A very nice “Ask The Expert” article in the February 2015 issue of American Funeral Director featured Astral’s Charlie Shaw. In case any of our CFSA members missed it, we are reprinting the full Q & A.
Charlie Shaw, owner and CEO of Astral Industries, the Lynn, Indiana-based manufacturer of 19- gauge, 20-gauge and stainless steel caskets, knows a lot about caskets. Shaw, who founded the company in 1972, is also keenly aware that difficult economic challenges have driven families to seek out affordable options when choosing a casket. In response to the market’s evolving demands, Astral announced late last year a business relationship with Sauder Funeral Products. Shaw talks about the business relationship, rising cremation rates, how the privately owned company has stayed competitive and what he believes families – traditional burial and cremation – want.
How did Astral Industries get its start?
I was in the casket business before starting Astral. It was a small company that made custom caskets in batches of one. I realized that there needed to be a product different from that … especially in the lower end. There was a need for caskets that could be made from a standard model in multiples, and that’s how Astra l got its start in 1972.
What sets Astral apart from other casket manufacturers?
When Astral started, we were manufacturing lower-end caskets run in multiples. We were able to carry caskets in stock, which translated to quicker service. We got efficient at doing that … and we were able to fly under the radar.
Today, we’re trying to follow the market. We all get that the (casket) market is going down in averages. What people want today is a good-looking product at a good price. They don’t want the bells and whistles. We’ve been able to manufacture in that way.
As an independently owned and operated company, how has Astral weathered not only competition from other players in the marketplace, but also the increasing number of families opting for cremation?
I think there may be some disadvantages of being a small company, but there are also a lot of advantages … and we have to play those cards that are advantages. We were off the radar screen (of some of the bigger companies) for a long time, but now out of necessity, they are coming after us. But we’ve been able to keep our position because we have the knowledge developed over the years to develop quality products at a good price. And if they’re in competition with us and say they can manufacture products for less money, they have to be losing money.
One of the benefits for us as an independently owned company is that we can make changes and decisions quickly … it doesn’t have to go to this person or that and have a lot of meetings before a decision can be made. This allows us to act quickly.
How does Astral continue to innovate in the face of rising cremation rates?
Being able to react, to do things quicker without an act of Congress. We need to play those advantage cards … and being able to react quickly is a big one. That’s how this relationship with Sauder Funeral Products came to be … we knew that the marketplace is changing and with cremation on the rise, we knew that offering affordable cremation products was something we had to do.
How did the business relationship with Sauder Funeral Products come about?
Sauder got into the funeral products business about three years ago or so, and they were looking for a way to expand their business. They are well known for their furniture products, but not so much in the funeral industry. They were looking for a better way to distribute their products. They are cost effective, we are cost effective, and together we can meet the needs of today’s families. It’s really a perfect fit.
What was it about Sauder that made it a good partner?
Sauder offers reasonably priced products because of the way they are manufactured. They can get it done fast and cost effectively … that’s the ace in the hole.
You have said that the relationship is a natural fit … why do you think that is?
We needed to address cremation, and our metal caskets don’t fit the need. Our two companies are a natural fit. Both have their roots in the Midwest, and both are familyowned and operated. Astral recognizes the importance of offering American-made products to funeral homes and the families they serve, and continues this mission by working with Ohio-based Sauder to provide a line of high definition, laminated wood burial and cremation caskets.
You have also said that offering affordable cremation products was something Astral needed to do. What have you heard from funeral directors about what families want?
We talked to funeral directors all over the country who shared their stories of families looking for good-looking, cost-effective products to honor their loved ones. We work hard to make that happen, and we’re excited to have Sauder on our team, letting us offer funeral directors affordable choices for their families.
What type of cremation products can families expect to see?
We are going to be offering five different products. We don’t have any plans to offer more or less, but things can always change. Right now we’re covering everything from the basic cremation casket up to a cherry finish Estate casket, which is very attractive and reasonably priced and can be used for cremation or burial. We have the very basic one, then we have one that is a step up with a nicer interior finish, which would look good for a viewing, then we have two more that are above that which are even nicer, and the top is the Estate cherry.
How important is it to offer cremation families a variety of memorialization options?
It’s important to offer all families – cremation and burial – memorialization options. What’s equally important is to get the price down so that they are affordable to everyone.
How important is it for funeral directors to address cremation families preneed as well as at-need?
Personally, we make metal caskets – that’s been our business. And we are a lot better at burial than cremation, but I look at cremation as a method of disposal and don’t see any reason why you should not have as much of a service for cremation as burial. I personally feel we should still offer all the same services for cremation as we do for burial … you can still have that traditional burial with cremation. You don’t have to give up everything just because you opt for cremation.
What does the future hold for Astral?
I hope good things. I don’t think we’re going to come up with a cure for death … we’re always going to have that going on in the future.