workers can expect to take their jobs very seriously.

“You have one shot at getting a funeral correct,” Colson said. “It’s more than a product.”

Disruptive force

It’s tempting to compare Genesis to Honda of the 1980s as it takes aim at legacy manufacturers. But there’s a reason other companies aren’t scrambling to follow Genesis into casket making—Americans increasingly choose cremation over burial.

“That’s why everybody’s scratching their heads about why you would be trying to start a new company in a declining market,” Fendley said.

About 2.5 million people die each year in the United States, and about 40 percent of them are cremated. Although baby boomers are entering that will-drafting stage of their lives, no one can be certain the demographic trend will be enough to counter cremation, Fendley said.

The Cremation Association of North America predicts deaths will rise 24 percent by 2025 to 3.1 million. At the same time, the trade group thinks burials will decrease 20 percent.

Hillenbrand and other casket-makers disagree with the trade group’s forecasted cremation rate, Fendley said, but their own outlooks are not encouraging. In its 2010 annual report, Hillenbrand said it expects “a modest, but steady decline in the demand for burial caskets for the foreseeable future.”

Last year, Hillenbrand acquired a subsidiary in a completely separate business, industrial machinery maker K-Tron International Inc., headquartered in Pitman, N.J.

“They’re moving their capital over to other areas because they’ve seen very clearly what probably the long-term trend is on just casket sales,” Fendley said.

The analyst isn’t the only one doubting Genesis.

“I would not personally want to be in the casket business,” said Ernie Heffner, owner of 12 funeral homes around York, Pa.

Partly because of cremation, the funeral business has evolved from centering on casket sales to personalized service, said Heffner, a frequent lecturer in the industry.

“We don’t make much of a margin on caskets,” he said. “It’s almost an accommodation item, and it’s not relevant to 41 percent of the families we serve.”

But Genesis has a different take on the demographic trend. By 2040, Colson said, the number of annual deaths is expected to exceed 4.6 million. Even if the cremation rate is 60 percent by that time, that leaves 1.8 million burials.

Asked about conventional wisdom in the industry, Colson said, “There’s rhetoric, and there’s reality.”

Traditional path

Anyone can buy a casket online or at a superstore, yet Genesis’ path into the market will be through the hushed funeral homes Colson has come to know so well.

Because Hillenbrand and the others have a grip on the national chains, Genesis is targeting the 17,000 independent funeral homes scattered across the country.

Colson seems cut out for the job. “I understand the funeral business,” Colson said. “I understand the service they’re providing, the importance of it. My mission is to help them.”

Fendley isn’t ready to declare Genesis a threat to the established leaders, mainly because it doesn’t yet have a national distribution network.

Distribution is so key to the industry, it’s the reason Chinese imports don’t have a significant market share, Fendley said. “These are not Fortune 500 companies that can buy a huge truckload of caskets and store them on the back lot,” he said of funeral homes.

Genesis may start out with a short reach, but the deep pockets of its parent company could change that situation fairly quickly, said Bob Horn, retired founder of funeral-home chain Keystone North America.

Just as there are always family-owned funeral homes looking for a buyout, Horn thinks there is a similar opportunity for Genesis to acquire regional casket makers.

“I do think there’s a play for them,” he said.

Horn, who lives near Tampa, Fla., said he was as puzzled as anyone else by the launch of Genesis. Gestamp may bring manufacturing efficiencies and a lower price point, but he believes its real advantage is financial resources.

“I’ve got to believe that’s pretty smart money coming into the U.S., and coming into our industry,” Horn said.•


  • Colson's the right man for the challenge.
    Having had the privilege of being a fellow Hillenbrand Alumi and worked work with Tony through out the years, there is no doubt he is the right individual to champion this endeavor. He brings out the best in people, I am confident that together Tony and his leadership team will make their mark in the industry.

Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. Good Day I am Mr (Victoria Wright) from United state of America, i stayed in NEW YORK, and i have a broke up business, until i found this company email who help me to gain a loan for business,, and now i want to used this short medium to congratulate the below company for the fast and safe money they loan to me without any form of collateral, i loan 500,000USD from the company to save my business and lots more, i saw their mail on the internet, everyone always give testimony for what they did, so i quickly contacted them and they all did everything for me without stress and my money was sent to my account just 3 days later, i was surprise and i feel so glad, now i have a standard business control agent who help me, now i will advice those who need urgent loan to contact him at the bellow email:zenithfirm12@gmail.com

  2. NOTICE:This is to inform the general public that Vampires are real. My name is James Franklyn.,am an agent of vampire,am here to introduce our new world trend to you,a world of vampire where life get easier,we have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich,you will be assured long life and prosperity,you shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness,stronger and also very fast,you will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk.In case you are wildly oppressed by some unscrupulous persons we can still help you fight them.Your protection is assured immediately you join.Just contact the bellow email if you are interested we are here to attend to you anytime you want us. Contact the bellow email for more details. Email:vampirescreed@hotmail.com Sincerely: James Franklyn.

  3. Bravo! Someone else that is willing to speak the truth! Bravo!_____NBCSN is available in almost 2 MILLION more homes than just a few years ago, but Indycar STILL gets less total viewers than it did just a few years ago when NBC took over Versus. Attendance and ratings cratered with the end of season races (just when the title battle got "interesting" HAH!__________And now...new race in Basilia, where Miles celebrated the "rich history" of Indycar racing there. Rich history? What, 7 events in the 100 years of AOW? Yep, some history. Well, at least its an oval. It's not??? Are you kidding me??? Gosh darn road racin furriners.

  4. PURITY RAY LOAN OFFER........ Have you been denied by your banks,or are you in need of of an urgent loan to pay of your bills we are capable of giving loans @ cheaper rate to interested individuals, student, companies and members of the public in need of finance to settle bills, we do offer considerable loans which you can count on. For more information on our various types of loan,then you will have to contact PURITY RAY LOAN FIRM, to help you achieve your desire LOAN APPLICATION FORM TO BE FILLED BORROWERS INFORMATION * Full name:………………………. * SEX * ……………………………. * Country………………………….. * State:……………………………. * Land:…………………………….. * Occupation:…………………….. * phone number:…………………. * Telephone: ………………………….. * Age:………………………………. * Amount needed as loan:……… * Loan Duration:………………….. * Propose of Loan:……………….. * Annual revenue:………………… * Monthly Income:……………….. * Guarantee:………………………. * Payment: monthly or annually Email.....purityrayloanfirm@gmail.com Thank you and God bless Mr Purity Ray PURITY RAY LOAN FIRM we tend to serve you better

  5. Problem: most of the people responding to this article don't know about this service AT ALL! Why? Lack of awareness. This isn't IndyGo. This is CIRTA: might as well be the mattress company because they are asleep at the wheel - something like 3 directors over the last year? Playing with federal grant money is great! This "region" wants commuter rail service, has spent MILLIONS on Transportation studies yet can't even support a commuter bus line? This is largely for suburban riders to get to downtown - not for "service people to work in our hotels and restaurants" ! Get your head out of your backside!! These are professionals, students etc. that don't want to fight traffic, save some money on parking, gas, stress.... if CIRTA would put their federal money into widely promoting the sevive to Greenwood, Fishers & Carmel instead of finding directors and studies - this would be a successful service. Our family uses(d) it daily for the last several years - but the recent uncertainty & now unreliability due to cuts from Carmel has been a problem. Now, costs us an additional $350/month for gas & parking ( $4200/year) plus vehicle wear, service, environmental impact ... YES - this REGION needs this this type of service in order to keep growing and getting the people it needs to fill skilled positions in downtown Indianapolis. Think outside of your own car !!!