Editor’s note: New CFSA President Chris Boots of C. J. Boots Casket Company in Anderson, Indiana, was recently profiled in the November 2018 issue of American Funeral Director magazine. Here is a reprint of the “Ask The Expert” article.
Filling a Niche in the Casket Industry
By Patti Martin Bartsche, Editor, Kates-Boylston Publications
Christopher J. Boots didn’t start out making caskets, but when the custom craftsman took a closer look at a pantry cabinet he was working on back in 1999, the first thing that came to mind was “casket.” It wasn’t long before Boots realized that he could fill a niche in the casket marketplace with high-quality, made-in-America wood caskets … and the C.J. Boots Casket Co. was born. Now, Boots is taking on a new role – 2018-19 president of the Casket & Funeral Supply Association of America. We recently had a chance to talk to Boots about his start, the issues facing the casket industry, personalization and more.
Tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the casket industry, and is it true after building your first casket that you drove around to local funeral homes to gauge funeral directors’ reactions?
I used to build custom furniture and cabinets for a small cabinet shop in central Indiana. I’d always dreamed of starting my own business but had not decided on what the business would be. One day in the cabinet shop, I built a set of custom cabinets and was fascinated by a particular cabinet that had both angles and a radius on the top. The first thing that came to mind was a casket. In 1999, the internet was still very new and not the resource we have today. So, I went to a local funeral home and asked the funeral director if I could write down all the dimensions of a wood casket. After making all the parts, I assembled, stained and finished the casket – complete with an interior from what was then Bev’s Threads in Richmond, Indiana. Believe it or not, I took a Friday off work, removed the seats out of our family minivan, loaded the casket and visited five local funeral homes to get their opinion on my “Brethren” oak casket that we still manufacture today at C.J. Boots. All five of the funeral directors I spoke with offered to buy the casket, which inspired me to start C.J. Boots Casket Co.
What do you believe families want in caskets?
Let me start out by saying consumers don’t know what they don’t know. At the 1994 annual sales meeting of Marsellus Casket Co., it was stated: The average family selects a funeral every 12 to 13 years. The funeral home selection room is the family’s “World of Perception.” This doesn’t make for a well-educated consumer. Casket trends show that today’s funeral consumers are interested in value for their merchandise purchases. The bottom line is that families are best served when they have had a chance to understand the full menu of choices (which requires careful funeral director attention and education). Much like any other merchandise purchase, consumers want choices. And in the end, families not given choices make for disappointed consumers.
What sets C.J. Boots Casket Co. caskets apart?
We offer caskets made from nine different species of lumber. This provides funeral directors and families a selection of traditional designs and our innovative Craft Casket series. Our caskets are sold through a growing network of funeral professionals throughout North America. We like to say that ‘we combine the warmth and beauty of nature’s variety of woods with the traditions of Old World craftsmanship.’ Building a great casket is only part of the package. We believe great customer service, hands-on craftsmanship and interior customization for at-need services are just a few things that sets us apart
There’s been a lot of talk from President Trump about putting tariffs on steel and lumber imports from foreign companies. What are your thoughts?
If I could predict the future, I’d say that by the time this article goes to print we will all know what type of price adjustments there will be for next year’s pricing. Because of the ‘unknown’ in what will happen with or without tariffs, casket companies are all working very hard at reducing costs as much as possible. Rising material prices and health care costs are at an all-time high. I am all for both domestic and international competition in business, and I do think it’s necessary that trade be on a fair and level playing field.
Beyond tariffs, what are the biggest issues facing the casket industry?
The sky is not the limit anymore! This question reminds me of the book ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ by Spencer Johnson. The ‘cheese’ has moved and continues to move. The first of several issues that face the casket industry is the decline in people choosing burial. The Cremation Association of North America reports the cremation rate in 2017 was 51.6 percent. This means there are roughly 1.2 million burials per year. This is a sharp decline from 1999 when there were nearly 1.8 million burials per year. Another issue is caskets imported into the United States. Although the economy is strong, manufacturers continue to struggle finding labor to fill jobs. All manufacturers are being forced to automate as much as possible, but this comes with a cost.
In January 2016, C.J. Boots Casket Co. and Vandor Corp. announced a merger. How is that working?
I am blessed to be a part of such a great company. Vandor has a long history with the casket industry, and it’s nice to be working with an organization with so much experience. We have an innovative management team always looking to increase customer value, improve processes and seek new opportunities. I am a shareholder of Vandor Corp. and serve as president of C.J. Boots Casket Co. Vandor’s funeral products division includes C.J. Boots Casket Co., Starmark Cremation Products and Vision Casket. We also have a plastics division where we make parts for many automobile manufacturers, and reels for wire and cable companies worldwide under the brand Reel Options.
