Bringing a brand to life: An interview with Mike Grehan, LifeArt

Mike Grehan, LifeArt will be speak at LiT18 in Cambridge 28/06

Mike Grehan, LifeArt will be speak at LiT18 in Cambridge 28/06

LifeArt is a unique business and Mike Grehan is the Executive Chairman & CEO. Established to produce eco-friendly, personalised affordable coffins, this business is on a steep growth curve. He is an inspiring entrepreneur and we talked to Mike to discover more about this business and what drives him to succeed. Mike will be presenting at LiT18 in Cambridge, UK on 28th June.

Mike, please tell us a little more about your background.

I am from a fairly remote place in Queensland in Australia. I was an accountant for 10 years at KPMG, then I held senior positions at Qantas and Carrier Air Conditioning. I was headhunted in late 1999 to run SCI Australia – part of the world’s largest funeral group. However, within 12 months two banking groups and management had bought out the American owners and rebadged the business as InvoCare. In 2003 we listed InvoCare (IVC) on the Australian Stock Exchange and today the business is worth AU$1.6 billion. I then became semi-retired and quickly became bored and began work with LifeArt which is destined to become one of the world’s largest coffin manufacturers.

Tell us more about the background and vision for LifeArt

LifeArt was created to make environmentally friendly cremation a reality. I guess we have three clear aims. Firstly, we want to make a coffin that is environmentally friendly as cremation is harmful to the environment. Secondly, our objective is to create a coffin that is fit for purpose and affordable for the wider market. Coffins really are not cheap. Thirdly we want to have the ability to personalise the coffin. Traditionally the options are quite plain with a brown, black and white option. If you can personalise the coffin we have discovered that it can be helpful for the grieving process.

This industry has been established on a model for burial and not cremation, but cremation is growing as a process, therefore, we think it is incredibly important to have a solution that reduces harm to the environment and our mission is to become carbon neutral without our product as soon as possible.

With a focus on eco, how hard has it been to get the right materials?

Well, 2 Aussies (Natalie Verdon and Eckhard Kemmerer) spent years trying to break into the market by developing the right material. I have helped them do that because I have spent 20 years in the industry and have an extensive global network. 

To create a material that is both strong and robust but which is also eco-friendly is a challenge. You need to be able to carry a body in it for starters so it has to be strong. Coffins need to be able to maintain strength and form in rain, in a cold wet refrigerator - all sorts of circumstances. Other challenges were the paper used to burn – you end up with ash. There are certain parameters we need to achieve when we cremate a coffin. Two additional things, the quantity of ash and the burn temperature has to be just right. The third thing is the flu ash it has to be coarse and not fluffy ash as this is hard to capture and provide back to the family as ashes. The engineering has been really difficult to achieve all of this, but we have got there. We have solid global partners who have helped in every step of the way.

So for the innovation process, has collaboration been important?

Yes these 12 suppliers are all very tight with us we need their support and their expertise – we really make the effort and communicate on a regular basis – we believe that ultimately LifeArt will become a standard around the world and having the support of the suppliers and being able to move quickly is imperative. Next year, in particular, we expect to see an increase in the rate of factories and in five years every continent of the world.

There are around 55 million deaths and around 35 million coffins sold throughout world and biggest markets are China and India. China is 50% cremation and India 90%. It is a very big global business – when you organise a funeral and choice is limited. Now for us a brand is key to educate the consumer – the more they are aware of what they are buying this is a good thing.

Was print a key part of the whole concept?

Yes, we actually thought the personalisation would drive the business but hasn’t been that way. The green elements have defined the business. The US is a more expressive culture than Europe and we expect personalisation to be bigger here. In Europe, the green credentials we have are of bigger significance. For example, we produce 97% less nitrous oxide and 80% fewer trees to produce and we use FSC stock. We try to minimise this as much as possible and want to become 100% neutral in terms of our carbon emission.

Who is the target market?

We market ourselves B to C and we sell B to B, The funeral director is the person we sell to – these are the people the consumer purchases from. So we do a lot of education with the funeral directors. We spend a lot of time educating this and a lot of them have pre-established ideas, demonstrate the product and show them the statistics. Most people get the green concept and not everyone gets the personalisation. Yet. We hope that eventually you will get 50% personalised and gives families a different and personalised way to help grieve.
What has been the single biggest challenge with bringing LifeArt to market?
Getting the product right. Without this, nothing happens! We now are very comfortable with the product and above all this has been the challenge. Without the product, you can’t have the brand and the sales.

How do you sell?

I am well known in the industry. All the major players in the world. We do this through trade shows, but what I find now is I get enormous support from people in the industry who want to help us make it happen. People believe our product is right for the future and these people help us without financial incentive as they believe in the product and the brand, they believe we are doing the right thing for the industry. We are a small group but having said that when we start a new facility we partner with a new people locally who work with us. Fundamentally, if they don’t get what we are doing, we find that people are interested, understand, then they know their market and they open their doors.

How do you print?

The process we use with is flatbed printers. The printing is not the entire key. The board itself is critical to the patents which allow us to structure. We have different brands – we don’t standardise and we probably won’t – we do a simple print cut and glue exercise and manually put the coffin together. We are in the process of confirming a method for automation to help efficiency, so we are looking at robotics – we are interested in box folding automaton so if there is anyone who can help we would be interested in talking to them. It takes 30 mins to assemble. 

How important is your leadership?

I don’t know if it is that important, I see leadership as about sticking to your beliefs. We are sustainable and affordable and the business (product) must be branded and tell the story correctly and so on. We often chat to new entrants – there is an old saying in industry: 'Come back next year'! They expect you not to stay around so it important to be very active but consistent. 

I personally love the excitement of growth and helping people to reduce their carbon footprint, this is real, I think it is good for people and society. There is nothing worse than a product that is bad for the environment, with a low level of choice and that doesn’t give people any closure. I think that in 10 years LifeArt will be the norm, it is like a generational shift and this change is unstoppable. The fact is that traditional coffins do produce nitrous oxide! This is bad, you can’t abate it, it occurs in the product. LifeArt product produces 297 times less and this is compelling and a mission worth continuing.

Mike Grehan will be presenting at LiT 18 in Cambridge, UK on 28th June, why not join us?