The last 12 months have been a challenge for us in regards to banking and our long term debt. Last spring the bank we had been doing business with for the past 15 years decided that they didn’t want to do business with us anymore. I admit that we had a couple of years where the numbers didn’t look as good as we would have liked them to be. But we never missed a payment nor were we ever late. And after some tough decisions we felt we were finally on the road to recovery.

Unfortunately most banks really have no idea about the unique aspects of the funeral business. Like the fact that people pre-pay for funerals but the funeral homes can’t touch any of that money until the death occurs. Or the fact that we normally pay for things like Newspaper obituaries, cemetery fees, crematory and church fees out of our pocket and then wait for the family to pay us back. This basically means we loan the family over $1000.00 on a typical funeral, yet we charge no interest for that service.

So every couple of years the bank (which is no longer locally owned or operated) would assign some new young commercial loan officer to my account and I would spend several hours teaching them about the funeral business. And although they usually got the general concepts down, this last time they were unable to convince the upper management that we were still worthy of their business. To the folks at the head office we were just numbers on a page and they didn’t give a rip about us. So I shopped our loans to ten other  banks in the area and all of them said the same thing; thanks, but no thanks.

Then last fall my wife, Jodi, ran into our good friend Doug Gober at a meeting. We’ve known Doug for nearly 20 years through relationships with York casket and other funeral companies. Doug had just taken a job with Live Oak Bank, who had decided that the funeral business was a good segment of the market to get into (unlike the rest of the banking world). Doug was their funeral expert on staff and he can look at a funeral home and their books and quickly tell if the business is headed in the right direction. He set us up a meeting with the bank during the NFDA Convention in October. We provided Live Oak with the data they needed and before the convention was over they had made us an offer.

It was a pleasure and a relief  to finally talk to banking folks who understood what I had been going through. (please see an earlier blog post – “double whammy”) They also understood that what I needed was a little boost to get me going again. Not unlike a lot of people in America, we had borrowed some money from several places to do some things to improve our business. But when the economy took a dive and the funeral business drastically changed we got caught in the undertow and were working real hard to keep our head above water.

Live Oak Bank is a preferred SBA Lender. That means all their loans go through the SBA which means they are backed by the federal government. They don’t have branches or checking accounts or give away toasters. They only do commercial SBA loans to a few kinds of businesses. And they are really good at what they do. They looked at what we had, they looked at what we needed and they even made some great suggestions for places where we could improve. It was our own little bail-out plan.

The process was not without its challenges. The SBA requires lots of information and records and environmental testing and more. Live Oak walked us through every step and made sure we got what was required to make sure the whole thing would be approved by the SBA. (most banks have very little experience with this) Finally after 4 months we signed the papers and the funds were transferred. It was a big load off my shoulders and I was finally able to get everybody paid off and lower our monthly payments by nearly 50%. Plus the term of the loan was for 25 years which means I don’t have to go through this whole thing again like you do with typical commercial loans with 5 years balloons. Now I can budget and plan and maybe get this thing paid off early too.

Live Oak now has assigned us a personal banker to look at our books quarterly and makes sure we are staying on track. I like that. It means I’m more than just a number on a page. It means Live Oak Bank is invested in helping me succeed.

I’m Dale Clock. Thanks for Listening.

Today I worked the parking lot for a funeral service. A very rare occasion since we hardly ever go in procession to the cemetery any more. It was March 20th and it was a sunny 82 degrees in Michigan, a record high, so it was great day to be outside. As I worked the main gate, greeting folks and directing them where to park it reminded me of how much working the parking lot was the training ground for so many of us in the funeral business.

When I moved up from washing the cars in junior high to wearing a suit and tie and actually working with the public during my High School and College summers, the parking lot is where I was first trained in the fine art of directing people. Getting people to the right place, at the appointed time in a neat and orderly fashion. It’s one of hallmarks of a well run funeral home. There are tricks of the trade that are never written down but passed along from one generation to the next. And the lessons that I learned in the parking lot have served me well in many other areas of my life.

For many years Joe was the parking lot general. It was the job of the person working the evening visitation to get a car list from the family. We had special forms printed up for this. The form indicated who was riding in the limos and who was driving there own cars. An hour before the service started the funeral cars were put out in their proper position. Joe would get the car list and take his post at the main gate. There were often as many as four people working the lot. Rain or shine. Freezing in the winter snow with furry hats and boots or sweating in the hot sun because we always kept our black suit coats on.

Joe taught me to ask the folks these questions in this exact order because it was the quickest way to determine where to park them. 1. Are you here for the Smith funeral? 2. Will you be driving this car to the cemetery? 3. Are you a member of the family? If yes, how are you related? Once Joe decided where they should park he would use elaborate  hand signals to the other guys working the lot. It was quite a sight, kind of like the guys at the airport or a traffic cop. Joe had different signs for pall bearers and ministers or “No Goes”. If we didn’t pay attention he’d holler at us. He taught me not to stand in front of the cars while pulling them up but off to the side other wise you could get pinned in between the cars. And to put the flags on the passenger side so when you collect them at the cemetery you can also open the doors for the ladies.

