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Plane Speaking

Bill Hogan

Florence Casket Co. has been making its mainstay products, wooden caskets, for nearly 150 years now. And it’s making them pretty much the same way, as well — by hand. But while this business seems frozen in time in some ways, this unique industry has seen change and evolution — and the company has more than kept pace.

There’s a good amount of history on display at the Florence Casket Co. plant in Florence, as one might expect at a company that’s been making the same product in the same building since 1873, as the plaque mounted near the front entrance proclaims.

Much of it is captured in the photographs hanging in the lobby, the conference room, and Bill Hogan’s spacious and somewhat cluttered office — testimony to the fact that the third-generation president wears quite a number of hats at this venture.

Many of those photos, including those in Hogan’s office, are portraits of first- and second-generation leaders of this unique business, including his maternal grandfather, Russell Christenson, who bought the company with a few of his siblings in the mid-’50s. In the conference room, meanwhile, there are several photos of the vintage horse-drawn hearses the company loans out to area funeral homes for special services — as well as framed newspaper accounts of those funerals, with the hearses featured prominently.

And in the lobby, hanging not far from a framed receipt — dated 1898 and given from the Florence Furniture Co., Manufacturers of Burial Caskets and Undertakers Supplies, to a Joseph Belanger for “boxes” and other materials — are two aerial photos of the factory.

One is relatively recent, maybe a decade or so ago. The other one, a black and white shot … Hogan isn’t quite sure, although he thought he could determine the date if he did a little research. There are a few clues, including an old rail line that’s been gone for decades, and a few cars — compared with the full parking lot of today — that look like they might be from the late ’20s or early ’30s.

Whatever the date is, the building certainly looks different on the outside than it does today — there have been several expansions. On the inside, though, most areas — from the lobby to most of the manufacturing spaces — probably look very much the same as they did back then.

Indeed, to walk into this factory, wedged between houses in a decidedly residential neighborhood, is to almost step back in time. While some of the equipment, including a CNC machine, are new, most everything else in this building is old — as in old world. Which is one way of saying they’re pretty much making caskets here the same way they did when the building was opened, when Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House, and when that picture was taken — whenever that was.

“We could buy machines that would do most of this mechanically, but we do it all by hand.” said Hogan, adding that, on a typical day, roughly two dozen caskets will be shipped out to funeral homes across a territory that covers most of the Northeast.

While in many ways time seems to have stood still at this company, the reality is that it hasn’t. Times have changed in some ways, from the amount of competition — there are far fewer companies doing this now, although some are national and even international giants — to the increasing popularity of cremation, which has certainly impacted demand for the wooden caskets this company specializes in — although demand is still steady.

“As much has cremation has crept in and become more and more popular, there are still a fair number of families that want to have a traditional funeral,” he explained, adding that this is especially true in the Northeast.

Craftsmen at Florence Casket assemble models the same way they were built in 1873 — by hand.

Overall, Florence Casket, while in some respects still doing business the way it did nearly 150 years ago, is also adapting to changing times by diversifying into everything from supplying cremation urns and metal caskets to making specialty caskets, such as oversized models, and even those for pets.

But its bread and butter remains fine wooden caskets, which are in many ways custom-made for each customer. The company’s strategy has been to generate more of the remaining business for such caskets in its territory by “going into untouched corners to find new customers,” as Hogan put it.

For this issue, BusinessWest visited this unique business to learn about a business where demand may be constant, but so too is change and the need to adapt to it.

Going with the Grain

Hogan began his extensive tour of Florence Casket — something he enjoys and does fairly often — in the shipping area, where several caskets, covered by protective wrapping, sat waiting to be delivered to one of dozens of funeral homes in the company’s client portfolio. He spent the next 40 minutes or so explaining the many processes involved with getting them ready for delivery.

He began by rolling open a large wooden door and pointing to a separate building in which vast stores of kiln-dried lumber — everything from pine to poplar; maple to mahogany — are kept. He then took BusinessWest on a journey that covered three floors — the top floor is essentially for storage of finished product — and more steps than one could likely imagine when looking at the final product. Steps that include planing, cutting, gluing, shaping, assembling, painting (staining), lacquering, sanding at many stages along the way, and installation of the interior fabric.

He also introduced some industry terms of a sort, such as ‘ears,’ the wooden pieces affixed to the side of the casket, to which the handles are mounted, and the ‘piece of pie,’ the wedge-shaped (hence the name) piece glued and then stapled into the front of the top of the casket.

