A few weeks ago my father was taken by ambulance to the emergency room with trouble breathing. After that 5 day hospital stay, he’s been doing really well!
But one thing that stands out from the experience was how my own psychology fluctuated. During the initial couple days I’d go to sleep at my parents by myself leaving my mom and father at the hospital. And I was a mess.
Plunging ourselves into ice cold water isn’t usually a pleasant experience. So it’s a common practice research psychologists make people do when studying how people deal with pain. They call it the cold pressor test.
And in 2003, a group of researchers performed the cold pressor test, but this time they tested what would happen if people with their hands submerged in ice cold water were with someone else. A friend. Even a stranger.
The people who had company during that painful moment felt less pain.
Things remarkably changed when everyone descended upon the hospital to join my mom, father and me. My sister came into town with her boyfriend and my niece. My sister’s best friend showed up for multiple visits and help. My wife grabbed my daughter and all our pets and moved them over to my parents place. Even a great friend of mine came and spent a couple hours visiting my father and eating some McDonalds in his hospital room for dinner with us.
Despite all the upsetting and scary things we were now dealing with, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off me when all these people showed up.
It just goes to show you how important it is that no matter what you’re going through. If it’s work or career stuff, or these moments in our personal lives, it’s important to experience them socially. Don’t isolate yourself.
Over and over again, we find that, whether we’re social butterflies or we’re introverted or we’re shy, when we have people around us, even strangers, we can far better endure the inevitable stress that comes with life.
Four generations of the Zarzycki family have lived behind or above their funeral home, starting with founder Agnes Zarzycki, the first woman funeral director of Polish descent in Chicago. Today, 101-year-old Zarzycki Manor Chapels is still run by women, who are upholding old traditions — like conducting funeral services in Polish — while bringing in new ideas to keep their business going for the next century.
This is the second profile in our October series about the business of dying. If you missed our last two stories about Frigid Fluid, a company that makes embalming fluid and cemetery equipment, go back and check out our main episode and the accompanying mini episode (where you learn the difference between embalming and taxidermy, among other fun things).
CLAUDETTE ZARZYCKI: It was our home and we knew of no other home but living above the funeral home. If we were old enough, we could sit down in the office and answer the telephone, but definitely after the folks would leave from the visitation, we were told to come down and we all had our jobs. One did windows, one did vacuuming, one did bathrooms, and it made it easy because we were done in like a half hour and then we’d just have to go upstairs and you know, go to bed.
WAILIN WONG: Claudette Zarzycki and her two sisters grew up above Zarzycki Manor Chapels, a funeral home that their great grandmother, Agnes Zarzycki, opened in Chicago in 1915. Claudette runs the business today with her sister, Andrea, and her mother, Charmaine. For them, living in such close proximity was the norm. Here’s Charmaine.
CHARMAINE ZARZYCKI: Family-owned businesses always had a residence upstairs and as time went on, some of these people may have moved out and they would have had maybe a student living upstairs or a worker. I find it very convenient because years ago, when I started and that was um, in the early 70s, wakes were going until 10 o’clock. So I mean, you figure, closing up at 10, having to do some clean-up and then traipse to wherever you live in the snow and the rain, you know, it’s a lot more convenient to walk up 16 stairs. I still live above the funeral home and I like it.
CLAUDETTE: Sometimes it wasn’t convenient as kids growing up in the funeral home because people would ring our bell at all sorts of hours at the night, but uh now it’s nice. People use the telephone a lot more.
WAILIN: For the Zarzyckis, the funeral home business has always been about the delicate blend of old traditions and new ideas. Agnes Zarzycki, the founder, was a trailblazer. She was the first woman funeral director of Polish descent in Chicago, and today Zarzycki Manor Chapels is one of a handful of funeral homes in the area that can still conduct a full Polish-language service. Claudette has embraced those cultural roots while also figuring out how to reach customers in an age where the notion of a neighborhood funeral home seems as quaint as living above one.
CLAUDETTE: Sometimes when I meet with families today, they says, you know, “I, I fed you when we came here” because my mom, you know, didn’t have a babysitter because we lived right upstairs. And this woman said, “Yes, you know, your mom brought you down and you were quiet. But then you were starting to fuss and I just held you in my arms and I fed you and everything.” And it was really like—and they were really comforted to see that I was that person and I’m all grown up and now I’m taking care of them.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. This month, we’re doing stories about the business of dying, and today’s episode is about Zarzycki Manor Chapels, a company that’s learned over four generations how to market a service that almost everyone needs but doesn’t want to think about. 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.
