Death and the Salesmen

Psst: Wanna buy a truckload of smoke-damaged caskets?

New stuff is dull. Factory-fresh, perfect and perfectly boring.

But every piece of salvage tells a story. Sometimes it's a disaster story: Hurricanes strike, trains derail, trucks tip over. Sometimes it's a story of everyday human failure: Movers chip dining-room sets, businesses declare bankruptcy, inspection seals get broken. In California, someone stopped paying rent on a warehouse containing 270,000 bars of Nivea soap. In McAllen, 44,880 square feet of plywood and red oak got wet and warped. In Florida, someone ordered too many truckloads of mayonnaise.

Bad things happen, and people try to recover what they can. Salvage is about redemption. Incomplete redemption, dimes-on-the-dollar redemption, but still: redemption.

Mike Gorman
Mike Gorman

This is the story of SalvageSale Lot S6923-140.

At Blount, Curry and Roel, as at most funeral homes, the display-room caskets stayed open. That way, the recently bereaved of St. Petersburg, Florida, could stroke the velvet interior of the Polished Bronze model ($18,000) or admire the "moss pink" half-couch inside the Tapestry Rose ($6,125). They could ask themselves where they wanted their beloved to spend all eternity: beneath the high-gloss finish of the Paragon Mahogany ($7,400) or inside the humble, cloth-covered fiberboard of the Herculite Flat-Top ($865)?

Naturally, the caskets were open on the night of December 10, when a vandal set fire to a nearby shed. By the time firefighters arrived, the blaze had spread to the funeral home's attic. The building -- and the open caskets -- filled with smoke.

This was bad. When the newly bereaved are thinking about their loved one and eternity, they do not want to smell smoke. A claims adjuster ruled that the 22 caskets, which would have retailed at $104,840, were total write-offs.

But what happened to the caskets after that? Surely somebody, somewhere, would be willing to buy them at a discount -- but who? And how would the casket owner find the buyer?

Those questions didn't bother Mike Baty, director of funeral operations at Blount, Curry and Roel. "That's why we have insurance," Mike said. He sounded cheerful.

Salvage can be a touchy, secretive business. Sometimes the sellers want to stay mum; nobody wants to trumpet their accidents and overruns to the world. And sometimes it's the buyers who are reticent; even if salvage is cost-efficient, even if it can be made good as new, a customer might get the idea that the company traffics in damaged goods.

Blount, Curry and Roel's insurance company is one of those secretive sellers. It asked not to be named in this story, but it's okay to tell you that it's a large company, one whose name you've heard on TV, and one that encounters problems like this all the time. The company did what it usually does: It paid the policyholder and took possession of the goods.

But what does an insurance company do with 22 smoky coffins? Once, it would have turned to someone like Charlie Wilson's dad, an old-line salvage broker, the kind who traveled to factory explosions to see whether the pieces of twisted steel might be something he could sell. An old-line salvage guy might buy an insurance company's salvage outright, paying pennies on the dollar, or he might arrange to sell it for the company in exchange for half the proceeds.

Charlie grew up in the business. As a kid, he traveled with his dad to the sites of major disasters. At Southwest Texas State University, he studied salvage subjects -- business, technology and meteorology. In 1990, fresh out of college, Charlie took over the domestic side of the family business, while his dad chased offshore deals. After his dad died in '95, Charlie ran the whole thing.

But he didn't operate the way his dad did. He used a database to keep track of supply contacts and customers. He standardized the descriptions of frequently sold commodities like steel. And in '96, tired of overnighting photos to potential buyers, he began uploading the pictures to the Web. In '98, SeaRail started a Web site called SalvageSale, a "storefront" open to all comers.

You remember 1998: Phrases like "B2B" and "Internet startup" seemed like magic spells sure to conjure up money. That said, Charlie's idea was better than most: Why not auction salvage on the Internet?

He packed up his idea and his mountain bike and headed to Silicon Valley. Charlie was an unlikely dot-commer: He was a hair past 30, with "brick-and-mortar" experience in a decidedly unsexy industry. Nonetheless, granted him venture capital. Charlie used it to incorporate, which then bought out its parent, SeaRail. In effect, Charlie's Web site ate his company.

Charlie enjoyed "the cool dot-com culture," but cool wasn't enough to offset Silicon Valley's staggering rents. He moved back to Houston and rented a downtown office in a Class B high-rise -- not the swankest, but not the worst. Up in suite 600, SalvageSale seems perched in a similar netherland. The conference room offers a cityscape view, but the heat is iffy, and the receptionist's dented desk appears to have been salvaged itself. The main decorative touch is a set of Charlie's framed snapshots of salvage he has known: cargo spilling from overturned trucks, towns wrecked by hurricanes, the raw materials of his business.

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