With funeral homes, crematories and cemeteries across the country, Foundation Partners Group understands the day-to-day challenges faced by funeral service professionals. In the past few years, we’ve all had to cope with unprecedented changes and find creative solutions to support our teams and the families we serve. Because relationships are at the center of all we do, we would like to do our part to support our fellow professionals by sharing the ideas, advice and tools that have helped us navigate the pandemic and the ever-changing death care environment. Here you will find a compilation of learnings and resources that we believe can help support your team, just as they have helped to support ours.
Expanding the End-of-Life Conversation
Finding Peace in Succession Planning
Rick Tuss, Former Owner
Onsite Onboarding Support for Successful Transitions
Integration & Assimilation at Foundation Partners Group
Acquisition From an Employee's Perspective
Integration & Assimilation at Foundation Partners Group
Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Retaining Funeral Home Professionals?
Julie Judge, Senior Vice President of Human Resources
What's So Special About Cremation Specialists?
Jason Widing, Vice President, Business Development
Educating a New Generation to the Value of Permanent Memorialization
Jason Widing, Vice President, Business Development
“The World is Watching” - Foundation Partners Brand Ambassador Assists NYC
Deon Strommer, Brand Ambassador
Is it the "Food or the Mood"?
Danny Jefferson, Funeral Director
Expanding the End-of-Life Conversation
End-of-life care has traditionally been the territory of funeral directors, who guide families through the challenging process of saying goodbye to their loved ones. Funeral directors have long been the go-to professionals for arranging final services. But now, a rising trend in less traditional end-of-life guidance is giving some funeral professionals — and lawmakers — pause.
A growing trend in the United States has seen the emergence of death doulas, compassionate professionals dedicated to providing holistic support during the dying process. As death doulas gain prominence, it is crucial to understand their implications on funeral directors, their advocacy role for consumers, and their potential as competitors or ambassadors for funeral business owners.
We talked to a former funeral business owner and consultant. We also interviewed a funeral home outreach coordinator and practicing death doula. We wanted to know: In the world of end-of-life care, do funeral directors and death doulas have more commonalities than differences? And if there is a symbiotic relationship between these two professions, what does it mean for funeral businesses?
Death Doulas and a New Direction in End-of-life Care
A death doula (also called an end-of-life doula or death midwife) provides emotional, spiritual, and practical support to individuals and their families during the dying process. Similar to birth doulas who assist with the birthing process, death doulas offer guidance and companionship as someone approaches the end of their life.
Death doulas aren’t new. The concept of a birth-doula-in-reverse began in the early 1990s. However, a growing call for a holistic end-of-life experience has boosted the number of death doulas nationwide. The International End of Life Doula Alliance (INELDA) estimates over 1,300 death doulas in the U.S., up from 260 a few years ago. Death doulas often work with younger clients, like in this Courier-Journal story of Erin Morris. Erin was a 36-year-old mother of two who was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2018 and discovered the disease had metastasized in 2020. Erin enlisted the services of a death doula to help her understand what to expect during the dying process. She also wanted her doula’s guidance on making the most of her last weeks and the type of funeral that felt appropriate and authentic.
Stories like these explain the increased interest in a more individualized end-of-life journey. Both professionals and patients show a growing interest in organizations like the End Well Project, a non-profit whose mission is “to transform how the world thinks about, talks about, and plans for the end of life.” End Well’s yearly conference attracts enormous support from thought leaders, policymakers, health care professionals, hospice and palliative care experts, death doulas, and funeral professionals. For anyone with doubts about the legitimacy of the End Well movement, consider that the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) was a sponsor for their 2023 symposium.
From a Funeral Director’s Perspective, a Cautious Embrace
Rick Tuss is an experienced funeral home professional who spent decades as the owner and operator of a successful South Florida combination funeral home, crematory, and cemetery. Today, he is a consultant, providing guidance and expertise to funeral business owners considering succession.
Although Rick hasn’t worked personally with a death doula, he knows their growing presence in Florida and throughout the country. Rick feels that death doulas could be a benefit to families: “I would welcome them as long as they stay in their lane. Death doulas complement funeral directors very well. Funeral directors don't have the capacity to spend six months or more with a single client in the same way. Death doulas can educate individuals about end-of-life issues and how they want to spend their remaining time. As funeral directors, our job is to help families get the best funeral arrangements that work for them: do they want a viewing or visitation, burial or cremation, what type of memorial service.”
