Crypt-Builder Finds a Growing Market, but Not Much Competition

By Robert Mullins of the Business Journal Staff - April 2, 1994

Fourteen years ago, Ron Mork had a comfortable, secure job in the local construction industry but decided to give it up to start his own contracting firm. His specialty, he decided, would be building mausoleums. "I just thought that (building) mausoleums was a neat thing," said Mork, 56, president of Mork Mausoleum Construction Inc., Waukesha. "It's kind of unique and I thought that I could make some money at it."

By being the only contractor in the Milwaukee area -- and one of only a half-dozen in the country -- that builds mausoleums exclusively, Mork Mausoleum obviously has cornered the market in southeast Wisconsin. "Quite frankly, we see Mork Construction doing most of our work," said Gregg Apostoloff, director of marketing for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which operates eight cemeteries. "They have for over 10 years been the successful bidder "

According to Mork, Mork Mausoleum has stayed successful by staying small, mastering the unique standards of mausoleum construction and serving a market few other contractors serve. When the company started in 1980, it employed four people: Mork, his sons, Jim and Dave, and a daughter's boyfriend. Fourteen years later, Mork Mausoleum employs 11 people, but Ron Mork is cautious about adding more, even in an expanding market for mausoleum building. "If we have to, we'll hire to grow, but we don't want to get monstrously big," said Jim Mork, 36, now a foreman with the company. "We want to have control over our work...because we take a lot of pride in what we do."

A Surprising Lack of Competition

Taking pride in mausoleum work involves using high-quality materials and exacting building standards, Jim Mork said. The covers over the individual crypts with the names of the deceased inscribed on them -- called "shutters" in the business -- are made of granite if used for an outside crypt or marble if used for an inside crypt. The marble Mork Mausoleum uses is imported from Italy, Spain or Portugal, Mork said. The granite usually comes from domestic suppliers. The mausoleum walls are built using the "cast-in-place" method of pouring the concrete rather than by assembling pre-cast concrete slabs. According to Jim Mork, precast concrete panels can pose problems. In the settling process, the panels may shift and then the shutter won't fit as well.

Keeping the company small helps maintain the quality control and reduces overhead, Ron Mork said. The firm keeps its overhead low, he said, by keeping operations in the family. Mork Mausoleum limits its use of subcontractors and handles all the cost estimating, bidding, and other administrative duties out of its small office. "Between my two sons, myself, and my daughter-in-law (Jim's wife, Barbara, is vice president and secretary), we take care of everything," Ron said. While taking care of everything has helped Mork Mausoleum dominate the market close to home, the company also has been competitive in other markets, building mausoleums from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Long Island, N.Y.

Although proud of his company's achievements, Ron Mork is somewhat mystified that other contractors haven't tried to take him on. "The biggest surprise was the lack of competition that we have," he said. "When we go after a job, we basically get it."

Increasing Inventory

Although more people still choose in-ground burial over entombment, the tide is shifting, Apostoloff said. Three-quarters of the Archdiocese's sales are to people buying "in the advance-of-need stage," he said. Of those, 75% of those are purchasing crypts rather than burial plots.

"It is a trend," said Stephen Morgan, executive vice president of the American Cemetery Association, a Falls Church, Va., trade association for cemetery and mausoleum operators. "There are very few new cemeteries being built in the United States," Morgan said. "In a business sense, you can say it's not a highest and best use of a scarce resource, such as land."

For cemetery owners for whom space is limited, mausoleum development gives them "increased burial inventory" without having to buy more real estate. That's why mausoleum development is more prevalent in urban areas than it is in rural areas, said Dave Mork, 33. Mausoleum development also is growing, he claimed, because family members prefer the convenience of visiting the dearly departed at a mausoleum rather than at a grave site. Many mausoleums have chapels or other indoor facilities for shelter from the weather.

Mausoleums not only make the bereaved more comfortable, they extend the life of cemeteries, according to Felix McCauley, manager of the Catholic Cemetery Association of Racine Inc., which owns and operates four cemeteries in Racine, WI. "If you have, for example, 300 funerals a year, if a third of them go into the mausoleum, that means that you're really saving some land," McCauley said. One of the Racine sites, Calvary Cemetery, is the site of the first Catholic mausoleum built in Wisconsin, McCauley said. It was built in 1964 and has been expanded twice since. The mausoleum at Racine's Holy Cross Cemetery was built in 1974 and added onto three more times, he said. Mork Mausoleum completed the most recent addition, a 500-crypt expansion, last year.


Note:  Dave Mork left the company in 1997 to pursue other interests. Ron Mork retired from the company in 2003, but is retained as a consultant.