Batesville Casket Company big presence in North Mississippi

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Published: March 28,2005

Batesville — Batesville Casket Company, founded in 1884 and rescued from bankruptcy by Hillenbrand Industries (NYSE: HB) in 1906, is the nation’s number one maker of caskets.

But the manufacturer of funeral home products isn’t based in Batesville, Miss. Instead, the $2-billion publicly-traded company, which also owns Hil-Rom Company, a large medical products and furniture company, and Forethought Financial Services Inc., a provider of insurance and trust-based financial products for funeral services, is headquartered in Batesville, Ind., and coincidentally has a production plant in Batesville, Miss.

The company chose the North Mississippi town of 7,500 as an additional site for production in the mid-1980s, with the first model rolling off the assembly line at the new plant in late 1988, “for several reasons, including the fact that we have a history of locating plants in small towns, plus we were looking for a plant located near the Vicksburg facility,” said company spokesperson Joe Weigel.

The production facility in Batesville, referred to by the company as the “Panola plant,” has routinely increased production over the last 17 years, but has not expanded its physical space. For example, the company added a second-shift production line in November 2002 when it moved the production of a line from its plant in Nashua, N.H., to Batesville, Miss., adding 50 jobs to the payroll.

“The Nashua plant was taking on a new product line and we needed to make room, so we shifted models to Batesville,” said Weigel.

Batesville Casket’s timber-processing facility located near the Mississippi River, less than 200 miles from the North Mississippi plant, has allowed the company better control over the quality and supply of finished lumber, said Weigel.

“As you can expect, our customers are involved in a highly, time-sensitive profession and require an uninterrupted supply of funeral products,” he said.

Batesville Casket markets its products, which includes more than 500 styles and colors of caskets and urns and other memorial products for the cremation market, to licensed funeral directors operating licensed funeral homes in North America and selected export markets, and sponsors several value-added programs, such as tree seedlings planted free of charge in national forests as part of the Living Memorial program in memory of the deceased.

For its latest marketing tactic, Batesville Casket launched an “Honoring Lives” tour in early January, taking a stylish traveling display of the company’s products to busy industry executives. The sleek black Volvo tractor, hauling a matching 53-foot expandable semi-trailer housing a 1,000-square-foot mobile showroom, has become so familiar with consumers that the company provides toy miniatures as much-sought door prizes.

“Batesville has undertaken this unique approach to customer relations to make it easier for funeral directors,” said Keith Ashby, vice president of sales for Batesville Casket. “Traditionally, we have invited customers to visit us in Batesville (Indiana). However, funeral service is a profession that requires the funeral director to be on call 24/7, making it difficult for the smaller, independent firms to visit Batesville. Therefore, we thought it only appropriate to bring Batesville to our customers.”

The 18-month tour began in Knoxville for a three-month journey crisscrossing the Deep South, and included a two-day stop in Batesville to allow visits from funeral home directors and staff within the area to see Batesville Casket’s new product lines, including an expanded line to accompany America’s widening girth and consumers’ fondness for a personal touch.

The company’s “Dimension” line, unveiled at a Nashville trade show last October, features caskets that are at least three inches wider than the traditional 24-inch interior. Its lines of personalized caskets include LifeSymbols designs, MemorySafe drawers and embroidered tribute panels, and models with statuettes on each of its four corners, representing images from angels to military themes to hobbies.

“It takes a while for trends to pick up critical mass, but personalization is here to stay,” said Weigel.

Today, Batesville Casket, which declined to disclose production figures, employs more than 3,500 associates at its manufacturing and distribution facilities, also located in Indiana, Tennessee, Canada and Mexico, including more than 400 workers at its plant in Batesville, Miss.

“The plant plays an integral role in the economic environment of Panola County,” said Ken Waldrip, manager of the Panola plant. “It is with great pride and seriousness that we accept this responsibility. At Batesville, we believe that being a strong corporate partner with the community will serve to make us a stronger, more competitive facility, thereby enhancing the quality of life for not only our employees, but for all the residents in and around the Panola County area.”

Blair Jernigan, executive director of the Panola Partnership, a local economic development organization, called Batesville Casket “definitely a cornerstone for us” in the community.

“The real foundation for any successful economic development program is the quality, character and community involvement of your existing industry,” he said. “We are truly blessed from this aspect in Batesville.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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