The modern practice of embalming started in the U.S. during the Civil War, and Brian Yeazel’s family got into the embalming fluid business a few decades later. Frigid Fluid, the company his great great uncle founded in 1892, is also the inventor of the automatic casket lowering device. Brian, who took over in 2013, has discovered that even a business based on life’s only certainty — death — isn’t nearly as steady and predictable as it may seem to outsiders.
This is the first of a short series we’re doing this month about the business of dying. Make sure you’re subscribed to The Distance via iTunes, Google Play Music or your favorite podcatcher so you get our new episodes as soon as they’re released! (Next week, we’ll have a mini episode about, among other things, the difference between embalming and taxidermy.)
WAILIN WONG: If you took a casual glance at Brian Yeazel’s company website, you might think he was selling artisanal cold pressed juices. The website has a clean, modern layout, showing pictures of white-capped bottles filled with liquid in different shades of orange and pink.
BRIAN YEAZEL: Coloration is really important, I think, the brightness of the bottles, the presentation of the bottles is important. We are one of the smaller players. We’re more of a regional, but we’re trying to break in to be a national and compete with some of the larger companies. Coming from that angle, we are able to kinda be a little more daring, maybe take a little—some more risks. We were one of the first ones to really start marketing our embalming fluids, coming up with some like trademarked statements and uh some real branding of the fluid. Not a lot of our competitors were doing that.
WAILIN: Brian Yeazel doesn’t make artisanal cold pressed juices. His company, Frigid Fluid, has been manufacturing embalming fluid since his great great uncle founded the business in 1892. In 1916, Frigid Fluid invented the automatic casket lowering device, which was used in the burials of presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
BRIAN: There were other lowering devices. They were like crank driven. And we were the ones who invented the first automatic casket lowering device and that’s gravity-based. That’s where you’re able to put the casket or coffin onto straps or webbing, how it’s done today, release a brake and have it go down automatically um so we’re the ones that invented, invented that, and that’s the one that really caught on.
WAILIN: You know that cliche about how nothing’s certain except for death and taxes? As the current presidential election has made apparent, even taxes are no certainty. So we’re left with death. But in what’s known as the deathcare industry, you still can’t take anything for granted. Brian learned this firsthand when he joined the family business in the middle of the recession.
BRIAN: A lot of people are like, “Oh, it’s a business that, you know, is consistent all the time, right? It never gets affected by um the swings in the economy.” But no, that’s not true.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. We’re kicking off a month of stories about the business of dying. First up: The story of Frigid Fluid, and how Brian Yeazel is injecting fresh thinking into a 124-year-old family run business and giving it new life after the economic downturn. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the saner way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
BRIAN: Adelbert R. Krum was the original founder. He’s the one who started Frigid Fluid Company. He started in 1892, it was called Chicago Chemical Company. He ended up riding a horse and buggy in Chicago, and he’s handing off his wares and his elixirs, essentially dropping off in the Chicago area, and that’s how the story goes.
WAILIN: About a decade into the company’s existence, it was making eight different kinds of embalming fluid. The most popular one was a general purpose arterial fluid called Frigid, and the Krums renamed the business after their top seller. A version of the Frigid is still sold today under the name 36 plus and it remains the company’s best seller. Frigid Fluid currently makes 25 kinds of fluid, which embalmers use to preserve a body and restore its natural skin tone.
BRIAN: Most people don’t see a deceased body on its own, especially after a couple days. It’s fascinating how they take a body that is decrepit sunken in and really doesn’t have many lifelike features at all and through the course of a few hours and our product gets pumped in and out of the body and it really does make a noticeable change. All of a sudden, the body is full, it’s lifelike and it makes a big difference, it really does.
WAILIN: Brian has found that it’s difficult to get embalmers to switch fluid brands, so he’s had to think creatively to reach new customers. Frigid donates products to local mortuary schools, hoping to breed familiarity with students that might later become professional embalmers. And Brian’s put effort into marketing and branding, treating his embalming fluids more like a mainstream consumer product. Part of this is making the packaging more appealing — hence the attractive bottles and bright colors.
BRIAN: That’s something that I think being a younger person in the industry, we’ve kind of pioneered. But yeah, we do try to spruce it up because ultimately it is a consumer product. The embalmer has to make a decision. We decided to bring a lot of color into it. Coloration is very important to the embalmer.
WAILIN: Frigid’s manufacturing facility is in the Chicago suburb of Northlake, just a few miles south of O’Hare International Airport. When Brian was 13 and growing up in Michigan, he came to Chicago for a visit and his uncle, who was running the company at the time, invited him to spend a week at the factory.
