For years, Steve Forrest would attend casket-industry conventions and field the inevitable question: "When are you going to come up with a casket body for quick-turnaround deliveries?"
Forrest, the 52-year-old president of The New Harrisburg Truck Body Co in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, had been producing bodies capable of handling large loads - up to 44 caskets. But dramatic changes in the industry had made those truck bodies less desirable. Funeral homes were asking for more frequent deliveries of smaller loads. Distribution centers no longer were making 200-mile runs to serve 20 customers, and it wasn't feasible to take even a 15-casket truck on a 50-mile one-way journey with just one casket inside.
To deal with the changing scenario, distribution centers were using Ford Econoline vans, sometimes removing the passenger seat and pushing one casket all the way to the windshield. It was not only awkward, it damaged the vans and caskets.
In 1994, Forrest and two assistants - Carl Dum, head of the casket division, and shop foreman John Kimmick - started brainstorming. Three years later, at a convention in Indianapolis, Forrest introduced what he calls the QR-4 - a first-of-its-kind four-casket body that offers distribution centers exactly what they needed to provide: a quick response.
"The reaction in Indianapolis was kind of reserved at first," Forrest says. "Anything new, people try to find fault with. But once the drivers tried them, they liked them. Now I have people come up to me and say, 'Can't you talk my boss into buying them?' "
According to Forrest, New Harrisburg Truck Body is now the oldest and largest producer of casket bodies, with a 40 percent share of the market.
"In my opinion, Steve is the Rolls-Royce of the industry," says H C Thornton, director of distribution for the York Group in Houston. "Although it (casket distributorships) is a small industry, it's extremely competitive. To differentiate your company, service is the key. With the need to deliver in small quantities, the QR-4 is ideal for 'hotshot' runs."
One-Man Operation The QR-4 includes: an 8-foot-long interior; white aluminum panels over a specially constructed square tube frame; two panel plymetal rear doors with two hinges per panel; a half-inch marine plywood floor; one interior dome light; a translucent glassboard roof; and a top shelf that hinges at the front and is lowered at the rear by an electric winch standard.
The beauty of the QR-4 is that it's a one-man operation. The winch raises the top shelf after the caskets are loaded, then the bottom shelf is loaded. A Series-F track is recessed in the floor of the top shelf. When the shelf is tilted for unloading, the caskets remain in place until they are released.
Another obvious advantage is that the body can be transferred from chassis to chassis - something that can't be done with an Econoline van.
The body sells for $6,064. With a Chevrolet cab and chassis, the total is $24,529. Forrest offers a choice of heavy-duty half-ton or three-quarter-ton Chevrolet, Ford or GMC.
Forrest's company does not mass-produce the casket bodies. They are hand-built in 10 days and produced at a rate of three or four a month.
"My fear is that one of these days, everybody's Econoline vans are going to go and I'll be swamped," Forrest says. "We'll deal with it if it happens. Those are good problems to have."
He has a potential solution just across the street - four acres of recently purchased property. If he doesn't use it for an expanded casket-body operation, maybe he'll use it to design QR-4 type bodies for the produce and recreational-vehicle service industries. Impressed by the success of the QR-4, those industries have held preliminary talks with Forrest. Any way you look at it, The New Harrisburg Truck Body Co is booming.
Business is Good The company's only foray into manufacturing is casket bodies. The rest of the business is devoted to distributing. It is the nation's sixth-largest distributor of Morgan Corporation van bodies and distributor of Meyer and Boss snowplows for 11 central Pennsylvania counties. Pennsylvania-American Water and New Jersey-American Water are major customers for Knapheide utility bodies. When Forrest purchased the company from the Fleischman family in 1985, gross sales were $1.6 million. Now they're $8.3 million.
The 4.2-acre central Pennsylvania property has 25,000 square feet under roof, including a 56-foot-long paint booth that he calls "the biggest and most modern in the area." The DuPont-certified facility, which opened in 1997, has a downdraft booth fired by natural gas.
New Harrisburg Truck Body has a $3-million backlog on orders for collision repair and paint jobs - a 28 percent increase over a year ago. It's more than the 42 full-time and 10 part-time employees can handle.
"We're busier than a one-arm paperhanger this year," Forrest says. "Our service and repair business has exploded. We have eight tractors in the body shop right now. Labor is our biggest problem, because we have an unemployment rate of 2.6 percent. I'd hire a complete second shift next week if I could find the people." The key to his company's success? The personal touch. "Too many companies get bogged down in bureaucratic nonsense," Forrest says. "We don't have that problem. After our first year (in business), my wife and I looked at each other and said, 'It can't be this easy.' Most of it is common sense and treating people the way they should be treated."
The Friendly Approach The York Group's Thornton has been dealing with Forrest for years. Shortly after the release of the QR-4, Thornton ordered one and mounted it on a Ford chassis that was about a foot higher to accommodate the fuel tank. The increased height hindered the loading and unloading of the caskets.
"He took the whole unit back," Thornton says. "He said, 'I know it's probably too high for your application.' That's the kind of guy he is.
"He's the president of the company, but he's very accessible, knowledgeable and quick to respond to your needs. With larger companies, it's difficult to get a quick response and difficult to talk to the man who really makes the decisions without going through a lot of other people. If I need a quote, I can get one from him quickly. He always accuses me of calling him at 4 (p.m.) and asking for a quote at 5."
Forrest, who was regional sales manager for Morgan Corporation in Morgantown, Pennsylvania, before he bought New Harrisburg Truck Body, is doing what he loves to do. He works with his wife, Carole, who is secretary and treasurer, although they're so busy that they seldom converse in the office, but they usually catch up on shop talk over dinner, much to the consternation of their daughter.
Carole came up with the slogan Steve prints on his business cards above the company's name: WATCH US SHINE!
Steve came up with the company's name. When he bought it, it was simply The Harrisburg Truck Body Co. Why is Harrisburg in the name if it's located in Mechanicsburg? When it was founded, it was located in Harrisburg. Then, in 1958, a bridge was built across the Susquehanna River directly west of the headquarters and the company moved to the west shore. And why was new inserted into the name? Because Forrest wanted to stress the energy that emanates from its employees and the multi-faceted services it offers.
"People ask me, 'When's it not going to be new?' " he says. "I say, 'Never.' There's always going to be something new."