I was pretty rude last week about AB Walker and Son. Having been so, I fired off an email to Julian Walker offering a platform for a riposte.
Within a few days I had a reply. It was a cheery reply, a generous reply: the reply of a man who is confident but not at all arrogant, not a bit of it. “Congratulations,” he said, “on your move to push for more debate, openness, variety and choice of funeral options.” It’s what he wants for his clients, too. He is going to make some changes to his company’s website. He invited me to come and see for myself how his business does things and make a properly informed appraisal. I had already rather supposed that AB Walker and Son is a very good business, and several people have written to tell me that that is exactly what it is. But I shall certainly pay a visit. It is always good to spend time with people to whom funerals really matter.
How very different from the home life of our own, dear Co-operative Funeralcare. Judging by their reluctance to respond to stinging criticism and regular exposure of their worst inadequacies, they seem to regard themselves as immune from consumer examination, a juggernaut armour-plated by the bullshit they pay PR and advertising people to plaster them with. It’s unaccountable. I think they’re too smart to be rated stupid. If they had a really good story to tell about themselves they would fall over themselves to tell it. But they don’t. It’s money that does their talking. Funeralcare is expanding so fast it must reckon itself unstoppable. It’s a bit like the tanks rumbling into Tiananmen Square.
Do big chains of funeral directors provide the service and value you can get from a really good independent? Mostly, no. Why not? Too big = impersonal. Too greedy. There’re quite a lot of predating venture capitalists out there, you know, gorging on death. For them, funerals are a fast-track to mountains of moolah and they’re devouring independents as fast as they can. What’s a funeral director’s ideal size? Well, there’s no such thing as too small. What’s too big? There’s a topic for another day. Are there some truly awful tiny independents out there? Yes, there truly are. You can’t be too careful.
The sheer nastiness and cruelty of some of the big chains was brought home to me by the experience of a young man whom I shall not name, but whose story I have verified. When the funeral director for whom he worked was bought out,
“the whole company ethos changed, and I found that it was really at odds with my way of caring for and helping the clients. Something had to give. Having obstructed and objected to almost all of the new ways of working, I decided I could no longer continue, and began to look for another post with an independent firm. No such post being available in the area, and with my parents’ support, I began to look for premises in which I could open my own funeral home offering the standard of care and service I felt should always be given.”
It wasn’t straightforward. He had signed a non-compete clause with the big chain and undertaken not to open a rival business within 5 miles. He found premises more than five miles away – but more than five miles by road, not as the crow flies. For an undeviating crow the journey was a smidgen under.
“They made my life very difficult and did all in their power to prevent me from opening. I was threatened with high court action, I was followed by their staff, I was photographed going about my business and generally harassed as much as was practical. However, by this stage my mind was made up. After several threats of high court action and the like I felt I had no other negotiating power left so contacted our local newspaper, a reporter was sent to interview me, photographs were taken and a scathing article was written about them. The result – no further communications! Much relieved I began trading. On 1st April I will begin my fifth year’s trading. During the first four years I have been well supported by local families and to date the number of funerals has increased year on year.”
Why the mafia tactics? Inferiority complex, for sure. If you can’t join them, beat them. Up. The guilty company in the case above was the Fairways Partnership, ceo David Hendry. Fairways was bought up in 2006 by Funeralcare, present ceo none other than, you guessed it, the very selfsame David Hendry.
The funeral industry has been subjected to far too little piercing and informed consumer scrutiny. Together, we must change that.