Wilbert, Inc. - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Wilbert, Inc.

2913 Gardner Road
Broadview, Illinois 60155

Company Perspectives:

Wilbert, Inc. is the privately held holding company of Wilbert Funeral Services, Inc. WFSI is the leading single-source supplier of burial vaults and cremation related products and services to over 22,000 funeral homes, cemeteries and crematories in North America. With over 250 manufacturing, warehousing and distribution locations in the United States and Canada, WFSI is the largest concrete burial vault manufacturer in the world.

History of Wilbert, Inc.

The Wilbert name has been a fixture in the funeral services industry since the early 1900s, though the company went through several incarnations before becoming Wilbert, Inc. first in 1967 and again in 1997. Reorganized as a holding company in 1997, Wilbert, Inc. oversees two distinct yet complementary divisions: the Funeral Services unit (consisting of the well known Wilbert Funeral Services, Inc.) and the Industrial Plastics unit (home to Thermoform Plastics, Inc. and a number of smaller specialized plastics firms). While both of Wilbert's divisions are at the forefront of their business sectors and comprised of several subsidiaries, not all of the Industrial Plastics companies work within the burial or funeral field.

In the Beginning: 1850s-80s

The Wilbert story begins with the emigration of Ferdinand Haase from Germany and his arrival in New York in 1849. He traveled through Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago, but the harsh winter weather drove him south to New Orleans. Ferdinand worked at several jobs before being summoned home to help his parents settle their affairs and travel to the United States. By 1851 the Haase family acquired 55 acres along the Des Plaines River outside Chicago. Ferdinand, meanwhile, had found time to meet and wed a woman named Minnie Zimmerman.

Over the next two decades Minnie and Ferdinand had seven children and lived in both Germany and Illinois. Haase had amassed a substantial amount of land around the Des Plaines River and farmed, raised cattle, and even opened some of his property up as a resort. In addition, he sold a parcel to Concordia University (now Dominican University) for a graveyard and had discovered Native American burial mounds on other parts of his land. In addition to the Pottowattomie burials, the Haase family had begun to bury its own dead in the early 1850s. By the 1860s Ferdinand considered turning some of his acreage into a cemetery for nonfamily members as well. In 1874 Ferdinand and his two oldest sons, Emil and Leo, opened Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, which included a museum housing the Native American artifacts.

The Haase land in and around Forest Home was rich in rock and clay and much of the cemetery's early operation was made possible by mining gravel and selling it to local merchants for a number of uses, including concrete. Ferdinand's inquisitive and hardworking son Leo began to show a flair for geology; the 17-year-old soon realized the value of the sand, topsoil, and stone beneath the family's land. In 1880 Leo founded the L.G. Haase Manufacturing Company to sell concrete products such as cemetery lot markers, burial vaults and covers, benches, tiles, and irrigation basins. Leo believed imagination was akin to a force of nature, calling it "the most important force outside of gravity," according to Service & Innovation: The Wilbert Way. Leo more than proved this adage by not only inventing many uses for concrete, but patenting the machinery he designed to make these products.

While Forest Home Cemetery and L.G. Haase Manufacturing Company began to thrive in the 1880s, Leo was elected highway commissioner and later village clerk of Forest Park. His connections were vital in bringing telephone lines into the area; he also learned surveying and architecture during his political tenure. With help from his brother William, Leo even designed and built a suspension bridge from Forest Home Cemetery across the Des Plaines River to other Haase family land. Yet one of Leo's most important contributions was in company promotion: he created business card paperweights, listing the costs of various services and cemetery plots on a small paper placed inside attractive pieces of glass.

Serving Death: 1890s-1930s

In 1892 William Haase and his wife welcomed twins, Wilbert and Wesley, into the Haase clan. Though Wesley perished before his second birthday, Wilbert was a bright and spirited child. He was raised among the growing acreage of Forest Home Cemetery and took over L.G. Haase Manufacturing Company at the age of 20 in 1902. The now legendary Leo, Wilbert's uncle, had retired and moved to the West Coast leaving the Haase family assets in Wilbert's capable hands. By the onset of World War I, Wilbert was married and the father of one child and expecting another with his wife Gertrude. While most young men his age were abroad fighting, Wilbert built up the family's concrete business and made sure Forest Home was one of the Chicago area's finest cemeteries.