While these may seem rather trivial it taught me how the little details and clearly telling folks what’s going to happen and where they should go always makes the events run smoother and the people happier in the long run. When I became an Officer in the US Navy after college I noticed how similar things were handled there. Everything had a check list and a procedure and a specific way to give commands to make sure everybody knew exactly what to do. Not only did it make things run better, often our lives depended on it.

But life in the funeral business has changed. At over 60% cremation we only go in procession to the cemetery on rare occasions now. Things started to change when cemeteries started building chapels instead of using tents at the grave. Then the cemeteries changed the rules and wouldn’t allow us to bring procession during the winter for fear of someone slipping and suing the cemetery. Then we started having receptions at the funeral home and people placed more value in the party after the service than the parade to the cemetery. We still go to the grave with the family but we don’t go in procession much any more.

There are days when I miss the old ways. It gave us a chance to show how well we worked as a team and how organized we were. But then I remember the snowy 20 degree days freezing my rear end off and think maybe it was time for a change.

A special shout out to my funeral director blogging buddy Ray, who recently mentioned getting to the church early with no parking signs in his blog. We used to do that all the time too. But now the churches where we used to do it the most have all gone to cremation. So the signs are gathering dust in the garage. Oh Well

I’m Dale Clock. Thanks for listening.

It Is Personal

I’m sure this happens to other funeral directors all over the country.

You know people around town. You come in contact with them at church, at the clubs and associations you belong to or at restaurants you frequent. Maybe they are high school classmates from years ago. Maybe they are your children’s friends parents that you’ve gotten to know at sporting events or dance recitals. You see them at funerals and visitations that you are working at. You develop a relationship with them. Sometimes those relationships are pretty close and sometimes those relationships have existed for 20 plus years.

Then a death occurs in their family and they call the “other” funeral home in town.

When that happens to me I tend to take it very personally.  It feels like a total rejection of who I am and what I stand for. It hurts me deeply, right down to my core. I rarely show up at the visitation or service to pay my respects because I feel like if they didn’t call me to help them through their tough time, they don’t want to see me at all. I’d just make them uncomfortable or feel guilty.

Some people may think that what I’m really upset about is the money that I’m not making off of this family. I will admit that the financial side is part of it. In these days, in this economy, with the dramatic shift in our mix of business I need every funeral I can get, just to keep the doors open. I know the public thinks that the funeral industry is recession proof and people will always need us. But they have no clue, nor do they care, how challenging these times are business wise for so many of us in the funeral business. But it is the emotional rejection that I feel that hurts the most.

So I commiserate in private or with my fellow employees who understand, because they feel like this too when it happens to them. We try to figure out why they called the other funeral home. Did they know somebody that worked there? Was it family tradition or was there a pre-arrangement from years ago? Was it location or a perceived price difference? Did I say or do something that ticked them off? Did they not like my therapy dog or the latest remodel I did or the fact that we are moving away from the old traditions and trying some new stuff like Life Stories and Videos? The list could go on for several paragraphs.

Chances are I’ll never know. Because when I see them the next time I’ll just be nice and act like nothing happened. And they will have no idea how much their decision effected me personally. For them it was like deciding whether to go to Chili’s or Applebee’s for dinner. I’ve talked with some non-funeral industry friends about this and they tell me I have to learn not to take it so personally. That it will just drive me crazy. I know they’re right and usually I get over it in a couple days. Until the next time it happens and I go through it all over again.

I’m Dale Clock. Thanks for Listening

OK, so it’s been far too long since I’ve made a post. I know.

I’ve been working hard on my building project to move back into the funeral home. It’s hard to believe I’ve been working on this for over a year now. Like lots of projects, one thing always seems to lead to another and the small thing we were going to do turns into several big projects. So here’s where things stand right now.

Floor Jacks Under Kitchen

I jacked up the main floor under the living room and the kitchen and repaired the cut and broken floor joists. Then I built a new bearing wall in the living room so we can put in new and bigger stairs.

New Bearing Wall

I sistered (glued, nailed and screwed) 20 foot 2×10’s to the old sagging upstairs floor joists above the Living room (those buggers are heavy pieces of wood). I did this to give a lot more support to the floor and to level the whole thing out.

Floor Joists before

New Vents and Sistered Joists

Then I had my heating and cooling guy run new vent pipes to heat that section and also put in cold air returns. With that completed I hauled 15 4×8 sheets of tongue and groove floor boards upstairs and installed them over the new floor joists. I was pretty proud of all of that spent some time doing my “Tim the Toolman” imitation and admiring all my work. With then new floor in I have been able to build new stud walls in that section for two bedrooms and closets. The smell of new wood is much better than all the dirt I’ve been breathing during the demolition phases

New Floor and studwalls

I have also completely gutted the main floor kitchen and half bath. Discovered a hidden brick chimney in the corner of the room and removed that. I gutted the upstairs bathrooms, broke up the cast iron porcelain tubs with a sledge hammer and removed the floor there in preparation for sistering new floor joists in that section like I did in the other. This also allowed me to cut out the existing cast iron plumbing drain system with a rented pipe cutter. Those pipes were really heavy, as was the tool to cut them. It’s no wonder the floor sagged.

