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Having a Large Impact With Small Caskets

Being one of the best in the world at what you do comes with its own set of challenges. Just ask Michael Mims, president and owner of Cherokee Child Caskets, which is marking 75 years in business this year. As its name implies, Mims’ company manufacturers only small caskets fit for infants, children and petite adults. It also sells vaults and ancillary products for child funerals. His company has customers throughout the United States and as far away as New Zealand and Europe. This geographic spread means the company has many potential customers – but it also means those customers have a variety of tastes and cultural needs that Mims and his staff of 20 employees must be able to satisfy.

“Even though we are the only ones that do what we do now, what sells in California doesn’t necessarily sell in New York. And what sells in New York doesn’t sell in Texas or overseas,” Mims said.

Still, for more than seven decades, Cherokee has been figuring out customers’ tastes and honing its operations so families mourning a loss get what they want, usually within hours of making their choices. Mims says his company can manufacture about 10,000 separate varieties of caskets, and can usually put a casket together to a customer’s specifications within a few hours of receiving an order. Then the company delivers the casket as soon as possible. “We not only have to be manufacturers, we also have to be logistics experts to get our products out,” Mims said. “Our goal is to get it in their hands within 24 hours and (the casket) has to be perfect. We know that the last time they will be seeing their loved one is in our casket, so we want to make sure we are doing it right.”

The company, based in Griffin, Georgia, has worked to do it right since 1941, when a woman named Sarah Betts started making caskets for children. World War II was raging and raw materials were hard to come by, but Betts was able to successfully establish Cherokee, first in Georgia, then regionally, nationally and then worldwide. Mims’ father and mother, Dean and Henrietta, purchased the company in the 1980s and continued its growth. “My dad was in the textile business for years. He moved down South. He just found this small business and decided to buy it,” Mims said. Mims was in his 30s when his parents acquired the company. Now 62, he worked as a minister and in hospice care before taking over company operations in 2005. His son, Jason, and daughter-in-law, Casey, now work at Cherokee, ensuring the business’ family-run character continues. For Mims, joining the family firm was just another way of honoring his commitment to service. “I saw it as a continuation of our ministry. I also saw it as a great opportunity to carry on the (family-run) tradition,” he said.

Cherokee serves a niche market –Mims figures the demand for child caskets is only 1 or 2 percent of what it is for adult-sized caskets. Proportional demand for the company’s caskets has also declined over the years, thanks to advances in medicine and safety regulations that have helped reduce child mortality rates. Like others in the funeral profession, Mims’ company is also dealing with the increasing cremation rate and its impact on high-end casket sales.

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