For Wilbert, like Leo before him, death was a business like any other--comprised of supply and demand. Since Haase burial products were made for Forest Home Cemetery as well as funeral directors in the region, supply and demand usually balanced. Yet occasionally the unthinkable happened and demand was out of proportion to supply. One of these instances came during the influenza outbreak that swept through the Midwest in 1918 and 1919. The death toll reached into the thousands and the L.G. Haase Manufacturing Company was one of the few companies able to meet the dramatically increased demand. After most of the influenza burials were completed, Wilbert bought L.G. Haase from the family for $19,000 and rechristened it American Vault Works (known as American Wilbert). Wilbert ran the new company himself and incorporated it in May 1924.

Wilbert Haase had proven himself not only an astute businessman, but an adventurer as well. He had taken up flying (advertising American Vault Works on the side of his biplane) and had traveled the world. He was fascinated by the preservation techniques of the Egyptians and was determined to make an airtight, waterproof burial vault. It took two years of trial and error, but Wilbert introduced the first waterproof burial vault made of concrete and lined with asphalt in 1930. Rivals cried foul and took the firm to court, accusing Wilbert of false advertising. They were wrong; the vault was indeed waterproof and Haase not only applied for a patent but established a second company to sell licensing rights for the revolutionary new burial vaults. The Wilbert W. Haase Company was formed in 1930 and by the time it was incorporated in 1933, sister firm American Vault Works was serving the burial needs for most parts of Chicago and its suburbs, with plants on the South side, the North shore, and in Forest Park.

Another Haase invention changed the burial industry forever: the WilbertWay Vault Handling Device took the arduous task of lowering caskets into burial vaults and made it a one-man operation. Haase patented the WilbertWay in 1938 and was pleased it not only cut back on manpower, but on the presence of nonfamily members at the grave site. He believed funerals should be as private and dignified as possible, undisturbed by outsiders or workers who had no relationship to the deceased.

Changes: 1940s-70s

By the 1940s the W.W. Haase Company had licensing agreements with vault companies in several states, issued 50-year guarantees for its waterproof vaults, and had added decorative symbols (for groups like the Knights of Columbus, American Legion, Masons, etc., as well as the Star of David for Jewish decedents). The firm and its licensees had also created the Wilbert Manufacturers Association (WMA) in 1944 and begun an advertising campaign touting its sturdily built vaults, "Asphalt for Waterproofing, Concrete for Strength." Wilbert himself had cut back his duties to devote more time to other pursuits, such as his love of flying. He not only flew search missions for the Army Air Corps during World War II, but later took over the daily operations of a Wisconsin airport near his vacation home.

By 1948 the WMA bought the W.W. Haase Company and introduced a new vault lining to escape the dangerous and super-heated use of asphalt. "Plasco," a hybrid of the words plastic and coating, became the liner of choice for the company's vaults. During this time Wilbert Haase retired, leaving his business legacy in the hands of nonfamily members. Two years later, in 1950, the famed Forest Home Cemetery was sold and land next to American Wilbert's manufacturing plant was purchased in Broadview, Illinois. This stretch of land became Wilbert W. Haase Company's new headquarters, complete with offices and warehouse space to house its growing line of burial vaults, including a new copper-lined vault called the Triune. The move also marked a new era, one in which the firm initiated regular national advertising campaigns in such influential publications as Life magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Entrepreneur and adventurer Wilbert W. Haase, a guiding force behind the Wilbert empire for decades, died in Wisconsin in 1959, at the age of 66. He was buried in the famed Forest Home Cemetery, founded by his ancestors. The company nurtured by Haase continued to grow and prosper during the next decade; the two-millionth vault was produced in 1963, the same year President John F. Kennedy was entombed in a specially designed Wilbert vault.

The end of the 1960s brought several changes of note for Wilbert. In 1966 the company bought Thermoform Plastics, Inc. as a joint venture with the H.B. Fuller Company. The St. Paul, Minnesota-based firm produced a new polystyrene vault liner called "Strentex" (strength + texture), which was not only strong but when bonded with an epoxy called Unidex formed an airtight seal. Strentex was soon the liner of choice and replaced the traditional asphalt-lined vaults that made American Wilbert an industry leader. The following year, 1967, the Wilbert W. Haase Company was renamed simply Wilbert, Inc., and a few months later the newly rechristened company bought out Thermoform partner H.B. Fuller.

