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Sales from the crypt Featured

9:34am EDT July 22, 2002

What do the banking and cemetery industries have in common? If you said both have vaults, you're right. And both have a safekeeping role.

Beyond those attributes, it might take a while to figure out a connection.

But PWCampbell saw a link between the industries that made perfect sense to the 90-year-old construction company. It has entered the cemetery sector in a partnership with a Canadian company that introduced a new method for constructing the concrete crypts used in mausoleums.

PWCampbell has built its business substantially on design and construction work for financial institutions, including commercial banks, savings and loans and credit unions and, more recently, for health care clients. Its specialization has allowed it to carve a niche that has provided significant repeat and referral business in a 13-state area for the RIDC Park-based company.

So it was natural, say its owners, to seek out a specialty field in which to expand its business.

"It's a niche market, and one of the things that's been good for us is not to go after something that's glamorous, but something that's good repeat business," says Jim Campbell, the construction company's CEO. "Both of these niches are relationship oriented, and that's what we've been good at."

PWCampbell has teamed with Royal Building Systems, a Woodbridge, Ontario, manufacturer, to develop an extruded PVC plastic product, Plastiform, that is assembled for use as a concrete form and remains in place as an integral part of the construction. The assembly of the plastic parts, which Campbell describes as similar to putting together Legos, produces a crypt that is superior in fit and function to the conventional poured or precast concrete products commonly used in mausoleums.

PWCampbell has completed two projects for the St. Joseph Cemetery in Monroe, Mich.

Securing a strong reputation in the mausoleum industry would provide opportunities for repeat business for obvious reasons, but as PWCampbell officials quickly learned, the barriers to entry are formidable. In the relationship-oriented industry, operators tend to do business with the same circle of vendors and service providers over a long period of time and are slow to switch to alternatives.

"Cemetery people as a rule are fairly conservative and are not anxious to try something new out of the gate," says Campbell.

It's no wonder. Mausoleums are substantial commitments for cemeteries and big-ticket projects, often running in the millions of dollars. Once built, construction features are virtually impossible to alter.

"We provide a product that that has to be maintained for generations," says David Shipper, president of the 6,000-member International Cemetery and Funeral Association.

With that in mind, cemetery managers usually opt for the safe choice when it comes to crypt construction, as a wrong decision could bankrupt a small cemetery or cost the executive of a large operation his or her job.

Playing on their strengths

Campbell and his brother, John Campbell, the company's president, believe they can overcome the barriers and make the cemetery business a mainstay by playing on their strengths.

They have demonstrated their commitment to the business by staying in touch with the industry through trade shows and personal contact. Competitors and others in the close-knit industry were skeptical when PWCampbell showed its wares at trade shows and industry events, but now, the Campbells say, the skeptics are starting to show curiosity about their business.

"In order to gain access to the market, you've got to get yourself known," Shipper says.

The most successful companies in the industry, he points out, are typically those that have mounted strong marketing campaigns.

To get the business launched, PWCampbell hired two people to run the mausoleum business, both of whom have considerable experience in the industry. While the Campbells are experienced in the construction business, they knew they needed expertise in the cemetery industry.

"It was almost like a law firm that does corporate work and wants to do litigation," explains John Campbell. "We went out and bought individuals, by putting them on the payroll, who understand the division."

Gaining a cost advantage

There may be one other factor working in PWCampbell's favor. The cost of building the traditional pour-in-place crypt and the scarcity of labor could tip the advantage to systems like Plastiform, which requires less skilled labor to build.

The cost of construction for the Plastiform system is about the same as for poured crypts, but the Campbells believe that, with time and experience, they will be able to cut their costs.

"We believe that, in the future, as we learn more and get more efficient at it, it will be less expensive than pour-in-place," says Jim Campbell.

That will be a critical factor, says Shipper. Cost plays a central role for cemetery operators. If a company can demonstrate a significant cost advantage with a comparable product, he says, it will be competitive.

And finally, since little succeeds like success in any business, getting a project under its belt was essential to PWCampbell's marketing efforts. With a completed project and a satisfied customer, it has a demonstration site it can use to sell to prospective clients. Selling to once-skeptical prospects will be much easier, say the Campbells, with a real-world example to show.

Says Jim Campbell: "If we can secure three or four more projects next year ... it does appear as if it will snowball. Once one or two people buy into it, it does appear as if it will be what's accepted as the best way to do it." How to reach: PW Campbell, www.pwcampbell.com; International Cemetery and Funeral Association, www.icfa.org

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Pittsburgh.