- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

MORRILTON, Ark. (AP) - A funeral home director by trade and a gearhead at heart, Richard Neal has found a niche in the mortuary industry that allows him to help his family’s business while fueling his passion.

Neal’s family has owned funeral homes in Arkansas for more than 90 years. Along with funeral homes in Brinkley, Clarendon, Marvel and Morrilton, Neal & Son also owns crematoriums in Conway and Morrilton.

But along with running Morrilton Funeral Service and Rosewood Cremation, Neal also owns and operates Rosewood Classic Coach, one of the few places in the United States where retro-style funeral coaches, more commonly known as hearses, are built from the chassis up and sold to funeral homes that want to offer their clients the opportunity to go out in style. And by buying the classic coaches, the funeral home ends up saving money by avoiding car loans or long-term lease-to-own payments, Neal said.

Rosewood Classic Coach, located in a former Dodge dealership building in Morrilton, employs 15 people, and additional workers are expected to be hired because of an increase in orders, Neal said, noting that 17 of the retro-style hearses are on back order. As of early September, Rosewood Classic Coach had made and sold 15 vehicles to funeral homes in several different states, as well as two in Australia, according to Neal. It generally takes up to four months to build one. Funeral home owners in Canada and Africa have expressed interest in purchasing Rosewood hearses, he said.

Neal said he also is in the process of recruiting investors so production of the hearses can be done at any time, rather than just when one is ordered. “I’ve missed many, many sales simply because I didn’t have a turnkey unit sitting on the lot,” he said.

The Arkansas Business (https://bit.ly/1YLPJ7S ) reports that the hearses are built in a 6,000-SF metal building, and a 3,000-SF space connected to the building is being refurbished into a showroom. The employees, Neal said, are all specialists in their fields of expertise, including fabrication, bodywork, electrical and mechanical. They have multiple certifications and extensive training from the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence and General Motors.

The hearses, which start at just under $100,000 each, can be built in a number of different styles and designs, including the Grand O’ Vale, which combines design elements from the horse-drawn funeral coach era with 1930s automotive styling. The Grand O’Vale features a 7-foot oval window designed to showcase the casket in a giant picture frame. Each hearse is built on a Chevy truck suspension and is roughly 22 feet long, 6 feet tall and weighs about 6,000 pounds.A graduate of Northwest Mortuary College in Memphis, Neal said his infatuation with cars and hotrods began as a young boy when he fell in love with his grandfather’s 1972 pickup. His mother’s father owned a service station in Brinkley and let him help with oil changes and other jobs. Neal said he learned to drive in that pickup truck and later remodeled it. He still owns the truck. “That is the reason for all this,” he said.

After mortuary school, Neal said, he planned to attend aviation school in Tulsa to get his airframe and power plant certification and commercial pilot license, but his responsibility to the family business took priority.

“Due to some health problems in my family, I wound up becoming manager” at the Morrilton funeral home, he said. He expanded his skills by taking mechanical engineering courses at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Arkansas Tech but never completed a degree.

It was in the mid-1980s that Neal first learned of a company that was “making body kits for old hearses that made them look like . older, retro-style cars, even though they were just ‘pull the fenders off.’” That company “never got off the ground, and those guys went out of business,” he said.

But the idea of building a retro-style hearse simmered in the back of his mind. “I knew there was a really unique opportunity there,” he said.

About 10 years ago, he noticed an advertisement in a trade magazine about a small shop in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, where retro-style hearses were being built and sold. The owner of the shop, Max Prinzing, “had a complete design. It wasn’t just a retro fit,” Neal said.

Neal eventually ordered a hearse from Prinzing and used it for a few years at the Morrilton funeral home. In late 2008 and early 2009, Prinzing’s company began having financial difficulties, and Neal agreed to help him complete some vehicle orders. Prinzing’s financial troubles continued, and Neal eventually acquired Prinzing’s vehicle designs and the molds used to make the vehicles. In 2011, Rosewood Classic Coach was incorporated.

Initially, business was slow and, Neal said, he was concerned that his fledgling company would not survive. He owned a shop and equipment to build the vehicles, but the orders were nowhere to be found. In the summer of 2014, however, things changed and orders began to pick up. Neal gives much of the credit for the increased sales to an industrywide downturn in the funeral home business.

“Let me tell you what is selling my cars,” Neal said. “Believe it or not, it’s cremation. That’s selling my cars. Cremation has become so dominant in the funeral home industry that funeral homes are struggling with their bottom lines.”

Cremation, which is much less expensive than burial, is rising in Arkansas, according to Neal. The cremation rate is currently about 40 percent, and “they’re projecting 57 to 58 percent of the funerals will be ending in cremation by 2025.”

For years, funeral homes rotated their stock of hearses every five to six years “to keep up with the newest body-style trend from Detroit,” Neal said. “It no longer makes sense with cremation in the market for them to spend that kind of money on a perpetual lease-purchase cycle, perpetually signing up for a $1,300- to $1,400-a-month lease, unless you are a really big funeral home. Your smaller funeral homes, like my family, can’t justify that.”

Funeral home owners, looking for ways to reduce costs, soon began keeping their vehicles a little longer, or looking for other alternatives that could save money over the long term, like buying the retro-style hearses made by Rosewood Classic Coach that never go out of style.

“Right now, we’ve got orders coming in faster than we can get complete, so we’re focusing on our product, our processes, to provide those in a timely manner,” he said. “When I think we can sustain that, we’ll be ready to go to the next level, start looking at expansion.”

To better promote Rosewood Classic Coach nationally, Neal has hired two hearse dealers, one in Calhoun, Kentucky, and the other in Dallas. He also is advertising more in trade magazines. And while he tries to boost the brand of Rosewood Classic Coach, he is busy adding a number of specialized lines to the company, including a hearse trailer that can be pulled by a motorcycle or small vehicle. Also in development is a small, custom-built roadster that could be used to pull the hearse trailer, or simply driven around town.

Neal is also developing specialized software that would allow people to make cremation arrangements and pay for them online.

“I am amazed how many cremation families don’t like funeral homes. They don’t want to deal with the funeral home, so this will allow them to be anywhere in the world and make the cremation arrangements.”

Neal admits his interest in cars and his career as a funeral home director are a unique combination. “I don’t want to sound arrogant . but I don’t think there are very many people in the country who are as appropriately suited to do what I am doing,” he said.

While he is still very active in running the funeral home and crematorium, Neal said, the bulk of his time is spent working at Rosewood Classic Coach. “Right now, just the enormity and (financial) risk I have, I am spending 85 to 90 percent of my time here.”

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Information from: Arkansas Business, https://www.arkansasbusiness.com

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