While Strentex was touted for its immense strength and durability, American Wilbert paired it with a host of other materials, including stainless steel, bronze, and copper, for a variety of vault models. During the next decade, American Wilbert continued to produce its world renowned burial vaults but also segued into caskets. To establish itself in the casket market, Wilbert, Inc. acquired two casket manufacturers, one in Michigan and the other in Indiana, to service funeral directors in the tristate area of Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. While the casket venture floundered several years later, Wilbert's plastics unit, Thermoform, flourished.

Death Never Takes a Holiday: 1980s-90s

In the 1980s Wilbert had an expanding line of vaults and urns, including models for men, women, and children. By the end of 1981 Wilbert had sold more than six million vaults and was bringing in over $15 million in sales annually. Innovations for the 1980s included the WilbertWay Casket Lowering Device, which worked with the already in-use WilbertWay Vault Handling Device; a new Research & Development department in the company's Broadview headquarters; and the conception and production of more than two dozen new cremation urn designs. Another sophisticated top of the line vault, the Wilbert Bronze, called "the Cadillac of the industry" by Wilbert insiders, was built in 1986 and formally introduced to the funeral industry in 1987. It was considered a "high-tech" vault with a bronze top and lining, as well as concrete placed between two molded layers of plastic. To keep up with ever increasing demand, land next to Wilbert's manufacturing plant in Broadview was purchased for expansion and parcels in St. Paul were acquired for Thermoform's burgeoning plastics business.

In the early 1990s Thermoform moved into its new headquarters in Minnesota and purchased American Industrial Technologies, Inc. (AIT), a producer of specialized adhesives and coatings. Since AIT's adhesives worked well with Thermoform's molded plastic products, the acquisition was a good fit. In 1992 Wilbert created the Funeral Service division to broaden its marketing efforts to funeral directors; two years later, in 1994, the company was one of the first in the death care industry to introduce "pre-need" contracts for healthy customers who wanted to make arrangements for their future funeral needs.

By the mid-1990s Thermoform was booming, providing liners for Wilbert's vaults as well as handling lucrative contracts for a wide range of products in the plastics industry. After acquiring Plastivax and TransPak-USA, Thermoform had entered the plastic pallet market, selling molded pallets for retailers and factories to ship materials. No longer considered simply a business unit of the legendary Wilbert, Thermoform was among the top five industrial thermoform producers in North America for 1999, as ranked by Plastics News and sales for the year reportedly topped $55 million. Parent company Wilbert also remained at the top of its field, having restructured itself as a holding company in 1997 over its two very successful business units--Thermoform Plastics Inc. and Wilbert Funeral Services, Inc.

A New Century: 2000s

At the turn of the millennium Wilbert, Inc. was embroiled in a takeover attempt of York Group Inc., a Houston-based casket and vault producer. The two companies had begun merger talks early in 2000 which unraveled by May. Rebuffed by York's leadership, Wilbert began buying up the casket maker's common stock over the summer and into the fall. By early 2001 Wilbert had become York's largest shareholder with over 14 percent of the firm's stock; York, however, fought Wilbert every step of the way, which included selling its vault division to Doric Products Inc.

While waiting for the York imbroglio to settle, Wilbert bought out the thermoforming units of Altrista Corp. and the assets of Morton Customs Plastics LLC in the fall of 2001, both of which became part of its Thermoform Plastics unit. The York saga ended in December, when the casket maker agreed to a takeover by the Pittsburgh-based Matthews International Corporation, an adversary of Wilbert. Despite its missteps with York, Wilbert remained the world's largest vault producer, the established favorite for heads of state and titans of industry (Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, Adlai E. Stevenson, Conrad Hilton, Richard J. Daley, and Harold Washington) as well as legends of the stage and screen (Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Rosalind Russell, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne). For those who might wish to tout the Wilbert name while still living, the company created an online shopping service featuring everything from golf bags and denim jackets to pen sets, travel mugs, and stadium blankets.

Principal Subsidiaries: American Industrial Technologies, Inc. (AIT), Synergy World; Thermoform Plastics, Inc. (TPI); Trienda; Wilbert Funeral Services, Inc.

Principal Competitors: Hillenbrand Industries Inc.; Matthews International Corporation.


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