Category Archives: Dignity

Don’t expect Dignity to solve funeral poverty

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

getty_rm_photo_of_dog_biting_mans_ankle

 

Yesterday we let the interns loose on the blog and they impulsively passed on an appeal to readers to write to Mike McCollum of Dignity plc and ask him to do his bit in the fight against funeral poverty.

What they conspicuously failed to do was identify a single reason why Mr McCollum and Dignity should feel any moral obligation whatever to alleviate funeral poverty. Is anyone clamouring for Harrods to eliminate the need for food banks? Or for Waterstones to supply the children of needy families with Penguin Classics?

Sure, a great many people feel the big six energy companies should be doing more to alleviate fuel poverty, but this goes with a conviction that the energy companies overcharge because the energy market is not free, open and competitive. The funerals market, on the contrary, is free to the point of free-for-all. Dignity sells its funerals at a premium. Is a Dignity funeral the MacBook Air of funerals? Is it a high value product? Don’t answer, it’s irrelevant. People buy them, end of. They can buy cheaper if they shop around.

While Dignity ploughs its high-end furrow to the delight of its shareholders and the enrichment of Mr McCollum — that’s capitalism — there are hundreds of undertakers working with people who struggle to scrape together the price of a funeral. These undertakers are performing what is essentially a social service. They are decent folk who care, and they are beggaring themselves with tiny margins and bad debt. They’ve been bearing much of the brunt of the way things are since the shrinking of the Funeral Payment. By doing so, they’ve arguably been doing no more than postponing a crisis at their own expense, putting off the day when, as a country, we are compelled finally to sit down and sort this problem.

Because, we remind ourselves, the Funeral Payment was brought in (by a Tory government) to enable everyone to buy a decent funeral. We have such a long history in this country of state subsidy for funerals that it has become an automatic expectation — a right. If that has now changed, then the government has a duty to register the change and explain it. You can’t just pull away a prop and expect people with no money to carry on as if it were still there.

Nor can you expect undertakers to perform a commercial service at a price which prevents them from making a living commensurate with the value of that service. Good undertakers offer a high value service and deserve to make a decent living. It is folly and distraction to expect them to take one for the poor. If Dignity lowers its prices, does that make its funerals affordable? No. If it subsidises low-cost funerals at the expense of its wealthier customers, is that fair? Of course not. The cheapest undertaker in the country cannot provide an affordable funeral for someone who qualifies for a Funeral Payment. So while it may give passing pleasure to have a go at the fatcats, let’s not mistake righteous indignation for impotent fury.

And while we’re about it, let’s stop wilfully missing the point. Two factors which inflate the cost of funerals can easily be addressed. First, cremation can be carried out much more efficiently. Second, we can start re-using burial plots. To do so wouldn’t make funerals affordable for all, but it would make a decent-sized dent. Squeezing the undertakers, on the other hand, won’t make a blind bit of difference. There are enough already working for next to nothing.

The root cause of funeral poverty is political. The impact is social. The solution needs to be radical and will not be advanced by waving a bleeding stump at Mr McCollum.

It’s your line to Mike McCollum

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

MikeMcCollum_316197c

 

Church Action on Poverty and Quaker Social Action are holding an event which will bring together charities, communities, policy-makers and the funeral industry to seek joint solutions to the growing problem of funeral poverty.

They say: “It’s really important that all sides are represented at the event and participate in finding solutions. Unfortunately, Dignity Funerals – the largest corporate owner of funeral directors in the UK – has declined every invitation sent to them.”

They’d like you to email Mike McCollum, the ceo of what is probably Britain’s most expensive undertaker, and tell him he really ought to get down there.

Come on, Mike, make an effort and try and look good. The GFG’ll be there. We can talk about what to do with your share options.

Please send Mike an automatic email and explain why it’s so important he attends this event and gets involved in finding solutions to funeral poverty. Click here.

Shares

 

NOTE to the uninitiated: a LTIP is a long-term incentive plan. The above is the third coponent of their total package and is not awarded automatically

The Co-op is dying, long live the co-op

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Outside a Co-operative Funeralcare funeral home

 

“Every private equity company in the country has been in touch to try and buy its funerals operation.” Lord Myners

  In recent times the Co-op’s reputation has been kept afloat by sentiment fostered by its of-the-people-for-the-people origins, fortified by ‘ethical values’ and holier-than-thou policies on fair trade. Fondness has blinded people who should know better to its executive infirmities. Scarcely a day goes by without the announcement of fresh horror at the top. And the bad news stories about Funeralcare just keep on coming:

 

Mirror

Source

With a £2 billion loss behind it for the last year alone, and strife at the top, the viability of the ‘Group’ is now in doubt.

