Aurora Casket Company, Inc.
Aurora Casket Company, Inc.
Incorporated: 1890 as Aurora Coffin Company
Sales: $118 million (2001)
NAIC: 339995 Burial Casket Manufacturing
Aurora Casket Company, Inc. is the largest privately owned casket company in the United States. It produces more than 150,000 caskets a year, which are priced from $400 to $5,000. Aurora also makes urns and other cremation-related products. The business has been in the family since it was founded by John Backman in 1890. It has embraced e-commerce as a means of connecting with both consumers and funeral directors; about a third of the company’s orders come through the Internet.
Many of the workers at Aurora are descendants of those who worked there in previous generations. It is “a family company serving a family profession.” Aurora acquired Clarksburg Casket Co. of West Virginia, another family-run firm, in 2000. Clarksburg’s hardwood caskets complemented those offered by Aurora’s sales partner in Quebec, Victoriaville Casket Ltd. Aurora markets its products to funeral directors through 60 service centers across the United States.
Colonel John J. Backman formed the Aurora Coffin Co. in 1890. Southern Indiana was a good source of pine, and the company’s caskets were sold in-state, as well as in Kentucky and Ohio. In the beginning, 30 workers made the caskets by hand.
Backman’s son, Bill Backman, and son-in-law Bill Barrott entered the business in the 1920s. The two families would form the company’s stable ownership for decades. They also took distinctive roles in management, with the Backmans concentrating on business and finance, and the Barrotts focusing on production and marketing.
Aurora began making mostly metal caskets in the 1940s. Presses and dies were acquired by 1947, enabling mass production of what had previously been tooled mostly by hand. The area in which the company was located was a great source for skilled metal workers from the automotive industry of Indiana and the tool-making tradition of Cincinnati, just a few miles to the west.
Wooden casket production was phased out in 1954. Aurora rolled out stainless steel caskets in 1966. This quickly became the fastest growing segment of the metal casket market. Aurora also made caskets from carbon steel and copper. Several processes would continue to be done by hand, such as sanding and buffing the exterior finishes and sewing fabric in the casket interiors.
A Canadian Partner in 1988
Aurora stopped selling coffins in Canada in 1973 due to a rise in the U.S. dollar and Canadian tariffs. A 15 percent tariff kept Aurora from returning to the Canadian market until a U.S.Canada free trade agreement in the late 1980s. In December 1988, Aurora announced an agreement to sell its up to 2,000 steel coffins a year through Quebec’s Victoriaville Casket Ltd., Canada’s largest maker of wooden coffins. At the same time, Aurora would be selling up to twice as many of Victoriaville’s wooden coffins in the United States. The U.S. duty on wooden coffins from Canada was 5.1 percent; both it and the Canadian tariff were being phased out over a ten-year period.
Surveys ranked Aurora either the second or third-largest producer of caskets in the business in the early 1990s. (In-state rival Batesville Casket Co., a subsidiary of Hillenbrand Industries Inc., was the largest.) Aurora had 600 employees, up from 400 a decade earlier. It had sales of about $50 million a year and was growing between 7 and 10 percent a year, according to Indiana Business. The plant was producing about 500 units a day. Trends affecting the industry, such as increased lifespan and the growing popularity of cremation, have been factors in Aurora’s fortunes in recent decades.
In late 1992, Aurora acquired a 2,500-ton mechanical press from a Canadian automotive metal products company. Buying the press, relocating it, and rebuilding a 5,000-square-foot addition to house it cost Aurora $1.2 million. The press was the largest in the casket industry and increased both Aurora’s capacity and range of products. It also served as a backup for the company’s 500 ton and 1,000 ton presses.
Longtime employee William E. Barrott III became company president in September 1993. He succeeded William D. Backman, Jr., who became chairman and CEO. The company had sales of $80 million a year and 600 employees.