Finished caskets are stored on the third floor of the company’s headquarters in Florence and then customized to meet the specific needs of clients.

The craftsmen making and assembling pieces are doing things pretty much the way they’ve been done for decades, said Hogan, as he pointed to some equipment that’s been in use from the very beginning, or so he’s been told.

Again, he knows much more about the chapter in the company’s story that began when his family bought it nearly 70 years ago — but through research and stories passed down, he’s been able to gain an appreciation of its full and long history.

And before giving his tour, Hogan provided an in-depth and quite intriguing inside look at his company and the casket business — which he stressed repeatedly is not the funeral business, although the two have always been intertwined, and were even more so decades ago, as we’ll see.

As for Hogan, he started working in the plant when he was very young; he said his grandfather would put him to work mowing lawns and handling other duties. Later, he worked on the floor during summers and school vacations. After graduating from Castleton College in Vermont, he returned to the family business in 1993, and “I haven’t looked back.”

“When I was kid, I didn’t necessarily picture myself doing this,” he explained. “But it was an opportunity that was presented to me, and it’s the path I chose; it was a good decision.”

Thus, he’s one of several third-generation members of the family involved with the business, and while some from the second generation are still active as well, including a semi-retired uncle who serves as a sales representative in Vermont, most have retired. But they still consult when called upon.

“The whole family has been a great sounding board for me when there’s been problems, questions, cares, or concerns,” he told BusinessWest. “They bring years of experience to the table.”

And there have been a number of matters on which to consult, he said, adding that, while the casket business is steeped in tradition and history, there has been change and evolution and the need to adapt to it.

As evidence, Hogan referenced the ‘showroom’ sign on another door to the building, even though it hasn’t actually served that role in quite some time.

A craftsman finishes ‘painting’ a casket, one of many steps in a very involved process.

“Many years ago — this is before my time, but it’s what I’ve been told — funeral directors would bring families here to look at caskets and choose a model,” he explained. “The funeral director would call down and say, ‘we’d like you to put a polar casket, a maple casket, and a cherry casket into the showroom for the family to see.’”

Later, funeral homes established their own small showrooms, he went on, adding that, when a particular model was chosen, the funeral director would call Florence and order a replacement. More recently, many of those showrooms have been given over to other uses, Hogan noted, and a number of funeral homes are displaying casket options through miniatures or simply photos on the internet, neither of which is ideal, but that’s nonetheless reality.

So after a model is picked, a call will be placed to Florence Casket for that item, he said. While the company has several of each type of casket (meaning the wood it’s made from) in those third-floor storage areas, it essentially makes each item to order, especially with the handles and interior fabric, which separates it from those competitors who stockpile inventory in huge warehouses.

“Our specialty is we manufacture everything as needed,” he explained. “Everything going tomorrow, we’re working on today; you can change colors, interiors, handles — you can customize them more than you can elsewhere.”

Board Meetings

Making things to order brings its own challenges, he went on, adding that, while some times of the year are busier than others — and winter in the Northeast, for whatever reason, probably the weather, is one of those times — work, like death itself, is constant and unpredictable.

“People don’t stop dying because it’s a holiday or because it’s the weekend or because the weather is bad,” he explained, adding that this makes the December holidays, and the time off that comes with them, sometimes difficult to navigate.

It also makes Fridays and Mondays, positioned on opposite sides of the weekend (when the business is closed), more hectic than the other days of the week. “So Mondays are essentially three days all wrapped into one.”

Indeed, BusinessWest visited on a Friday, and Hogan was interrupted several times to advise those making deliveries in time for the weekend.

Those deliveries are made almost exclusively within a Northeast territory that stretches from roughly Atlantic City, N.J. to the Canadian border, a coverage area chosen because it can be served from the Florence location with a fleet of trucks and vans.

As noted earlier, that territory was once home to a number of companies that made wooden caskets, but now there are just two — Florence and a company in Athol called Cambium Corp. There was a third, New England Casket in East Boston, but its factory burned to the ground almost a year ago, and the company is still in a state of limbo, said Hogan.

Meanwhile, there are a few large national players, including Batesville Casket Co. and Matthews Aurora Funeral Solutions, both based in Indiana with additional locations in other states.

New England Casket sold primarily to distributors, while Florence does not, which explains why the company hasn’t picked up much business as a result of that devastating fire, said Hogan. Instead, as noted, it has responded to the impact of cremations and other forces within the industry by working to add new customers within its territory. It has done this by going into those untouched corners that Hogan mentioned, and also stressing what differentiates it from other makers, specifically the quality and customization of the work.

