JC Atkinson's Greg Cranfield describes how the pandemic is impacting all parts of the funeral supply chain, including demand for coffins, and looks at the move to more individualistic funerals.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to the Partnership Podcast. In recent episodes, we've heard from funeral directors on the unique challenges and difficulties of working through a pandemic. But of course, COVID-19 has caused some form of revolution at every step of the funeral process. So today we're going to zoom in on a different area that impacts your work, by speaking to the people who provide many of you with the coffins you use.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:27] JC Atkinson and Son is a long standing SAIF associate and has been no stranger to change and innovation over the years, as the likes of green coffins have grown more central. How they now cope with COVID could have knock on effects for a huge number of independent funeral directors. So today I'll be asking Greg Cranfield, their commercial director, how the pandemic has affected them and what their view of the future is.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:56] So, Greg, many thanks for joining me today. I do appreciate it. It's Friday, thank goodness. So how are you, sir?
Greg Cranfield [00:01:04] Very well, thank you, Malcolm. Happy to be coming towards the end of another week.
Malcolm Flanders [00:01:10] I bet you are. Yes, I know the feeling. Busy times, isn't it at the moment?
Greg Cranfield [00:01:14] It is. It's unprecedented. It is absolutely unprecedented. The first wave was fine, I think the second wave that we're going through now is even worse if I'm honest.
Malcolm Flanders [00:01:24] Yeah, and Greg that's what I'm picking up from our funeral directors around the UK at the moment. It really is feeling pretty relentless. And I guess you and your guys in your factory are probably feeling that as well, I guess.
Greg Cranfield [00:01:35] Without a doubt. We learnt lessons in the first lockdown, in the first wave. Second wave now, we implemented the lessons, but we implemented them in November and we've been running that way ever since. We don't seem to see the end. That's the problem at the minute. There's no light at the end of our tunnel.
Malcolm Flanders [00:01:57] Yes, and I think we can all relate to that, a little bit, as we watch the news. Now, look, Greg, it'd be really helpful, I know many of our funeral directors around the UK will know you and indeed are supplied by you, but could you just give us a brief background of Atkinsons, how it evolved and where you are right now?
Greg Cranfield [00:02:18] Wow, there's a question. So Atkinsons has been around since the 1930s. Based up in Washington, in the North East. We've got three facilities up there, supplying the funeral industry right across the country, knocking out now upwards, in a normal year, if you will, around 80,000 coffins. So this year, as you can imagine, has been significantly more.
Greg Cranfield [00:02:44] It's not just about making a product, it's about innovating a product as well. Trying to give the public what they want, recognising the evolution, the change that's coming with different age groups and different demographics.
Malcolm Flanders [00:02:59] As a business, where do you get your insights from, that to tell you that preferences are changing in terms of the types of coffin, and indeed the types of funeral?
Greg Cranfield [00:03:12] I was going to say a bottle of red wine, but that's probably not quite the right answer. We carried out a great piece of work, about four years ago with Northumbria University, about what people wanted, what people's expectations were. We recently carried out a piece of work two years ago with Ipsos Mori about people's perception, and how people were wanting green coffins. And then just through general talking to people, general people, not about coffins, about life and about people's choices and how people change, and that's where the personalisation theme came from.
Greg Cranfield [00:03:55] Personalised birthday cakes have been around for years, but it's only in the most recent times where you've seen themed birthday cakes. And so the birthday cake analogy is that it's done to represent the individual. So why can't that follow through to a celebration of life? And have a coffin to reflect the person's beliefs and loves and memories. And that's where the reflections coffins come in. It's where we've got things now, like the blackboard lid, where you can write a personal note, the glitter coffins. It's all about personal choice. Trying to reflect and celebrate somebody's life.
Malcolm Flanders [00:04:37] And I notice that on your website and I see,and indeed in some of the insights I get, a lot more colour coming into these events. Now I know we're in unprecedented circumstances, but your point around choice and celebration of life is still very relevant, isn't it?
Greg Cranfield [00:04:54] Incredibly relevant, perhaps more so. It's been interesting to see that, whilst people can't… and are restricted in what they can do at a funeral, restricted in terms of the number of attendees, restricted in terms of orders of service, people are prepared to do a little bit more for the coffin and actually push the boundary a little bit more in terms of, well, "let's have a themed coffin," because that means so much more.
Greg Cranfield [00:05:23] People seem to be a little bit more emotionally invested in the coffin. If anything, we've seen an upturn in what we would class as the contemporary coffin, the non flat lid, plain side oak or mahogany. Thankfully, we've been able to cope with that increased demand.
Malcolm Flanders [00:05:43] That is interesting. Now, let's just reflect on the last 12 months for you as a manufacturer in terms of the build, the supply, and I mean, getting your raw materials in, building, trying to cope with demand. Try and paint the picture for us of what the last 12 months has been like for JC Atkinson in meeting that demand.
Greg Cranfield [00:06:08] We have literally had to double our manufacturing capacity. From the 1st of February to the end of February, demand last year just went vertical. There were days when we were getting orders for literally thousands of coffins, totally swamping anybody. And the whole experience in the industry has been horrific.
