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Local casket customizer sees rapid growth in niche industry

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
March 28, 2011
— A farm combine heading toward one last dusty harvest sunset.

A battleship forever plying the rough seas of the South Pacific.


A blue baby blanket gathered at the corners, folded around what might have been.


They're portraits of peoples' lives, but the medium is unique: The designs are artfully applied on caskets, urns and even headstones.


"Each one is somebody's story. That's the magic of it," said Edgerton native Darrell Holcomb, owner of Signature Series Casket, a custom casket finishing company.


The magic has caught on. In just two years, Holcomb's company has grown from a three-man show in borrowed space in Edgerton to a 40-employee production and supply network partnering with casket and urn companies and funeral homes nationwide.


Holcomb started Signature Series two years ago as a partnership with former Edgerton company Large Format Digital but in 2010 moved the company to a facility at 3240 Progress Road, Madison.


Signature Series does personalized finishing work on caskets, urns, vault lids and memorial markers using a high-performance material that replicates paint. The process transfers art, personal photos and text onto the products.


"The idea is that it makes it easier to view a casket when it's got an image of someone's life on it," Holcomb said.


Popular designs include family portraits, professional sports themes and farm, military and outdoor scenes. At $500 to $800 per casket, the finishing work is a less expensive alternative to painted caskets, Holcomb said.


It took Signature Series about a year to develop a secret process to fuse printed images onto caskets and urns. But soon after the company started selling the products, Holcomb said, a national demand developed, mostly through word of mouth.


"The funeral industry is very tight-knit," Holcomb said.


Logistical challenges became obvious early. How do you get a finished casket to Florida, for example, when the funeral's just three days away?


"When someone dies, it puts you on a fast, demanding schedule. We had to develop the ability to design and deliver in a day or two, or we


couldn't do this," he said.


Signature Series now has production and distribution facilities in New Mexico, Utah and West Virginia, Holcomb said, with plans in place to open facilities in Iowa, Texas and Georgia.


Each location is set up for design, finishing work and shipping seven days a week, almost 24 hours a day.


The company has grown from three employees a year ago to 40 paid employees, including 12 designers, a sales and accounting team and a production manager with a background in the funeral industry, Holcomb said.


"We're running like a well-oiled machine. We're keeping up as a family-owned business, and we're starting to get recognized for our innovations," he said.


In February, the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association awarded Signature Series an honorable mention for 2010's best personalized product.


Signature Series now has agreements with five major casket companies and is working on an exclusive deal with a company that makes children's caskets, Holcomb said.


The companies all want to learn how Signature Series produces its custom finishes, Holcomb said, but he's protecting the secret. He would not allow Gazette reporters to view or photograph his production process.


Holcomb said he's formed partnerships with funeral homes across the state and country.


In one afternoon, he was shipping finished caskets to funeral homes in Viroqua, New Glarus and Madison and one to Wyoming.


Holcomb said he doesn't plan to get rich customizing caskets. In fact, he said he's turned down distributors who wanted to put an over-inflated markup on his products.


"We never want to take advantage of people who are grieving. It's got to be affordable," he said.


Holcomb's goal is to service 10 percent of funeral homes in each region in the country. In the Midwest, that's about 320 funeral homes and about 1,800 products a month, he said.


"We're not out to make huge profits, and we haven't. Two years in, we're almost a balanced company moving forward without price markups. And that's what counts," Holcomb said. "We're thinking about where we want the company to be in 10 years."



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