This was on full display during Hogan’s tour, which essentially took the process from start to finish. On a tour that might take 40 minutes, he stops and explains each step. In real time, it probably takes about 40 hours, he noted, with some woods, such as oak and cherry, being more porous, thus needing more time to dry between coats of lacquer.

One of the last stops on the tour, the third-floor storage area, shows the depth of the customization process. Indeed, for each type of wood there are several different colors, or stains, and a variety of models. In cherry, for example, there’s everything from the Tanglewood to the Monticello to the Washington, each with customizable handles and panels. In mahogany, another of the higher-end options along with cherry, there are four options — Baldwin, Nantucket, Newport, and Simsbury — again, each one customizable.

Hogan said one of the keys to the company’s success is to have options for all tastes and price ranges, with mahogany and cherry at the high end, pine at the lower end, and woods like poplar, perhaps the most popular, in the middle.

Indeed, there are more than two dozen options in poplar, Hogan said. “We sell a lot of them because they’re reasonably priced and the finishes are brilliant.”

Bottom Line

Those models are part of the ongoing story at Florence Casket, which is closing in on 150 years of making both wooden caskets and history.

Those framed photographs in the lobby, conference room, and Hogan’s office reflect this history, but the real story is written on the shop floor, where they’re still doing many things the same way they were done in 1873.

The same way they did in that black-and-white photo — whenever it was taken.

It was Ben Franklin who said that, in this world, “nothing is certain except death and taxes.” For 147 years, this company been a constant as well.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Past Is Prologue

President and CEO John Howland stands by a display commemorating GSB’s first 150 years. I

Greenfield Savings Bank has marked its sesquicentennial in a number of ways this year — from a party with cupcakes in the spring to presenting elm trees to a number of area communities it serves in the summer, to displaying its proud history, something it’s done pretty much all year long. Overall, though, it has celebrated by doing what it has done since it was founded in 1869 — serving as a rock-solid corporate citizen. And a vital partner to its many types of customers.

John Howland jokingly refers to it as his “high-school history project.”

He was referring to the large display of photographs and other materials that trace the 150-year progression of Greenfield Savings Bank. And it’s quite an exhibition.

Indeed, across two walls just off the main lobby and outside the main conference room hang a number of photos, postcards, and framed advertisements and documents that collectively tell the story of an institution that has changed considerably since Ulysses S. Grant roamed the White House — but also hasn’t changed in many ways, as we’ll see.

There are photos of bank lobbies from several different decades, a host of board presidents, groups of employees, Howland himself, who became GSB president in 2015, and many images of the old Mansion House Hotel.

The bank was relocated within the hotel property roughly a decade after its launch — it was one of several ground-floor retail sites — and was still there when the Mansion House was destroyed in a massive fire in January 1959 (there are pictures of that historic moment as well). The bank built its new headquarters roughly where the front lobby of the hotel once stood.

The historic Mansion House Hotel and GSB’s location within that property.

“So we’ve basically operated in the same location since 1880, and that’s very significant to me,” said Howland, adding that this history project is important, for customers and employees alike, because there has been much to commemorate during what has been a year-long celebration, punctuated by a large party in the spring.

Starting with the name over the door. It was Greenfield Savings Bank all those years ago, said Howland, and it still is. This despite the fact that many banks, as they have expanded beyond their original home and added branches in other counties and sometimes another state, have dropped the city or town from their name, opting for something more global and seemingly less defining. Meanwhile, almost every other institution that had ‘Savings’ in its name has dropped that, too, on the theory that it’s anachronistic and doesn’t convey the full line of services.

GSB has done none of that.

“Why would you want to change a name you’ve had for 150 years?” he asked before answering the question himself. “The idea that we’re somehow different because we’ve changed our name and don’t have ‘Savings’ in it anymore is disingenuous to me.”

But the bank is celebrating more than continuity — although that’s certainly important. There has been growth and expansion into other areas, including Northampton, Amherst, and, most recently, the community in between them, Hadley. There has also been a commitment to remain at the forefront of technology, said Denise Coyne, executive vice president and COO (and 41-year employee of the bank), and as evidence, she pointed proudly to the new interactive teller machines, or ITMs, in the drive-through lane, an initiative GSB calls Teller Connect. Customers can speak with a teller based in Turners Falls who can handle a wide range of transactions from that location.