Greg Cranfield [00:06:33] To flex a manufacturing facility, to go from something in the winter, which was 400 a day upwards, to what was required, physically impossible. And the flex of supply chain to get raw board in, to get handles in, the furniture and everything. The first wave was just chaos. Factory working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, delivery vehicles, the same.
Greg Cranfield [00:07:07] And then in June, it went from hero to zero. Literally, demand literally fell off a cliff. Everybody realised that they had more than enough stock, so you then go with the manufacturing facility, which had been pumping out 150% of its capacity, to one which is only required to do 75% of its normal capacity. And, of course, there's no forecast coming in from anywhere. We don't know where this is going to go.
Greg Cranfield [00:07:40] Then the second wave starts. You've learnt a lot of lessons. So you've got some more tools up your sleeve this time. And I think the whole industry learnt that we don't need to stockpile coffins. We're still back out there in terms of the manufacturing numbers, we've got back up there, we're still working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Vehicle fleet is still on the road 24 hours a day. But we haven't got the long backlog that we had the first time. And that's the encouraging thing.
Malcolm Flanders [00:08:13] What did this mean for your funeral director customers, in terms of the way they were trying to order and whether or not they were getting the supplies they needed?
Greg Cranfield [00:08:22] There were times when, certainly the first wave, our lead times went out to unacceptable levels. We weren't operating how we would like to work, which generally it's within 10 days you will have a stop order. We were nowhere near achieving that, no matter what we did, because of demand. That's the lessons you learn, and you move forward. The man who doesn't make a mistake never learns anything.
Greg Cranfield [00:08:50] This time round, I'm really proud, if I'm honest with you, Malcolm. I'm really proud of the way the troops have pulled together at Atkinsons. We are at day 10, by the way, for stock orders, as we sit here today. We are delivering within 10 days, and that's working days. But it's a push. We've asked a lot of people to dig very, very deep, just as the whole industry's had to do. We know, don't get me wrong, I'm not after sympathy. The whole industry's gone above and beyond. But I'm really proud of the way the guys up at the factories have gone the extra mile to meet the demands of our customers.
Malcolm Flanders [00:09:34] That's good news. And what advice would you give funeral directors listening today just in terms of order lead times then? I mean, any advice to your customers out there in terms of their order patterns or how they should respond?
Greg Cranfield [00:09:50] I would never even think and dream of giving a funeral director advice. They are far more emotionally intelligent than I am. All I would suggest is order as you require, keep an eye on your stocks, have faith in your manufacturer. All the manufacturers are doing the best they can, and together communicate with the manufacturers, work together and we can get through this. Communication is the key to getting it right.
Malcolm Flanders [00:10:18] Yeah, and I think you guys deserve as much credit as our frontline funeral directors. We know the praise for the NHS, but at the same time, the whole funeral director industry, the Independents particularly, have had to respond and they have responded magnificently. And we shouldn't forget that you guys are all part of that value and supply chain in ensuring the right funeral takes place for a family. And there's always a family in the middle of this.
Greg Cranfield [00:10:46] And that's the really important thing. It's about giving the family what they want, when they want it, being able to facilitate that. And that comes back down to the coffin and offering the coffin choices. You know, yes, we've got this massive pandemic, but why should we take away people's options? And I don't think we have to.
Malcolm Flanders [00:11:12] No, that's a fair point, actually. No, I do get that. How do you see the next five years? What are your big challenges as a manufacturer? Do you think that far ahead?
Greg Cranfield [00:11:22] Oh, yes. And then some. We have to, lead times on machinery, turn of investments on machinery. They're not inexpensive acquisitions for the company. So we are always thinking ahead.
Greg Cranfield [00:11:40] From a business perspective… COVID is COVID, let's just put that – I think in the short term, once we're through COVID, there has to be a balancing of the natural death rates. The equilibrium will need to return. And that means, I think the industry will be quieter. That will present challenges for all businesses. We have to understand how we're going to deal with that.
Greg Cranfield [00:12:12] My personal opinion is you'll see a shift in the demand, or the requests, from families. I've got two ideas, and one is that people have gone through this almost funeral austerity, where they've had 30 mourners and it's all been very much paired back. So, again, think about equilibrium, will people stick with that or will it go the other way? And we may see a return to the more elaborate events that the Victorians used to have.
Greg Cranfield [00:12:43] We have to be prepared for both. Every day and every funeral is different. Some of the satisfactions about working with families, in that every funeral is 100% personal and every funeral can be different.
Malcolm Flanders [00:12:56] Thank you ever so much, Greg. I really appreciate your time. That was fascinating. And thank you for the insight into your world of coffin manufacturing. Really do appreciate that.
Greg Cranfield [00:13:06] Thank you. Absolute pleasure, Malcolm.
Malcolm Flanders [00:13:13] Thank you for listening to another Partnership Podcast. As we come through this difficult winter, I'll continue speaking to funeral directors, associates and anyone else who has an impact on your work. So if you would like to hear from someone or contribute yourself, please speak to me at email@example.com. All our past episodes are online at goldencharter.buzzsprout.com, or any podcast app. Thanks again for listening and I'll talk to you again on the Partnership Podcast.