Indiana Death Doula: Overstepping?
What gives Rick pause are the actions of some death doulas, such as the situation with a Fort Wayne death doula who is fighting with Indiana state officials about the legality of her business, Death Done Differently. In 2021, the Indiana Attorney General’s office received a complaint about Lauren Richwine, the death doula at the center of the controversy. The State Board of Funeral and Cemetery Services filed a cease-and-desist order against Richwine, forcing her to close her doors because she doesn’t have a funeral director’s license. Although she has recently reopened her business, funeral industry advocates and lawmakers continue to grapple with the issue.
According to Rick: “When death doulas go beyond their mission per INDELA, it can be an issue. It’s overstepping and bumps into regulatory issues. They need to know their limits.” Rick compared death doula potential overreach to a prearrangement advisor working with a family when the death occurs: “Once there is a death, funeral arrangements must be handled by a licensed funeral director.”
Kilie Crowley is a direct cremation provider's project manager and hospice outreach coordinator. She is also a practicing death doula. Kilie recognizes the apprehension from licensed funeral directors in Indiana and elsewhere but believes families benefit from interacting with end-of-life doulas. “In Indiana, it might be a freedom of speech issue,” Kilie said. Indiana has some of the most restrictive regulations concerning end-of-life and funeral planning. In Kilie’s opinion, doulas don’t discuss pricing or financial decisions: “I’m there to hold space for people and give them a deeper understanding about what goes into deathcare and end-of-life issues.”
Doulas as Ambassadors in a Collaborative Effort
Both Kilie and Rick agree that death doulas and funeral directors should be partners, not rivals. Funeral directors are responsible for organizing and carrying out the desired services. At the same time, death doulas focus on holding space for families and helping them navigate the emotional and spiritual aspects of the dying process. Together, they have the potential to create a more personal and holistic approach to end-of-life care. However, establishing trust between death doulas and funeral directors will take time. The doula’s role remains unregulated by any federal or state guidelines at this publication date, while most states have educational and licensure requirements for funeral directors. It is also difficult to overcome the “this is how we’ve always done things” attitude.
“Funeral directors are afraid we are going to say something that puts them in a bad light, and I don’t think that’s true,” Kilie says. “We should all be on the same side. We are partners who work in tandem.” Kilie believes being a death doula is as much of a calling as funeral directors often proclaim about their profession. “My hope is that we can be community death educators and provide a bridge to cross the knowledge gap. Death doulas talk about death a lot more than the average person. We offer a deeper understanding about the dying process, disposition options, and other end-of-life choices.”
Rick compares the industry’s reluctance to death doulas to certified celebrants, the latter of which is becoming more common as families trend toward memorials without religious officiants. “Florida is big on certified celebrants. We really like celebrants. They come in and help a family with their service.” Similarly, Rick sees potential in a collaboration between funeral homes and death doulas. “I see us as ambassadors for a funeral provider,” Kilie says.
Economic and Regulatory Concerns
Like it or not, there is a transactional relationship between funeral directors and families. In Rick’s experience, individuals like death doulas can influence a family’s arrangement choices. Sometimes, Rick says, “They assume that families want the cheapest thing possible. And then weeks later, a family regrets not having a viewing or a service, because the person they brought with them into the funeral home thought they shouldn’t spend money on it.”
In her death doula role, Kilie doesn’t see it as her job to influence spending. It’s up to the families to decide how much to spend (or not) on arrangements. In her experience, death doulas do not offer their services to families to get rich: “Most death doulas have full-time jobs, often with a history in healthcare or death care. Many of them charge very little or nothing. It’s rare to see a doula making money without working a full or part-time job.”
Rick also raised concerns about the potential need for certification and regulation of death doulas. Unlike funeral directors, who typically have to hold a degree and certification from their state, doulas do not. There is no regulatory oversight for death doulas beyond voluntary industry certification standards such as INELDA.
Kilie agrees that standardized training can provide legitimacy and clarity regarding the scope of practice for death doulas, similar to certification standards for celebrants. She believes certification would offer more precise delineation in roles that could foster a more vital collaboration between the two professions.