The bank is also celebrating its work within the community, a commitment that manifests itself in a number of ways and on many different levels, including multi-faceted support of Monte’s March, the trek undertaken by radio station WHMP DJ Monte Belmonte to raise money for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts (Howland himself was to be part of the second leg of the march, from Northampton to Greenfield).

Denise Coyne shows off one of the Teller Connect machines at GSB’s main branch in Greenfield.

But it also includes donating 30 elm trees in communities where the bank has a presence to replace just a few those lost to Dutch elm disease decades ago (these gifts, part of the 150th celebration, are resistant to the disease), and creating a foundation to support an ongoing project whereby students learning each of the trades at Franklin County Technical School collaborate to build a house from scratch (more on those initiatives later).

Mostly, though, the bank is celebrating what Howland called its “infinite horizon.” By that, he meant that this institution isn’t going anywhere, and it can act, and operate, accordingly.

“My job is to hand the keys over to someone else and have the company be better than it was when I got here,” he explained. “At the prior two organizations I worked for, and at many other banks, basically the mission was to figure out how to maximize the value for the shareholders in the shortest period of time and sell the organization; to that extent, our business plan is different than that of most other banks.”

For this issue’s focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked at length with Howland and Coyne about GSB’s first 150 years and what will come next for this venerable institution.

Staying on Track

Hanging on a wall inside the conference room is a framed poster hyping the 20th Century Limited — the historic express passenger train on the New York Central Railroad that traveled between New York and Chicago — and its faster time for completing that run: 16 hours.

This might seem like an odd item to find in a bank headquarters building, but Howland offered an explanation that speaks volumes about how this institution celebrates its past but is by no means stuck in it.

“I put that poster up to remind us that we constantly have to be reinventing ourselves, constantly have to be figuring out how to do it better and faster,” Howland explained. “The poster represents the race between the New York Central Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad to attract customers to this high-profile route. When one company dropped their time, the other matched or exceeded it. They conceived idea after idea to improve service, cut down travel time, and maintain schedules. Banking today is just like that — we are all providing the same products. That’s why we continue to provide our customers with exceptional service, the most up-to-date technology, and offer competitive rates.”

And throughout its long history, the bank certainly has operated with that mindset.

Students at Franklin County Technical School work on the framing for a house they constructed in Erving through a program financed by a foundation created by GSB.

Indeed, while the name over the door hasn’t changed and the street address of the main branch has changed by just a few digits, the bank has evolved with the times and advancing technology, all while remaining a hugely important corporate citizen in a region that never had many and has seen those ranks decline over the past several decades.

Coyne, the bank’s longest-serving employee, has certainly seen this blend of change and continuity in her time.

She recalls doing most tasks by hand when she started as a teller at the Turners Falls branch (the only branch at the time) in 1978, and, in fact, she helped lead the institution into the computer age and a succession of improvements, including Teller Connect.

“The technology is so great that we can extend our hours — from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, you can talk with a teller,” she noted, adding that there are extended hours on Saturday as well. “It’s no different than if you go to a drive-up and talk with someone who’s in the building; we can do almost everything you could if you came into the lobby.”

Over the past four decades, Coyne, who has held a number of titles over the years and handled pretty much every assignment other than commercial lending, has seen the bank greatly expand its footprint, first into other communities within Franklin County, then into neighboring Hampshire County.

There are now five branches in Franklin County — in Greenfield, Conway, Shelburne Falls, South Deerfield, and Turners Falls — and the same number in Hampshire County — two in Amherst, two in Northampton, and the latest addition, the branch on Route 9 in Hadley.

That addition to the portfolio wasn’t exactly planned, said Howland, noting that it came about by circumstance — the closing of a credit union — and was viewed as an opportunity to more conveniently serve customers in that area.

Looking ahead, Howland doesn’t see much, if any, additional expansion. But he does see continuous work to improve customer service, take full advantage of ever-improving technology, and, overall, take full advantage of the infinite horizon he mentioned.

“That’s the biggest challenge we face — the non-bank competitors coming in picking off pieces of our business. It’s kind of like Walmart being able to do an MRI for you; it’s large companies picking and choosing where they can make something work.”

And all those qualities will be needed, he said, because, while the pace of consolidation within the banking industry has slowed somewhat, especially in this region, other threats have emerged, especially from what he called “non-bank competition.”

By that, he referred to Apple, Google, Alibaba, PayPal, and a host of other major companies that are chipping away at traditional bank business by creating services of their own in realms ranging from lending to payments to credit cards.

