Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Richard Neal likes to say that growing up he "viewed life from the back of a hearse." Who better, then, to disrupt the hearse industry?

For 91 years, the Neal family has facilitated farewells to the dearly departed for its Arkansas clients. Bob Neal & Sons has four funeral homes in the kinds of small southern towns where everyone knows everyone, and a memorial service is a community affair. Now Richard Neal, a fourth-generation funeral director who runs the company's Morrilton, Arkansas, facility, is adding class and glamour to the deceased's last ride with Rosewood Classic Coaches, a manufacturer of elegant, retro-style hearses.

The business, which started in the back of Neal's crematory, has attracted customers from around the United States. Funeral homes that buy his vehicles "are willing to rock the boat and stir the emotions," says Neal. "They feel the honor and prestige this brings back to the industry."

Rosewood hearses, which come in several styles and range in price from $99,500 to $105,000, combine elements from three periods of funeral-car design. For example, the seven-foot-long oval windows that showcase the casket and flowers hark back to the horse-drawn-carriage era. The lines of the body itself--fenders, hood, and windshields--evoke the 1930s. The chassis and drivetrain are thoroughly modern.

Neal's customers are funeral homes that, like Bob Neal & Sons, are small, typically family-run, operations. Such businesses compete against larger corporate entities that can afford to trade in their industry-standard Cadillacs every three to five years so they don't look dated. 

"With this concept, your hearse never goes out of style," says Neal of Rosewood's business model. "It is always a classic. And it is a rolling tribute to the people we use it for."

Wayne McWilliams, owner of the McWilliams Funeral Home in Alpena, Michigan, bought a Rosewood hearse two years ago: a navy-blue-and-silver model with a Rolls-Royce grill and draperies carved from wood. The Kevlar body and stainless-steel bumpers and side rails protect against Michigan's brutal winters. But the greater value is customer appeal. "We go to the cemetery and sometimes it's, 'Let’s finish with the graveside service first. We will stay and you can take pictures [with the car] afterward,'" McWilliams says.

Larry Wolfe, who with his brother Bill owns Wolfe Brothers Funeral Home in West Memphis, Arkansas, cites another advantage to his company's Rosewood hearse: "It’s got Bluetooth, so we can play gospel music out of [speakers in] the back."

"It’s beautiful, definitely an eye-catcher," Wolfe adds. "Like nothing you’ve ever seen."

A child's-eye view of death

Midkiff & Sons, the progenitor of Bob Neal & Sons, was founded in 1924 in Walnut Creek, Arkansas. Richard Neal's great-grandfather and great-grand-uncle built caskets to supplement income from their hardware and furniture store. When the casket business grew too demanding, the brothers flipped a coin to decide who would run it full time. "My great-grandfather lost the toss and took over the funeral business," says Neal.

Neal's grandfather inherited the business and ran it until Neal's father was ready to take over. On a Friday night in 1974, the two sat down to hash out details of the succession. "Monday morning, they were going to the attorney," says Richard. "But Sunday morning, my grandfather had a heart attack. He was dead before he hit the floor." Neal's grandmother promptly sold the business to a competitor for $5,000 more than her son could raise. "She donated that $5,000 to the church and left town," says Neal.

Neal's father immediately relaunched the business as Bob Neal & Sons in Brinkley, Arkansas, midway between Little Rock and Memphis. Neal and his siblings grew up in the apartment above the business. "We rode our bicycles in the chapel and played hide and go seek in the casket room," says Neal. In the lean startup years, the family couldn't afford a car, so they shopped for groceries and ran errands in the hearse. From an early age, Neal accompanied his father to pick up bodies.

In 1988, Neal's father bought a funeral home in Morrilton, about 110 miles from Brinkley. Neal, who had graduated from Northwest Mississippi Mortuary College, moved there to run it. "I brought the next generation's focus to the business," says Neal, who introduced technology like in-house printing for programs and videos during services. (More recently, he became one of the first funeral operators in the country to offer cremation arrangements online.)

Typical of small-town merchants, Neal developed most of his clientele through community involvement. He was a volunteer fireman and Conway County coroner. As part of a program to prevent drunk driving, he visited the local high school each year. Dressed in a dark coat, gloves, and top hat, he described grisly accident scenes he had attended. "The kids were just terrified,” says Neal. “Years later, they didn’t remember the other stuff. But they remember my program."