WAILIN: On a weekday evening, a group of mourners have gathered for a wake at Zarzycki Manor Chapels’ Chicago location. They recite a litany in Polish and sing in the distinctive style of the highlands of southern Poland. Claudette knows all the traditional prayers and songs and can lead them herself if there isn’t anyone else who can do it. But she didn’t grow up speaking Polish.
CLAUDETTE: My parents didn’t speak it to us, my grandparents didn’t speak it to us. I grew up in the 70s. My father learned it in school and in church, but they did not speak it at home either. Their attitude at that time was: You are in America. The language here is English. You speak English. Back when my dad was starting, my grandfather says you need to learn all this and he would tell his father, he says, “Oh Pa, by the time I’m your age, there’s not gonna be anybody Polish here, everybody’s gonna be speaking English.” And you know what, it was not like that because in the 80s, the new immigration of Polish people came over. It was a huge influx and our Polish business really started to increase.
WAILIN: Agnes Zarzycki, the founder of Zarzycki Manor Chapels, came to the US from Poland at the age of three. She and her husband, a more recent Polish immigrant, initially operated a horse and carriage livery service that transported people to weddings and funeral homes. Agnes then went to mortuary school and opened the funeral home in 1915. The family lived in the back of the house and the front living room was used for visitations. Agnes had been just one of three women in her graduating class at mortuary school, and at that time, the prevailing belief was that women simply could not handle the physical labor of being a funeral director.
CHARMAINE: My father-in-law says that they always had the inspectors from downtown watching her to see, make sure that she was directing and not having a male do it.
WAILIN: Claudette’s father, Richard, graduated from mortuary school in 1955 and was class president. He joined his parents at the family business and they built their current Chicago location in 1962. Decades later, Richard wanted to expand and oversee a building project of his own. He found a property in the southwestern suburb of Willow Springs that was formerly a store called Hall of a Thousand Bargains, and before that, a picnic grove and dance hall with a coincidental connection to the family’s Polish roots.
CLAUDETTE: Prior to it being Hall of a Thousand Bargains, it was actually Tarnow’s Grove, or Tarnów, as you would say in Polish, and Tarnów is the county that the Zarzycki family comes from, so it’s kind of neat that there is that relationship.
WAILIN: The second location was an important turning point for the business. Not only was it an expansion, but it was also a sign of how the Zarzyckis’ clients and potential clients were starting to disperse geographically, with the children of Polish immigrants leaving the city for the suburbs. But Richard would never see it built.
CHARMAINE: It was something that my husband wanted to, uh, go on with and sadly we had all the plans ready and he passed away, so um, it was a matter of us sitting down together and to see if this is something that Claudette and Andrea wanted to do for the rest of their life because this location would have been enough for me.
WAILIN: Richard Zarzycki died in 2006. In 2007, Charmaine, Claudette and Andrea broke ground on the new location, which opened a year later. By then, Claudette had already been a full-time funeral director for nine years. She had gone to mortuary school right out of college at her parents’ request, then worked in marketing for a greeting card company and Hyatt Hotels before returning to the family business. By the time Richard passed away, Claudette had been taking on more responsibilities as a funeral director. But nothing could fully prepare her for the death of her father.
CLAUDETTE: The day he passed away, it was overnight on a Friday night going into a Saturday, and we had a funeral and it was too late to try and get somebody to do and everything. None of us slept and I had to direct it, but I would always remember my dad was saying—he was a very practical person and he says, “Life goes on.” And that was it. So when you own the business, you just can’t slouch on the couch and close the door and say, “My dad died, I, I’m not doing anything.” Nope, I had to, we all had to, to work. Probably that was my most difficult service that I ever had to do, but I just kept hearing him say that in his voice: “Life goes on, got to do the work, got to do it.”
We knew what my dad wanted. Everything was put into place and we knew that it was approaching but it’s still—it was hard. I think I had a very difficult time because I worked with my dad and I was proud to work with him. He would come on all the funerals with me and it was nice because he would always step back. He would let me take the rein and stuff and I always felt like wow, you know, thanks Dad, for doing that.
We had a friend of ours who’s a director. He directed the funeral because obviously we weren’t directing, but I said the final prayers at the casket and then at the cemetery there’s a special song that my dad taught me, part of the Polish service and it’s called—in English it’s called the Angelis, but in Polish it’s called the Aniol Pański and it’s the story of when Angel Gabriel came down to Mary to tell her that she would be carrying the son of God. There’s three verses of it and in between it’s the Hail Mary song, and he says, he goes, “This you must sing at every funeral, Polish funeral,” so I sang that at the cemetery at Resurrection Mausoleum.