“That’s the biggest challenge we face — the non-bank competitors coming in picking off pieces of our business,” he explained. “It’s kind of like Walmart being able to do an MRI for you; it’s large companies picking and choosing where they can make something work.

“And then we, as an organization, have to provide everything for everyone,” he went on. “And sometimes it can become expensive to provide some products. It’s just capitalism — it’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but it’s a challenge for us as an organization to maintain as much as we maintain and be able to provide an array of services for our customers.”

Saving Graces

To counteract these powerful forces, GSB has to focus on what differentiates it from those non-bank competitors and the larger regional banks so prevalent in this market, said Howland.

These differentiators include both a personalized brand of service and a deep portfolio of services, including a trust department, something most area banks no longer have, he went on.

As just one example, he cited the example of a customer entangled in a fraud situation.

“Unfortunately, the bank on the other side is a huge organization that really doesn’t care — they will not help at all, they won’t talk with us, they won’t do anything,” he noted. “I think the way we differentiate ourselves is the personalized service and the fact that our customers know they can count on us — they know they can call someone who cares and is going to do something about their problem.”

Beyond the brand and scope of services, another differentiator is the bank’s long history of involvement in the community and a commitment to continue that tradition, said Howland.

“As an organization, we’re very proud of our position in the community,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re dedicated to being the best corporate citizen we can be, and we’re involved in our community in many, many different ways.

“Obviously, we’re important in terms of the local economy, but it’s not just the economy that we focus on, it’s just the financial aspect of what we do,” he went on. “It’s striving to improve the conditions in our communities as best we can. We’re one of the larger philanthropic organizations in terms of straight dollar donations, but on top of that, our employees are involved in all kinds of stuff at all kinds of levels.”

And by ‘stuff,’ Howland meant much more than time and energy donated to the boards of dozens of nonprofits — although that’s a big part of it. There’s also volunteerism and the many forms it takes, he said, adding that the bank prides itself on backing up such efforts with dollars and other types of support.

“If an employee comes to me and says, ‘I think this is really important, and I have dedicated myself to volunteering time for it,’ more likely than not, we’ll make a fairly significant financial contribution to that charity on behalf of that employee.”

Overall, the bank is keenly aware of its role and its responsibilities within the largely rural areas it serves, particularly in Franklin County, he went on, adding that it is often asked to step up and, when possible, pitch in. Such was the case with the initiative involving Franklin County Tech and a proposal to have its students build houses.

The bank’s response was to go beyond writing a check and instead do something for the long term.

“I got a phone call from the tech school asking if we would make a donation to this program to build a house,” Howland recalled, adding that the bank eventually created the Franklin Technical School Building Society Inc., a foundation with its own board of directors that essentially finances the home-building project and is replenished when the house is sold.

“They earned a lot of money on the first house, and the second house will hopefully be sold in the spring of 2020, and another house will be started after that,” he went on. “The point of it is to create something that becomes self-sustaining, and ultimately, we hope this grows to the point where it can be a benefactor for other programs at the tech school.”

Long-term thinking was also the motivation for the bank’s decision two years ago to create the Greenfield Savings Bank Foundation. Funded with profits from the bank, it’s an initiative in keeping with GSB’s long-term horizon, said Howland.

“We funded it with $200,000, and our expectation is to continue funding it at some amount per year,” he explained. “My vision, and it will not be in the time that I’m president of the organization, is that, at some point, this foundation will be as large as, if not larger than, the bank, and I think we have the opportunity to do that.

“I’m most proud of where we are as a corporate citizen in our community, and my feelings are a reflection of our board of directors,” he added. “Our board is incredibly committed to making us the best business we can be in Franklin County and Hampshire County.”

Time Passages

There’s some additional 150th memorabilia in the main lobby of GSB’s headquarters.

On one wall, the very first passbook sits in a frame. And a glass display case in the center of the room holds everything from a photocopy of the first mortgage document (a loan issued in 1869 to one Jeremiah Eagan for a building on School Street) to news photos of the Mansion House fire, to a box of fountain pen nibs, a symbol of how things were done more than a half-century ago.

This collection speaks to the two qualities that are really being celebrated with this sesquicentennial — needed change and continuity.

There are plenty of other pieces of evidence outside the bank, from the house built by the technical-school students in Erving to elm trees growing in Look Park in Northampton, Montague center, and a host of other locations, to those branches in Hampshire County.

Together, they speak of a 150-year-old success story — and of many chapters still to come.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]