The Business: Memorial-carving company
Primary Cause of Death: Failure to diversify as product demand waned
Secondary Causes of Death: Lack of investment in technology and quality control
Peter Molina was dying to get into the booming funeral industry. In 1990 he bought Apperson & Dent, a monument-carving company in Alexandria, Va. Molina, a retired air-force officer with no experience in the industry, left operations to his son, Peter Molina Jr., then 34, who'd worked at Apperson & Dent on and off since 1984, and his son's brother-in-law, Mark Heddings, who'd worked at the company for 16 years. But the venture was doomed from the start. Although the funeral industry has thrived over the past six years, demand for upright markers from the country's 3,000 or so monument-carving shops has slowed in the past decade.
One factor contributing to that decline is cemetery consolidation. The large management companies that are buying up small cemeteries slash maintenance costs by installing markers flush to the ground. The three largest cemeteries in Alexandria mandate flat markers. It's not surprising, then, that sales of flat marble and cast bronze markers are what's growing. But Apperson & Dent didn't diversify into that market. And the company's revenues, which in the mid-1980s had reached as high as $400,000, dwindled as cemeteries started selling their own monuments, some adding "installation" fees of up to $500 if customers purchased monuments elsewhere.
Peter Molina Sr. responded to fading revenues with several bad management decisions. He stopped restocking inventory, drastically reducing the samples from which customers could choose. He passed up a computerized system that would have saved labor costs by mapping designs on the stones. And he began outsourcing low-margin work, such as adding new names to previously installed headstones. That move proved fatal, as complaints about poor work began pouring in.
By 1992, when the first customer complaint was registered with the Better Business Bureau, Apperson & Dent was lucky to sell a monument a week. At the time, Heddings wasn't sure where the income was going. "We'd sell a monument for $2,000, take half down in cash, and then order a stone for $500." Apperson & Dent might spend another $350 to $500 on carving and installation. "But then we wouldn't pay the granite companies," Heddings says.
After too many complaints about unfinished work, Arlington National Cemetery finally quit referring customers to Apperson & Dent in 1995. Stones there had accounted for up to 65% of the company's revenues. "It killed them," says Heddings, who quit in 1992 to start his own monument-carving business. "In this market, once you lose Arlington, you might as well pack up."
In October 1996 Apperson & Dent filed for bankruptcy, owing three years of back taxes and leaving unhappy customers with loved ones resting in unmarked graves. Neither of the Molinas would return calls to discuss the company's closing.
"When the founders of Apperson & Dent were alive, I loved sending customers there," says Thomas Bowling of Ivy Hill Cemetery. "It was the best monument shop in the area. But it turned into a disaster."