Casket manufacturers can’t rely on one of life’s unquestionable certainties for steady demand anymore. With cremation rising in popularity, the industry is seeking new sources of revenue. In 2010, Hillenbrand Inc., owner of the Batesville Casket Co., began diversifying its business beyond the funeral products industry through acquisitions.

The company’s latest acquisition was its purchase of German extrusion and bulk-material handling equipment manufacturer, Coperion Capital, for 419 million euros, or approximately $545 million. “One area where we have been focusing is manufacturers of process equipment, and the Coperion acquisition fits right into that strategy,” says Diane Bohman, integration leader and senior vice president of corporate strategy at Hillenbrand.

See Also: Lean Manufacturing Leadership Best Practices

Diversification through acquisitions is a strategy many manufacturers have adopted recently to transition away from both volatile and flat markets. Industrial merger and acquisition activity rose 26% in third-quarter 2012 compared with the same three-month period in 2011, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported in its quarterly M&A study. Deal value in the same period increased substantially, up 150%, driven by an increase in “mega deals” valued at $1 billion or more.  PwC expects the increase in M&A activity to continue in 2013 as U.S. manufacturers spend large cash reserves built through restructuring activities over the past several quarters.

While the increase in deals means more potential growth opportunities for manufacturers, it also poses many risks. Integration challenges, including cultural disparities, can offset expected synergies from a merger. M&A professionals responding to a survey released in January by tax and advisory firm KPMG cited cultural, human-capital and operational and rationalization issues as their top integration concerns in 2013.

Mergers and acquisitions are always a gamble, but manufacturers can mitigate some of the inherent risks through due diligence and an integration plan that takes effect early in the process—sometimes before the deal is even complete.

Culture Assessments

If anyone knows the importance planning plays in the acquisition process, it’s Alexander “Sandy” Cutler, president and CEO of diversified manufacturer Eaton (IW 500/72). Eaton’s roots are in auto components manufacturing, but the company has steadily been transitioning into other industries. Since 2000, the Cleveland-based company has acquired about 65 companies, primarily in the electrical, hydraulics and aerospace industries. The $13 billion purchase of electrical equipment supplier Cooper Industries in May 2012 was the company’s largest-ever acquisition.  

Alex Cutler, CEO of EatonThe cultural-integration process actually begins before completing the transaction, Cutler tells INDUSTRYWEEK. Eaton’s assessment of an acquisition prospect includes careful examination of the target company’s ethical standards and leadership style before finalizing a deal. While Eaton has completed many transactions in recent years, the company has also walked away from several proposed deals because of a cultural mismatch, Cutler says. 

“Our rule has always been that no acquisition is better than a bad acquisition, and a bad acquisition can come because you pay too much or because the leadership style and employee culture is so abruptly different than yours that it’s going to take you a very long time to replace it with your own,” Cutler says. Many of Eaton’s acquisitions have been long-time suppliers or customers, which provided Eaton with additional insight into how the firm conducts business, Cutler adds.

When Hillenbrand is looking to acquire a company, it assesses whether the acquisition prospect is “lean ready,” Bohman says. Hillenbrand, based in Batesville, Ind., has a well-established lean program in place that has gained national recognition, including several IW Best Plants awards for its Batesville Casket plants.

Hillenbrand checks whether a company is already involved in lean activities, and if so, how advanced the company is in lean manufacturing. If the company isn’t practicing lean, it analyzes how much instruction would be required to bring it up to speed with Hillenbrand’s program. The assessment process includes a visit to the company’s manufacturing sites and other key areas of activity, including logistics and back-office functions, Bohman says.

“We take a look at how they operate,” Bohman explains. “We talk to the management teams to understand how they think, how they approach their operations, how they measure their activity and results. We also talk to the senior management team to understand their understanding of lean—if they have a different approach that they use. So a lot of it is observation and questions.”

Companies that struggle with mergers often do so because they’ve waited until after the transaction is complete to begin integrating corporate cultures, says Matt Jamison, managing director of investment bank P&M Corporate Finance.

“Too many companies are focused on financial diligence of the transaction and aren’t focused enough on culture and customer retention,” says Jamison, whose firm provides M&A advisory services and worked with Hillenbrand.