Aurora’s headquarters underwent a $2.5 million expansion in 1995. The washer system was moved from the paint facility to a 15,000-square-foot addition to accommodate increasingly stringent environmental regulations. A 9,500 square foot sales and marketing building, with showroom, was also added to host a variety of customer service activities for funeral directors. The total size of Aurora’s plant was 400,000 square feet. The company had 50 service centers around the country.
Acquisitions in the Late 1990s and Early 2000s
Aurora made a number of acquisitions in the late 1990s. Meierjohan-Wengler Inc., bought in 1997, was a maker of cremation urns, bronze plaques, and other funeral supplies. It had been founded in 1992. Mountain States Casket Co. of Salt Lake City was acquired from owner John Platt in 1998. Mountain States served funeral homes in Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, and Wyoming. In the same year, Aurora picked up the J&B Casket Co., based in Fargo, which served markets in Montana and the Dakotas. Aurora bought Clarksburg Casket Co. of Clarksburg, West Virginia in 2000. Clarksburg made hardwood caskets and had about 140 employees. Aurora president William Barrott said the Clarksburg line complemented that of its Canadian partner, Victoriaville.
Clarksburg was another venerable casket manufacturer, founded in 1906 by Frank Wilson. It also remained family managed; control of the company passed to Mark Garrett, grandson-in-law of the founder, in 1981.
These acquisitions helped push Aurora to $110 million in sales in 1999, when the company had 800 employees. Aurora had also launched an online technology initiative in 1998 and would soon be considered a pioneer in e-commerce.
Online in the 21st Century
A content-rich educational web site, funeralplan.com, was launched by Aurora in December 2000. It featured informative articles, interactive funeral planners, and allowed users to post online obituaries free. The “Ask the Experts” section provided advice from 15 experts in areas such as grief counseling and pre-need insurance. Funeralplan.com had three million visitors in 2001. Executive vice-president of operations told Indiana Business Magazine that the Internet was a good way to deliver information. “You’ve got a family that needs information, needs it quickly and efficiently, and they probably know very little going in,” he said. In addition, having casket selection information online spared families from visiting a room full of empty coffins.
Aurora had also developed Family Advisor software to help bereaved families cope with burial planning. About 150 funeral homes across the United States had it installed. When installed on a laptop, the software allowed funeral directors to visit bereaved families in their homes, saving them a visit to the funeral home.
Another online site, Memorial-markers.com, allowed funeral directors to design memorials online. By the end of 2002, more than 30 percent of Aurora’s sales to funeral homes came online, reported Indiana Business.
Growth by acquisition continued in 2003. In March, Aurora acquired Cotrim Hardwood Parts Co. of Tennessee, which made hardwood caskets and cremation products and supplied hardwood parts to the furniture industry. The next month, Aurora bought Hastings Casket Co. of Nebraska. Hastings Casket’s distribution center in Nebraska supplied funeral homes in Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, South Dakota, and Wyoming; the acquisition enhanced Aurora’s national distribution.
Colonel Backman established his company on three basic principles that he believed crucial to success. First, he insisted that the quality of his caskets set the standard for the industry. Second, he established a process to provide his customers with the products that best met their needs, as well as a superior level of service. Finally, he ensured his customers that they would be treated fairly and honestly within the bounds of a family business.
- Colonel John J. Backman forms Aurora Casket.
- The company’s acquisition of presses speeds metal casket manufacture.
- Aurora’s stainless steel caskets are introduced.
- Aurora acquires the largest mechanical press in the casket industry.
- Urn manufacturer Meierjohan-Wengler Inc. is acquired.
- Mountain States Casket Co. and J&B Casket Co. are acquired.
- Clarksburg Casket Co. is acquired.
- Cotrim Hardwood Parts Co. and Hastings Casket Co. are acquired.
Clarksburg Casket Co.; Meierjohan-Wengler Inc.
Hillenbrand Industries Inc. (Batesville Casket Co.); Matthews International; Service Corporation International; York Group Inc.
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—Frederick C. Ingram