The GFG has earned a fair amount of hate mail for the way it has campaigned against Co-op Funeralcare. We’ve done so more in sorrow than in anger. No need for a detailed analysis of where it all went wrong, the bare bones tell the story.

Funeralcare offers a very poor deal to funeral shoppers — something all the sentimentalists who’ve tenaciously viewed the Co-op through hogwash-smeared spectacles must now acknowledge. At a time of funeral poverty and ever-rising costs its social purpose seems to have gone AWOL, the pursuit of profit remaining its sole purpose.

The predicament of the Co-op Group is dire. If things don’t get better the Co-op’s banks will have no option but to seize its assets and sell them off. Funeralcare remains vulnerable therefore to circling venture capitalists (see quote above). Under new management it could relaunch as a corporate predator — a dreadful legacy. 

And a harsh but necessary lesson for all those sentimentalists who suppose that a co-op is intrinsically better equipped to do business than a plc. The lesson we must hope they have learned is that there is no point in trading as a co-operative if you can’t get a better deal for your customers. If you can’t do that, your co-operative is a failure no matter what ethical values it signs up to.

The good news is that if any activity lends itself to a social enterprise business model it is the provision of funerals. No other model can compete. One of these days someone is going to get it right (and Dignity is going to go to the wall). Whether it’s member-owned or worker-owned, it’ll do more than walk like a co-op and talk like a co-op, it’ll act like a co-op.

FOOTNOTE: The GFG does not seek to make a name for itself by naffing people off. We exist to look for good news wherever we can find it and put bereaved people in touch with the best suppliers of goods and services. We like the co-operative model so much we even developed our own — here

Dignity marches on

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Dignity

 

The Times has reported Dignity plc’s results here(£). Briefly:

Pre-tax profits are up 15 per cent to £52.9 million.

Prepaid funerals contributed £6.7 million of this.

The bonus pool is £2.5 million and all fulltime staff have been given ‘a payout equivalent to’ £1000.

Final shareholder dividend of 11.83p a share, an increase of 10 per cent on last year.

Market share now 12 per cent.

68,000 funerals conducted last year, up from 63,200 in 2012

In the last year, 40 funeral homes and 2 crematoria acquired.

Share price rose 13p yesterday afternoon to £15. City slickers well pleased.

Dignity’s position is, of course, vulnerable to consumer awareness of its relatively expensive  funerals and its relationship with Age UK; and to disruptive intervention in the crematoria market on the US crematory model.

Over to you, Mr Plume.

Tom Quixote

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Tom Quixote from Matthew Hayes on Vimeo.

 

 

Family funeral director Tom Crean has spent the last 30 years tilting at windmills. Tom Quixote tells the story of his struggle against the corporate takeover of the North American funeral industry, during which he has had a run-in with Hollywood, saved a cemetery and beaten the conglomerates at their own game.

WINNER – Best Film (Jury Selection) – 2013 Annapolis Valley Short Film Festival
WINNER – Best Screenplay – 2013 Annapolis Valley Short Film Festival

Don’t charge, don’t care?

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Heaviside

 

Chvonne Heaviside

A mother whose son was stillborn is calling for an investigation after his ashes were not returned to her for over a yearreports the Northern EchoA spokesman for Speckmans Funeral Service, part of Dignity Funerals, said: “We collected the cremated remains and returned them to the funeral home with the intention of contacting the family but unfortunately a member of staff did not follow our usual procedures and this did not happen. A senior manager visited Ms Heaviside to profusely apologise for this oversight and assured her that our procedures have been reinforced so that this does not happen to another client.

An incident of negligence like this can sometimes be an indicator of institutional negligence. This being so, it is entirely permissible to speculate on what other negligent conduct may go on at Speckmans, and therefore the entire Dignity plc operation, that we don’t know about because it doesn’t reach the press.

Baby funerals are carried out under contract. They normally don’t make any money for a funeral home and, where they don’t, may be an invidious duty — a nuisance. And so we are entitled to speculate, without over-exciting Dignity’s libel lawyers, whether the failure to put Ms Heaviside in touch with her baby’s ashes was simply because no one could be bothered. We are entitled to wonder what other carelessness might have been accorded to other babies in Speckmans’ care. 