BRIAN: I was actually bottling fluid in the back, in the heat of like the middle of July. I remember like it was yesterday because I was sweating. It was probably around 89 degrees, one of those hot, humid Chicago summers and I was working my first week but I was so excited to have the opportunity to be in the shop and be part of the company here and afterwards I think actually I made like 200 bucks or something. I think I bought my first Walkman, so (laughs).
WAILIN: During subsequent summers, Brian returned to the family business and got hands-on experience with every part of the company.
BRIAN: I worked on the machinery, I assembled the lowering devices. I did some of the metal polishing, the finishing, I essentially did everything except for the sewing work, although I did manufacture some straps and I worked on the stamping machine. I was able to learn a lot at a young age and I was just like a sponge back then.
WAILIN: Frigid may have started as an embalming fluid company, but about 70 percent of its business is actually in cemetery equipment like the casket lowering devices and a mobile cart called the Streamliner, which Brian’s grandfather patented in 1959. There are three models of the lowering device, each rated for a different amount of weight.
BRIAN: There are a little over a hundred pieces that go into making one, and we do source from outside places some parts, but I think a big, big thing that we’re proud of, like I said, is the fact that every single piece is touched here. All of the lowering devices are still hand assembled. My guys have, I think, a combined 50 years experience, so it’s something that we’re really proud of.
WAILIN: Frigid sells the lowering devices to cemeteries in the U.S. and over 16 countries. A large cemetery that handles multiple burials in a day may have eight to 10 lowering devices, and the equipment is built to last at least a decade of rough use.
BRIAN: They’re thrown in a truck, thrown on the ground and they needed to be really durable. The lowering device will last anywhere from 15 to 25 years if you take care of it, and we’ve had some that even last longer, especially in some of the smaller like municipal cemeteries that maybe do, let’s say, five burials a month or something like that.
WAILIN: Do you sometimes feel like the Maytag man, if like one of these lasts over a decade, right? Then it seems like it creates kind of an interesting business challenge. You can’t just wait like 25 years for the phone to ring again, right?
BRIAN: Yes, exactly. It’s definitely part of it and I think previous to my management they kind of just sat back and let the orders come in, and it’s very easy to do that. It’s kind of how the business works. There’s a cycle of about, my uncle told me, it’s about every six to eight years there’s kind of an uptick of equipment purchases but outside of that we’re right around the same amount every year.
WAILIN: Frigid has found ways to grow its business despite a long replacement cycle for its equipment and a rise in cremations in the U.S. The company sells parts and repair services; it makes a lowering device for urns; and it’s landed new customers overseas, exporting to predominantly Catholic countries where burial is still preferred over cremation. Another option that’s always lurking in the background, although Brian isn’t very enthusiastic about it, is outsourcing.
BRIAN: It sounds nice in the fact that oh, the labor’s so much cheaper, but I think there are a lot of tradeoffs, especially for a product like ours. I like having control. I like knowing when a product’s made, uh I can see where it’s mixed, I can see how it’s assembled, and like I said, the device has about a hundred parts that go into it. There have been Chinese knockoffs of our product. In a way that’s kind of a rite of passage for any good product, right? (laughs) So there has been a Chinese knockoff. It’s nowhere close to as good. Yeah, it’s tempting, you know, that’s what every manufacturer I’m sure deals with but I think for us, the tradeoff would be way too big to be able to move it overseas.
WAILIN: The outsourcing question is just one of the many thorny issues Brian is tackling as the fifth generation of his family to run Frigid. He came back to the business at one of the worst times imaginable, in the middle of the recession. In 2008, Brian was two years out of college and had been laid off from the law firm where he’d been working. He started part time at Frigid from his home in Michigan, putting his college accounting degree to use.
BRIAN: I was just doing their internal financials. I did financial analysis, like quarterly, and would help them out with other, I did like coding for the website and just like random things that I could do from home.
WAILIN: By 2009, Brian was full time and Frigid was feeling the effects of the recession.
BRIAN: We had a good year in ’08 and then all of a sudden, just the brakes put on and at the end of ’09, I think we had lost about 25 percent of our sales.
WAILIN: You might remember that casket lowering devices already have a long replacement cycle. The downturn in the economy prompted Brian’s customers to put off buying new equipment. There was something else going on too that hurt much of the deathcare industry. When the recession cut into people’s incomes and retirement savings, they stopped making pre-need purchases — that’s when you arrange and pay for burial services in advance. That affected cemeteries, which are Brian’s customers.