WAILIN: The job of a funeral director requires organization, salesmanship and the ability to handle fast-moving logistics, all while dealing with grief-stricken clients who are spending potentially thousands of dollars during a vulnerable time. David Nixon, a funeral home consultant based in Springfield, Illinois, says over 80 percent of funeral homes are family-owned.
DAVID NIXON: Frankly, for many, especially smaller funeral homes, it’s a 24/7, 365 job. If someone passes away in the middle of the night, they have to be able to take care of that, to go to the hospital or go to the home and pick up the loved one and take them to the funeral home and prepare them. Many of the younger generation saw the sacrifices. And there were sacrifices: family get-togethers that they were called away on, holidays that they missed and they don’t want to be in that role. It takes that special kind of person to deal with death on a daily basis and to deal with all the nuances involved and so it’s almost like a religious calling for some.
WAILIN: These days, as people move further away from the places where they grew up, finding new clients is a challenge. Claudette’s hosted events at the suburban location to draw in people from the community, like a yearly holiday remembrance service that’s open to the public. But most of the funeral home’s marketing has moved online.
CHARMAINE: When you think back years ago, where you were in a neighborhood, where people could walk to your place and everybody would go to their neighborhood funeral home, that was your marketing. You joined the clubs, you joined the various organizations and you met your people there.
CLAUDETTE: It’s challenging now because first of all, people don’t go to church that much anymore. So you’re advertising in church bulletins—it’s going to the same people all the time, so you’re not really gaining new customers. The Elks, the Moose Clubs and everything, they’re all suffering. So we’ve had to kind of reinvent the way we meet people. Social marketing is really, you know, where it is, so making sure that you’re present on all of them: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google.
CHARMAINE: That was hard for me when my daughter told me, “That’s what we’re gonna do.” I says, “Nobody’s gonna Google us and come to us through a Google, you know.” But believe it or not, some do. I can count like on two hands already how many funeral arrangements we’ve made via the computer and I have not met the family yet.
WAILIN: David Nixon, the funeral home consultant, said the industry is expecting a huge increase in the number of deaths between now and 2050 as the Baby Boomer generation passes away. Given current trends, most of them will probably be cremated, which only generates about half the revenue of a burial. But there’s still going to be a big need for funeral services in the coming decades, which means businesses like Zarzycki Manor Chapels have to be prepared — whether it means encouraging people to pre-plan their funerals, or just being visible so customers can find them.
CLAUDETTE: We don’t go out there and market people and we don’t force people to do it and everything. People got to do it on their own time. It takes a lot of courage for somebody to call me on the telephone or to walk in the door and they say, “I want to plan my funeral.” It takes a lot of courage for somebody to do that because it’s like the last, the last thing that you can do. But as I tell a lot of people, you prepare for to get married. You prepare to have a baby. You prepare for those children to go to college. And what’s the big one that you hear all the time on the news and on the radio and on the TV commercials? Is prepare for retirement. I can’t tell you how many people that I have serviced that have never made it to retirement. They have never collected their first Social Security check or they never saw their daughter walk down the aisle or their first grandchild, and it’s, it’s inevitable.
WAILIN: Four generations of Zarzyckis have answered the doorbell or phone in the middle of the night, comforted grieving clients and led roomfuls of mourners in the Hail Mary in Polish. Charmaine was a schoolteacher who spent a year in Japan before becoming a funeral director, and Claudette left a corporate marketing job where she visited brand new hotels around the US and the Caribbean. But neither of those professions had the same pull as funeral directing.
CHARMAINE: I love this job. I love it and um I don’t think I would ever go back to teaching after all the years I spent here.
CLAUDETTE: I don’t look back. I love dealing with the people, meeting new people, I love helping people in a very sad situation and guiding them through it. It’s fun. It’s not something that probably anybody would like to say, that you think “Wow, being a funeral director is fun,” but it is. It’s a pleasure to be able to help somebody in such a very sad time in their life and be able to somehow get them through the next week or the next couple of weeks to help them to move on.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can sign up for our newsletter and find old episodes at thedistance.com, and you can also follow us on Twitter at @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. And if you could take a second to rate and review us on iTunes, that would be amazing. 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.
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.