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Coffin firm makes a killing

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Nottingham-based Vic Fearn & Co has been manufacturing coffins since 1879. “It’s a humble, and sometimes humdrum trade,” admits director David Crampton. “Frankly, our methods hadn’t evolved since the nineteenth century.”

Then, in 2000, a harbringer of change came tapping at the door when a fan of the Red Arrows, the Royal Air Force’s aerial acrobatics team, asked to be buried in a model fighter.

“It was an unusual request but we duly obliged, constructing a plane with folding wings and a cockpit casket,” says Crampton. “We grind out around 17,000 traditional coffins each year so this seemed like an isolated incident.”

But the whacky requests kept trickling in. It led the company to build a giant guitar, a skateboard, a kite and a canal boat. One customer, a music teacher named Pat Cox, even asked Vic Fearn & Co to build her a giant ballet shoe for her final exit (see picture).

Crampton didn’t realise the impact it would have on the business until a few years later, when a freelance writer and photographer rang him up, explained he was researching a piece on the coffin-making trade and asked to spend the day at the factory.

“He was sitting in my office a few days later and commented, ‘I notice that you also make models.’ I chuckled to myself. ‘Those aren’t models,’ I replied. ‘They’re coffins.’ He almost fell off his chair.”

The Sun picked up his story. It juxtaposed Vic Fearn & Co’s coffins with a pin up girl on its notorious page three. It’s catchword? “Crazy coffins”.

“We, as manufacturers, wouldn’t have dared come up with that phrase," says Crampton. "But once The Sun had spoken, who were we, mere leather-aproned joiners, to murmur our dissent? The term stuck and we’ve even registered our web address under it.”

There are certain commercial benefits to making crazy coffins. Making a giant beer mug coffin, for example, takes at least two weeks and brings an invoice of up to £6k. A traditional coffin takes only a day to make and costs about £400.

Once The Sun got hold of the story, Crampton says the phones didn’t stop ringing for three months. One piece of coverage sparked the next: “We’ve now been featured in everything from Flog It and Working Lunch to The Guardian and Chat magazine. I did over 200 interviews last year alone.”

The company has even started exhibiting the crazy coffins as art work, with a one-night exhibition at the Museum fur Speulkralkatur in Kassel, Germany, last year. “You should have seen the queues – it was like the premiere of the new Harry Potter film,” recalls Crampton.

The crazy coffin trend has boosted sales by ten per cent. “We’re now turning over £2m a year and we still haven’t hired a PR agent,” says Crampton. “Quite frankly, we haven’t needed to – the press have come to us.“

Want to read more about entrepreneurs shaking up traditional sectors? Check out the May edition of Real Business magazine. And don’t forget to post your own examples below. The best ones will be featured in the magazine.

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