Corporate funeral directors customarily respond to a scandalous incident by promising to reinforce procedures. Were it the case that the staff at Speckmans had slipped up because no one cared enough, it is unlikely there would be the remotest chance that reinforcing procedures might incentivise them to give a damn from now on. 

 

Dignity and impudence

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

ageuk

 

I get a lot of email that goes straight into the cyberrecycling bin. This, though, possibly warrants a response. 

Hello Charles, 

How are you? I hope you don’t mind me getting in touch. My name’s Izabela and I work for a digital marketing company called Greenlight helping to spread awareness about Age UK. As you blog is entirely devoted to Funeral Planning, I was thinking you may be interested in the information about the Age UK funeral plans  www.ageuk.org.uk/products/products/financial-products–services/funeral-plan/ 

I thought that could be something potentially  interesting for your readers and perhaps you can find this information useful in the future when creating new content. 

Let me know I you have any questions. 

Kind regards 

Izabela Kawecka

Lifestyle Outreach Specialist | Greenlight

If small is beautiful, look lovely

Thursday, 4 April 2013

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There isn’t a single successful business in Britain that doesn’t seek to grow through mergers and acquisitions. Consolidation, they call it. It’s a factor of competitive capitalism. Or greed, if you prefer. Whichever. The bigger you are, the more efficiently you can trade. Efficiency enables you to bring your prices down, blow off competitors — and hey Tesco.  As Roberto Mancini, manager of Manchester City FC, would say, “Ees normal”.

So far so bad for Britain’s independent undertakers. Your days are surely numbered. Consolidation is under way. There’s no future for plankton in an ocean ruled by whales.

If you don’t believe it, consider the fate of our brewers. In 1900 there were 1,324 distinct beweries in England. By 1975 there were 141. Ees normal.

The technological development that made this possible was the invention of keg beers, which are sterilised and lifeless. They have a much longer life than living cask beers. They do not need to be kept so carefully, they can be transported for longer distances and they’re cheaper when they get there. Under the influence of advertising, consumers in the ’70s were easily persuaded to enjoy just a limited number of national brands. The little breweries could not afford to advertise. Older (elderly) readers of this blog will recall with misty eyes the halcyon days of Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond, the Co-op and Dignity of their time.

The development which is making it possible today for the big players in the deathcare market to burn off the independents is, of course, the pay-now-die-later funeral plan whereby you stitch up tomorrow’s market share today. The adoption of embalming from America has arguably been a useful technology, too.

So what happened to Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond, younger readers may ask. And where can I get some?

Well, just when the big brewers thought the field was theirs, something interesting happened. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) happened, the tables were turned and, sorry younger readers, the victorious keg beers were poured down the drains of history.

Camra’s campaign stimulated an appetite for well-made beers and choice. It appealed also to romantic values — and the great British pub is nothing if not steeped in nostalgia. In the words of James Watt, managing director of craft brewers BrewDog, “People want something better, something ethical, and something made by passionate people … I think there is growing disillusionment with products which are generic and mass-produced.”

He’s right, of course.  The total number of breweries in England is back up from 141 to around 700 and rising. Which is why Camra is credited as the most successful single-issue consumer campaign of all time. In economists’ jargon, economies of scale have been trumped by economies of scope (choice). The big brewers can’t compete with the micro-breweries, most of which brew a variety of ales, because the production of small batches of cask beers does not fit profitably into scale production operations.

Camra, you may think, restored beer to its Golden Age. You’d be wrong. One of the reasons why keg beers were able to gain such traction was because most small brewers back in the day made ale that was cloudy, sour and full of sediment. Pretty horrible stuff, much of it. Today’s micro-brewers are of a far higher calibre than their forebears. The Golden Age of ale is, in fact, now. Camra didn’t turn the clock back, it wound it forward.

Is it possible that Britain’s independent undertakers might buck economic orthodoxy in the same way as the micro-brewers and chase off the purveyors of keg funerals?

They have a lot going for them. Like the micro-brewers, and unlike makers of, say, artisan cheese, they can compete on price with the consolidated undertakers. Better still, so incompetent and greedy are the consolidated undertakers that indie undertakers are universally cheaper. It’s absurd! The big players could fight back by starting a price war — but the likelihood of their doing so seems small. The micro-brewers are able to compete because of Gordon Brown’s 2002 Progressive Beer Duty (alternatively known as Small Brewers Relief), a 50 per cent reduction in beer duty for those breweries producing less than 5,000 hectolitres of beer. Indie undertakers need no such leg-up.