We read a lot in the newspaper and see on the news about companies outsourcing production and jobs to foreign countries, including Mexico. C.J. Boots has taken a decidedly different approach. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Manufacturing is alive and well in the United States, and we firmly believe there’s no need to go elsewhere. The latest import data is from 2016 where imported caskets made up around 30 percent of the market. However, since then, larger manufacturers have moved production to Mexico, which has greatly increased the number of caskets being brought into the U.S. The driving force behind Mexico-based manufacturing is certainly much lower labor and benefits costs. Alternatively, we are seeing other American manufacturers work together in programs such as One Source Prime. There are currently six casket companies in One Source Prime. This program gives funeral homes the opportunity to purchase funeral products made in America by American workers at a greatly reduced price.
From your perspective, what are some of the casket trends we should be on the lookout for?
Although the funeral profession has been somewhat resistant to change, merchandise has certainly been affected by consumer selection. When I started in the casket business, it was all about casket gauge in metal caskets. Funeral directors would use the segregation of caskets by gauge to make price points. Burial families who choose metal caskets today are choosing lower priced caskets, which translates to an increase of 20-gauge caskets being used. Most people couldn’t tell you the difference in metal gauge anyway, and you certainly can’t tell by appearance. I believe we will see less and less influence on caskets being sold by gauge.
How important is casket personalization, and what does personalization mean to you?
The funeral director is certainly the gatekeeper on personalization. Some do a really great job of promoting personalization, not only in merchandise but the entire funeral. Families want a memorable and meaningful experience for their loved ones. Unfortunately, inserting an embroidered panel in a casket lid has become the norm for customization. We created a line of ‘Craft Caskets’ at C.J. Boots that offers a little different spin on customization. A Craft Casket is a nontraditional traditional casket. We offer a Horse casket that has some very unique hardware and includes real horseshoes. Our Rustic hickory has real hickory bark on the exterior along with pieces of hickory logs and optional RealTree Camouflage interior. Our most popular Craft Casket is our Barnwood. I am amazed at the success of this particular casket.
How are organizations like the Casket & Funeral Supply Association of America helping casket manufacturers and funeral suppliers meet today’s challenges?
The CFSA offers educational programming at both its Winter Seminar and Fall Conference. Peter Navarro (author of “Death by China “ and adviser to President Trump) was a speaker at a recent fall conference, speaking on trade to CFSA members. There are also industry resources provided to CFSA members, such as a monthly newsletter, funeral home credit guides and surveys. The CFSA also works with other trade organizations to promote initiatives such as ‘Have the Talk of a Lifetime.’
What do you hope to accomplish during your year as president?
The CFSA president works very closely with the board of directors and the CFSA staff throughout the year. There are several committees constantly working on projects for the Winter Seminar and Fall Conference. As the issue of trade continues to dominate the landscape, I believe the association will work diligently on keeping members informed as to the latest information so that members can make better business decisions. I am also looking forward to our Fall Conference being held in Columbus, Ohio, which is new for us after many years being held in Indianapolis.
Cremation is now considered the “new tradition.” What is/can the casket industry do to remain relevant to families?
In my opinion, the best kept secret in cremation merchandise is the ceremonial rental casket. Every funeral home in America should have at least one, and preferably merchandize several in the selection room. Most people don’t know anything about a rental casket. Ceremonial rental caskets have an incredible return on investment for the funeral home. The initial purchase can be recouped usually with the first or second use. C.J. Boots manufactures ceremonial rental caskets for our sister company, Starmark Cremation Products in Richmond, Indiana. Funeral homes can purchase corrugated inserts that slide into the casket for the funeral service and visitation. One of my favorite improvements in new rental caskets is the adjustable bed, which makes body positioning simple and fast. Rental casket sales have increased drastically in the last few years. Renting a casket for a service just makes so much more sense all the way around compared to cremating a whole casket.
How can funeral directors best start the discussion with families about caskets?
No one wants to buy a casket, and as I said earlier, people aren’t involved often enough in making funeral arrangements to know what’s available. Educating the family is the first and most important step in assisting with merchandise selections. I think there’s sometimes a fear that if a funeral director talks too much about caskets they feel like they are ‘selling.’ They are right: People don’t want to be ‘sold,’ yet they do want to be educated.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
When I first thought about starting C.J. Boots Casket Co., I read a quote that pushed me to move forward, and that was: ‘Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb, that’s where the fruit is!’
As a casket craftsman, have you designed your own casket?
I really haven’t given it much thought, believe it or not. I think I will leave that decision up to my family.