Some funeral directors reach for the brass casket. Vince Sharkey sees no shame in going for the cardboard.While national chains are gobbling up independent funeral homes, Sharkey has taken a huge bite out of their market locally, handling more bodies at his All County Funeral Home in Lake Worth than any other home in Florida.
He charges less -- a lot less.
Competitors from the largest funeral home chains in the world have been forced to deal with the Vince factor -- a phenomenon that makes just about everyone else look overpriced by comparison.
The average basic service fee charged by funeral homes in Broward and Palm Beach counties is $1,350. Sharkey charges $250. The simplest cremation averages $1,223 at other local homes. Sharkey's price: $300.
"Why do I charge so much less? Why don't you ask them why they are so much more?" Sharkey said. "There's really no need for funeral expenses to be as high as they are."
Sharkey's machine owes its success to a single word: volume.
Blunt-spoken and scrappy, Sharkey learned the business as a teen-ager by helping out at a local funeral home. He built All County in part by breaking one of the industry's unspoken rules: He put his prices -- and sometimes his competitors' -- in his ads.
All County dwarfs the competition in Palm Beach County, grabbing 16 percent of the market. No other individual home draws even 1 percent. Sharkey handled an astounding 1,908 deaths in 1998, more than 80 percent of them cremations -- typically the least expensive way to dispose of a loved one.
"He is the leader in the low-cost funeral," said Bradford Zahn, owner of the Tillman Funeral Home in West Palm Beach. "Not everybody likes him, because his prices are so low."
Funeral directors all over South Florida know about Sharkey, mostly because customers ask about the prices in his many advertisements. Chain and independent directors alike view Sharkey as a cut-rate operator.
"He gets bodies out of Miami to (go to) Lake Worth. Why? Because of the price," said Joseph Scarano, owner of Joseph A. Scarano Pines Memorial Chapel in Pembroke Pines. "They don't care if he's in Alaska. He's cheap."
Vince Sharkey, of All County Funeral Home and Crematory in Lake Worth, broke ground by printing his prices, the lowest in the area, in his advertisements.
Take a walk through Sharkey's showroom for a lesson on beating the competition to the bottom line. He points out an item standing against his showroom wall.
It's the cheapest receptacle in which a body legally can be cremated. In the trade, it's referred to as an "alternative minimum container." It's a cardboard box.
At the competition, it can cost $100 or more. At Sharkey's, it sells for $25.
Sharkey revels in tweaking the competition, particularly the national chains.
"For the longest time I was made fun of," he said. "Now it's become a real eye-opener for them."
His competitors fight back by comparing his service to a fast-food drive-through. Some wonder aloud how it's possible for him to charge so little.
"He must be cutting corners somewhere," said Julian Almeida, vice president of Palms West Funeral Home in Royal Palm Beach and former general manager of the Service Corporation International funeral homes in Palm Beach County (Dignity Memorial).
In an apparent attempt to counter the Vince factor, funeral home giants SCI (Dignity Memorial) and Loewen Group have opened discount operations only blocks away from All County.
Almeida believes the chains are losing money with their low-price shops and are willing to do it to cut into Sharkey's volume.
SCI (Dignity Memorial) even renamed its long-established E. Earl Smith funeral home All Choice at E. Earl Smith, strikingly similar to its popular neighbor.
Yet Sharkey's business grows.
Almeida said it's impossible for traditional funeral homes, which cater to all levels of clients, to match Sharkey's prices, because they don't have the same volume of business.
Palms West charges $945 for a no-frills cremation, competitive with most funeral homes -- but still three times what Sharkey gets.
"I can't go any lower, or I wouldn't be in business," Almeida said.
Not content with his place in the low-end market, Sharkey opened a chapel called Del Lago Chapel near his Lake Worth headquarters for the higher-profit part of the business -- the full-service funeral. He handled 41 burials in 1998.
And even though it got him where he is, Sharkey protests his reputation as a cut-rate funeral outlet store.
"I do the same exact thing as they do," he said, "but for a lot less."