A great many of today’s indies are as good as it gets and much better than the generality of smalltime undertakers of the past. They have a lot in common with our micro-brewers: they’re intelligent, savvy and skilful — a new breed. They are characterful, individualistic and very much their own people, a welcome contrast with the corporates who tend towards bland homogeneity in spite of some excellent staff at branch level.

Because indies are passionate business owners, they are prepared to work incredibly hard. They offer a service which is of and for their community. They offer a quality of personal service which is everything a funeral shopper could want. Personal service does not fit profitably into scale production operations. 

It is unlikely that a Camref (the Campaign for Real Funerals) could achieve for undertaking what Camra has achieved so rapidly for beer, the thirst for the latter being the stronger. What’s more, most funeral shoppers have no idea that there are such brilliant indies out there.

So it would be good, perhaps, to see our best indies walk with more of a strut, make more noise about what they do and take the fight to the keggists. A well-kept beer is good for drinkers; a well-kept secret is no use to funeral shoppers. 

ED’S NOTE: Real ales are brewed for all occasions and come with all manner of characterful names. They include: Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Bitter Bully, Posh Pooch, Festive Totty, Gonzo Porter, Ragged Bitch, Crop Circle, Summer Lightning, Bishop’s Farewell, Truffler Dry, Bad Elf, Torpedo Extra IPA, Naked Ladies, Storm King, Hop Wallop and Bonkers Conkers.

So far as we know, no maker of real/craft beer brews one specially for funeral wakes. There’s a big market here. If you can’t brew one, can you at least suggest a good name?

Is Dignity overvalued, over-leveraged and operationally insecure?

Thursday, 14 March 2013

broke

 Image source

 

A couple of copies of the Investors Intelligence have come to our attention. In them, financial analyst Aubrey Brocklebank entertains doubts about the viability of Dignity plc. 

He expresses himself very technically, so some of his argument and most of the graphs go somewhat over the heads of Team GFG. We’d be interested to know what they say to you.

Here are extracts from Brocklebank:

The bull-case on Dignity is very simple. It is a very safe, stable, and predictable business. People will keep on dying, despite any recession, and they will need to be buried or cremated. Dignity is also a very cash generative business and that has been exploited to use leverage to generate significant returns for shareholders.

It is a very simple and convincing argument, and it is one that has won over many institutional holders.

This argument is however seriously flawed.

The number of funerals or cremations per unit is dropping (as expected) though the only means that Dignity have been able to use to increase revenues is by price increases and acquisitions.

The cost of a basic funeral has risen 6.2% per annum since 2004. However it is the cost of burials, up 9.9%, that has caused much of this increase. Thus the 5.7% increase in prices posted by Dignity is above market average once one has stripped away the increased cost of burial.

This gives Dignity very little room to increase prices and remain competitive with the competition. It is also possible given the scale of Dignity’s price in comparison with the competition that prices could soon come down. This may not necessarily be due to like-for-like prices having to be reduced but customers opting for less expensive offerings … By cutting the amount spent per funeral Dignity could suffer a significant fall in earnings.

Whilst it may take some bravery to short this stock the low volatility of the share price, the low growth estimates, and the low implied returns, do mean that there is very little upside to Dignity even if all goes well for them, and they certainly lack the safety that the story would suggest!

Concerning Dignity’s acquisition of Yew Holdings at the beginning of the year, Brocklebank observes:

It is curious that the average price per funeral charged by Yew is £1565 compared to Dignity’s £2,350 when Yew have an EBITDA margin of 46% comparative to Dignity’s 34.7%. Thus their margins can only be held up by sales volumes. Should Dignity raise prices and find a significant fall in volume then they could see a significant drop in EBITDA.

If Dignity are not very careful with their handling of this acquisition it is quite possible that this could be the straw that breaks the proverbial back.

Find Brocklebank’s articles here and here

 

 

Trebles all round

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Money in jar

From the Evening Standard

Dignity, the funeral care specialist, has again shown there is only one line of work guaranteed to be recession-proof: death.

The group increased the number of funerals it performed to 63,200 last year as it benefited from a rise in deaths in Britain to 551,000.

This helped Dignity, the UK’s only-listed funeral care operator, post a 13% rise in full-year pre-tax profits to £45.4 million, with revenues up 9% to £229.6 million, driven by its raising the average cost of a funeral to £3500.

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