Style for that last mile

The Neal family has a history with cars. In the 1970s, Neal's father sold used hearses and limousines to make ends meet. He wanted to fix up the vehicles but lacked the skills to do so. "I remember him saying, 'I wish I knew how to change a water pump. I could make so much more money,'" Neal says. Determined to acquire that skill set, Neal hung around the service station owned by his maternal grandfather. The grandfather drove a green '74 Ford pickup, which he used to train Neal as a mechanic.

Around 2004, Neal came across a photo of a hand-built car that had been adapted into a funeral limousine. The vehicle's creator was Max Prinzing, a Minnesota entrepreneur who built new cars in retro styles for customers such as Neil Diamond and John Denver. "I thought, there is my opportunity to have something that--whatever my competitor brings in--he cannot top what I have," says Neal.

Neal contacted Prinzing about custom-building a hearse for his business. Working from a photo of a 1928 vehicle, Prinzing spent three and a half years creating an "art-carved panel" hearse, in which wood hung on the sides of the vehicle was carved into curtains, columns, and ornate designs. Neal and Prinzing emailed constantly throughout the process, becoming friends.

In 2008, the car finally arrived. Morrilton had never seen anything like it. "I was really scared people would think it was too over-the-top," says Neal. "But people responded to it like mad. Everywhere I went with it, they took pictures. I had families crying because it meant so much to them."

The $73,000 hearse paid for itself in marketing, and Neal brought in extra money renting it to funeral homes outside his immediate market. After three months, he sold his old hearse because all his clients demanded the retro model. (He has not raised his prices for use of the vehicle.) At the same time, two funeral-home operators in California and one in Oklahoma that had seen pictures of Neal's hearse ordered their own hearses from Prinzing.

But as the economy flailed, so did Prinzing's business. Without sufficient funds to complete the orders, Prinzing asked Neal, who also had a small side business building hot rods, to take over. As payment, Prinzing handed over his molds and designs. "He handed me the mother lode right there," says Neal.

Neal launched Rosewood Classic Coaches in the back of Rosewood Cremation, an earlier venture that is a low-cost alternative to the family funeral home. "I was wrenching on cars and cremating bodies at the same time, back and forth in the evenings," says Neal. "Answering two phones, which was pretty chaotic."

In November, the company relocated to a 19,000-square-foot former Dodge dealership, where 15 employees produce the hearses on an assembly line. The company sources chassis and drivetrain parts from Chevrolet trucks; other parts it manufactures or uses readily available hot-rod components. By this summer, Neal had sold 23 vehicles, with the cost-to-manufacture 80 percent of the sale price. (He is working to drive that down to 60 percent.) His goal is to produce 50 hearses a year--advertising them in trade magazines and industry conferences--while still running the funeral home and cremation businesses, where he now spends just 25 percent of his time. "The car business has already exceeded the gross for my funeral home," he says. "But the funeral industry is my heritage, and I have no intention of ever letting go."

Fire-truck functional

Aesthetically, Neal is inspired by the golden age of automobiles. Functionally, he is inspired by fire trucks. As a volunteer fireman, "I was always amazed how these trucks show up ready to do battle with all of the equipment they need, everything in its place," he says. "And I thought, now why in the world hasn't the funeral business ever built a purpose-built funeral car?"

Rosewood hearses are designed for the funeral director's ease of use. There is a cabinet underneath the floor in back to store "church trucks": the 75-pound rollers on which caskets travel between vehicle and church, then vehicle and cemetery. The backdoors pull out wider than in standard hearses, allowing pallbearers more room to load and unload. And a four-foot-wide by four-foot-deep storage drawer on the side holds 1,100 pounds of equipment, such as flower racks, registry-book stands, reserved-seat signs, and cosmetic kits. "That car can roll up and have everything on board that you need, except for the flowers," says Neal.

Rosewood's service aspect is almost as disruptive as its product. The hearse industry is dominated by leases, and funeral homes that can afford to do so turn in their vehicles for new ones every five years or so. By contrast, almost all of Neal's business is purchases. Because the styles are timeless, Rosewood will simply rehab, repaint, or add new technology to customers' cars "and they can be in service another 20 years," says Neal. "I figure in the next five to seven years we will be doing hybrids."

McWilliams, the Michigan funeral-home director, considers that an excellent investment. "This vehicle today is a classic 1930s-style hearse," he says of his car. "In five years, it will still be a classic 1930s-style hearse. In 20 years, it will still be a classic 1930s-style hearse. This is the last hearse I will ever own."

 

Published on: Sep 28, 2015