Old Plumbing

I have done all of this pretty much by myself. I only get to work on this as the funeral schedule allows so it’s kind of hard to get friends to help because I can’t plan things to far in advance. I’ve loaded three 15 yard dumpsters already and probably still have a couple more to go. It’s also been a big help to have google and youtube along with my Black and Decker Home Improvement “Bible”. I’ve learned a lot of this stuff from reading watching and having 4 hour marathon sessions of “Holmes on Homes” and “Holmes Inspection”. Between all of those sources I can usually figure most things out. I learned a saying from a wise old friend once. He said “Projects are 80% in the head and 20% in the hands”. He was right, so I do a lot of thinking and preparing before I start swinging a hammer.

Now that I’ve learned so much, the rest of the project should go a little faster. We hope to have enough of it done to be moved in by summer time.

I’ll be working on a post about what’s been happening at the Funeral Home next.

I’m Dale Clock. Thanks for listening.

At the recent NFDA convention in Chicago I attended six different seminars.

There were several that had different titles but talked about the same stuff. Mike Turkiewicz from Funernet and Lynn Elliot from Media Demographics both gave good presentations that talked about what’s ahead as far as advertising and the internet. They both talked about the importance of having a presence on social media (Facebook and LinkedIn. And they both talked about making sure your web site is mobile friendly because many people will need to access your information from their cell phone and it’s important to make it easy for them to see the info they need. They also talked about Google ranking and Google place pages. I recently read/listened to a couple books about Google and I am positive that for the next few years Google will be leading people to our doorstep more than any other advertising media. And that promoting reviews of your funeral home and making sure all your info is up to date and interesting for viewers will be very important to getting your message out to the public.

In fact I had a challenge a week ago where someone informed Google that my main branch was closed and no longer operating. Google had taken me off their Places list and when I googled “funeral homes Muskegon, MI” my funeral home wasn’t showing up at all. I did some further investigating and found out what had happened, but not how it happened. I went in and updated my places page and magically my funeral home reappeared, and this time at the top of the list. So now I have been checking it weekly to make sure it hasn’t disappeared again. Mike spoke of a client of his who was pretty sure a competitor had done the same thing to him. There wasn’t any way to prove it concretely but all sorts of signs led to that conclusion.

I listened to a talk by Jim McCann from 1-800-Flowers. He gave a two hour presentation where he told how he got started in his business and how he was growing it. Obviously funerals and flower shops have a symbiotic relationship but I didn’t realize that they also had a website called celebrations.com that covered any kind of event. This site not only sells flowers but gifts and cards and gives planning advice for all kinds of events including funerals and memorial gatherings. While some people may think that this is just an FTD type connection to flower shops, 1-800-flowers is branding local flower shops with their name and training the owners how to better serve their customers on a personal basis in addition to offering more and better products. It was clear me that their methods could easily be transferred to the funeral business. And I’m guessing that Jim McCann is thinking that too. It’s not hard to think that a funeral industry outsider, like him, could look at our business in a different way, with much better marketing experience and figure out how to start a national brand of funeral service that serves the ever changing wishes of the public better than the current funeral industry does. When I suggested this possibility at a roundtable meeting with other funeral directors last week they all scoffed at me. They said that a national chain of funeral homes could never duplicate their service to the special nuances of their communities and local culture. I’m guessing that’s what the local pharmacies and hardware stores said about Rite Aid and Home Depot too.

I also got a chance to listen to Doug Gober give a great talk about where he thought funeral service needed go in the future. Doug has been in the funeral industry for over 25 years with York, Carriage Services and now with Live Oak Bank. Part of his talk revolved around his own mother’s recent funeral service. He told about the folder they created that contained the written story of her life and photos that they passed out to people why they were waiting in the receiving line. They also video taped interviews with several special people and then edited those interviews down to 8 minutes for the church service the following day. It was quite impressive, albeit Doug had special help from experienced video folks who stayed up till the wee hours making all that happen. The lesson here was that it was the stories that the people told of Doug’s Mom that made the service so special. Stories in print, in person and on video. Doug also included this video of a memorial service in Singapore. It was produced by the Singapore Government promoting the importance of family. It’s a great example of stories at a service and how important they are.  Watch it, you’ll be glad you did.

Overall I thought the seminars were good and well organized. It’s always unfortunate that there are only so many hours in the day and that some of the seminars I want to go to are scheduled at the same time so I have to choose.

I’m Dale Clock. Thanks for Listening.