BRIAN: They made a lot of their operating income based on interest that they would make off of their investments from their pre-need purchases. They’re getting interest on that, and when that all went away, all of a sudden a lot of the free flow cash that normally props up the industry um was taken away, so the fluid was still consistent because, you know, people were still embalming bodies, but the capital purchase side, like a lot of hearse manufacturers, tent suppliers, any of the equipment suppliers really got hit hard in the industry so yeah, we had a couple really bad years.
WAILIN: By that time, Brian’s wife, Elizabeth Yeazel, was working in the Frigid office. She remembers how difficult it was.
ELIZABETH: There were definitely days when—especially in the summer when we are traditionally, we’re slower in the summer anyway, and then with the recession, there were times when we’d just look at the phone and wait for it to ring, you know.
BRIAN: I came in and I was the one kinda waving my hands saying, “Here are the financials, we need to make some changes and we need to do it fast.” And it was very obvious in 2009, 2010 that these things needed to be done and they needed to be done quickly.
WAILIN: Brian was in a tough spot. He was new to the business, just a few years out of college, and calling for hard decisions to be made around letting go of employees, including family members. He convinced his uncle to hire a turnaround consultant, and he found other ways to cut back.
BRIAN: When I came in full-time, I started doing purchasing, and on top of me having a history of machinery in the back and building things and kinda understanding how the business works, when I was doing purchasing, I ended up figuring out all the materials. That was a big part of the whole turnaround and me saying, “Hey, you know, why does this piece of aluminum cost this much? The market says it should costs this much. What supplier are we buying from?” Oh, we’ve been buying from the same person for 15 years? Okay yeah, let’s try to find somebody new. I ultimately played a big role in saying, “Hey, if we don’t do this like, the company’s not gonna last much longer,” so I think I lost about 10 years of my life (laughs) with the stress. Oh my God, it was—it was bad.
WAILIN: By 2012, the company had stabilized and Brian had come out of the experience with a crash course in management. He had started attending industry trade shows again and was serving as the de facto face of the company. And he knew his uncle was ready to retire. So he approached his uncle about taking over. He became president and CEO in 2013, and one of his cousins was named vice president.
BRIAN: I think it’s something I’ll never forget is a meeting that I had in my office with my cousin and my uncle. I normally don’t assert myself that much. I mean, I do because I manage the place, but it was a situation where I specifically recall saying I knew for a fact that I needed to step up and say that I wanted to be the one who did it because I knew with passion that I was the best person for the job. I knew what it meant to have people’s livelihoods under my control. It’s daunting, I mean it really was (laughs), for somebody my age, for what I was doing uh but I was fully confident that I was the one who was best for the job. And there was kind of this out of body moment where you know, it kind of came out of me. Ultimately it worked out and now we’re here, you know, three, four years later, and we’ve had multiple years, uh year over year growth, company’s doing really great now, I’m really proud of the people that we have here.
WAILIN: People like Santiago Alvarado, who’s the plant foreman and has been at Frigid Fluid for 43 years.
SANTIAGO: My name is Santiago Alvarado. I am from Mexico. I arrive here in November 17, 1973. I arrive six o’clock in the morning and I start working at Frigid like at 8 o’clock, same day. I like working this place, you know, I never move to another place. And uh this good because it like family, family business, they honest and the employees that they have family working here. You know, I working for Brian, father, grandfather, grandpa, father, you know? Because I had long time here and uh I think I am good, they not throw me out (laughs).
WAILIN: Death might be a constant, but Brian’s corner of the deathcare industry is always changing. His equipment customers are looking for the casket lowering devices to get lighter, stronger and safer all the time. Brian worked with one of Frigid’s engineers to come up with a device that’s 25 percent lighter than its previous version. It’s called the Imperial two point oh, a name that’s meant to evoke the tech world. It’s part of Brian’s broader efforts to put some fresh branding on an old family business in a conservative industry.
BRIAN: Being a little younger and having the Internet and technology side and that education, I think that’s helped us have an edge. Um, I don’t think it’s gonna last forever because people are gonna catch up, but right now we’ve been able to bring on a lot of new customers, and just the drive that came from my experience in the recession. I look at it as a big advantage for me, having gone through that. I’m much more fiscally responsible because of it. It taught me a lot really quickly as far what to do and what not to do in the business and what to really value and how to continue pushing and not, you know, sit back on your laurels of what people have done before us.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. Thanks to Joel Kamstra for his help with this episode. This was the first of a short series we’re doing about the business of dying, so be sure to subscribe so you get new episodes when we release them. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.