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Big-Box Wholesaling

By Dan Rafter For close to two decades, Davis' Goliath Casket Co. in Lynn, Ind., has been making oversized coffins for the heaviest of the recently deceased, a market it all but pioneered. Goliath's specialized coffins can run more than eight feet in length and stretch as wide as 52 inches. The standard casket, in comparison, is about six-and-a-half-feet long and just 28 inches wide. In the 19 years that Goliath has plied its trade, Davis has had the XXXXL niche nearly all to himself.

But as the American waistline continues to expand, that is changing. Recognizing increased demand, the major names in the casket industry -- outfits like Batesville, Aurora, and Astral -- have all introduced their oversized models. Davis, a laid-back industry veteran, has refined his company's strengths, but doesn't let the big casket companies keep him up at night. "I say the water is warm and it's a big lake," Davis says. "I've always been one to think you should make it better, faster, and cheaper, and not worry about what your competitors are doing."

DEADLY SERIOUS. Goliath counts only five employees on its payroll. And the company, which makes anywhere from 600 to 800 oversized caskets a year, will generate about $250,000 in revenue in 2004. That's a tiny tally in comparison with its larger competitors, but for this entrepreneur, it represents the latest in a series of the increases that have defined a steady growth curve.

In an industry dominated by bigger players, Goliath is a true family business, one that can be downright folksy at times -- like when Davis' jokes about being so far off the beaten track that he has to point his cell phone at the clouds to make a connection.

While the atmosphere at Goliath remains light-hearted, the competition has become serious. Batesville, for example, introduced its new Dimensions line during the National Funeral Directors convention in October, featuring 53 different oversized models.

GOLDEN RULES. "Everything that we are reading from some of the different medical organizations indicates that the demand for oversized caskets will increase," said Joe Weigel, a spokesman for Batesville, located in Batesville, Ind. "We have information that tells us the average American is getting much heavier. Their families deserve the same options as do any other families."

How does tiny Goliath compete with large outfits? Facing bigger, better-financed competition, Davis' says his approach is three-pronged, incorporating much of what propelled the company's success in the first place.

Sticking to a specialty: It's true that the major players have introduced their own oversized lines. But these large companies still don't serve the heaviest of the deceased because it doesn't make economic sense for them to do so. Companies such as Batesville and Aurora can't afford to make caskets wider than 36 inches because there still isn't a high-enough demand for the biggest of the big -- those more than 40 inches wide -- to allow companies to mass-produce them.

Goliath, however, specializes in the biggest of oversized caskets because the company doesn't rely on mass assembly-line production as part of its business model. "One of the problems with oversized caskets is that they don't lend themselves to high volume," Davis says. "The profit margin, then, is pretty low. The large companies want to push a button and fill up their trucks with product. They're not interested in making just a few, very odd-sized caskets. That's something we specialize in."

Innovation: Davis' father, Forrest, started Goliath in 1985 after working several years at a larger casket company and deciding he could do a better job on his own. To hear Davis tell the story, Forrest sketched his original oversized designs on scraps of old wallpaper, then built his own tools out of combine parts, I-beams and whatever else he had lying around his home.

Davis still believes in innovation. As one example, the company recently started making a folding coffin bed. "I call it a La-Z-Boy bed because it folds in the middle, just like a La-Z-Boy chair," explains Davis, explaining that this makes it easier to accommodate oversize bodies.

Goliath also manufactures its own cranks to lift and lower the heaviest of oversized caskets. Again, the oversized market still isn't large or profitable enough to encourage major players to develop a crank that can support a 52-inch-wide casket that might weigh as much as 1,000 pounds.

Know-how: Because Goliath has served the oversized niche since 1985, Davis is able to position himself as an expert in providing products for overweight. He has even written a series of articles for funeral directors that give them useful advice on how to deal with the morbidly obese.

What are some of those challenges? For starters, since oversized caskets can require as many as 12 pall bearers, Davis encourages funeral directors to purchase carts to help with the move. Funeral directors also face the problem of trying to get an oversized casket through the doors of a church or funeral home, not to mention into the back of a hearse. Families also may have to purchase an extra cemetery plot to allow room for a larger-than-normal casket.

HEAVY LIFTING. It can even prove difficult for funeral directors to get an obese body from a hospital to the funeral home. In this case, Davis writes, directors may need to get creative. In one of his articles, Davis relates the story of a funeral director that used a small front-end loader tractor to lift a body. It's not always a pleasant topic, but it's an increasing reality of life, and Davis has positioned himself as a resource.

So, despite the proverbial big boys' intrusion into his niche, Davis says the future looks bright for Goliath. For better or for worse, Americans do not appear to be getting smaller. And Davis, ever the innovator, is already considering a new line of caskets - large coffins for oversized pets. "We've gotten quite a few requests for pet coffins," Davis says. "People like to spoil their pets." And so continues the story of Davis and Goliath. Rafter is a Chesterton, Ind.-based business and technology writer.

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