Death doulas and the holistic end-of-life movement are growing stronger. Funeral homes that learn to embrace this relationship are better positioned to meet consumers where they are. Kilie states, “I have a deep and abiding respect for what funeral directors do; they are deeply necessary, and we should all be working together.”
Finding Peace in Succession Planning: Insights from Rick Tuss
Rick Tuss, a seasoned professional in the funeral industry, shares his journey and experiences with succession planning. From starting in the cemetery end of things to becoming a location leader, Rick offers important insights and advice for funeral business owners considering their own succession plans. He emphasizes the need to consider not only family, community, and employees but also oneself when making this decision. Rick's honest reflections and encouragement will help guide you through the process of making this significant transition and finding peace in your choices.
Onsite Onboarding Support for Successful Transitions
How Owners Can Help Their Employees Through Transition
Funeral homes are traditionally small, family-owned businesses, usually with long-term employees with whom they’ve worked closely for years. When the business owners decide it’s time to sell (often because they’ve reached retirement age and don’t have a family member to take over), their employees are understandably worried. Will they be let go? How will their jobs change? What new systems or applications will they have to learn? And what about income and benefits?
For several reasons, onboarding employees via acquisition (versus recruitment) should be a priority for any potential partner. As the nation’s second-largest funeral home group (by the number of families served), we’ve guided over two hundred businesses through the transition process. We lead the industry in many ways, and providing onsite integration is a significant benefit for our partners and their employees for several reasons.
Onsite integration and onboarding ensure a smooth transition from the new location into the company's existing operations. It allows the employees to become familiar with the company's culture, processes, and values, facilitating seamless integration with the broader organization.
Three of our Integration and Acquisition team members personally experienced the transition process: Kristina Martin, Kenneth Carlson-McLagan, and Cheri’ Bobeda. You can read more about how this dynamic trio uses their experience to train and empower new Foundation Partners team members.
Onsite integration helps maintain consistency across different locations. By providing comprehensive onboarding programs, companies can ensure that team members are aligned with the company's mission, vision, and standard practices. This consistency fosters a unified brand image, improves operational efficiency, and enables cohesive teamwork across locations.
Employee Engagement and Retention
Onsite integration and onboarding increase employee engagement and retention rates. Employees feel supported, valued, and connected to the company. This can lead to increased job satisfaction, productivity, and loyalty. By investing in the integration process, companies can build stronger relationships with employees and reduce turnover and associated costs.
Onsite integration allows for effective knowledge transfer from existing employees to the new location. The most effective training includes sharing best practices, lessons learned, and specialized knowledge to help the new team hit the ground running. Onsite integration also promotes collaboration and networking among employees from different locations, fostering the exchange of ideas and innovation.
Each location may have its unique culture, and onsite integration ensures that the new owners will not come in with broad, sweeping changes. It provides an opportunity to communicate the company's values, norms, and expectations to the employees at the new location. This alignment helps create a shared sense of purpose and promotes a cohesive company culture across multiple sites.
Onsite integration and onboarding are crucial in maintaining a consistent customer experience. By ensuring that employees at the new location are well-trained and knowledgeable about the company's products, services, and customer service standards, companies can deliver consistent quality to their customers, regardless of the location they interact with.
What Owners Can Do to Help Employees Prepare
Business owners experience emotional changes after they sell their companies. Many have spent decades building their business and establishing a reputation. They’re concerned with safeguarding that reputation and loyalty and how their employees – often long-time staff – will fare in the transition.
Foundation Partners Group’s Integration & Assimilation team offers these suggestions for smoother onboarding and transitions.
Communicate Early and Honestly
As soon as the decision about the new owner is finalized, inform your employees promptly. Share the news openly and honestly, emphasizing the reasons behind the change and the potential benefits it can bring.
Even if owners don’t inform their staff about the sale in advance, the integration team has a website accessible only to new employees via acquisition. There is a schedule of what to expect throughout the weeks, bios and photos of the group, and each member’s contact information.
Chris Hamiel, Director of the Integration and Acquisition team, knows from experience that transitions and training are smoother when owners keep their employees in the loop. As a 32-year funeral professional, Chris has seen his share of sales and mergers. He knows that building trust starts with open, honest dialogues.
“The first week is all about getting people set up to be paid, telling them about available benefits, connecting them with our HR department,” Chris says. “It’s a process we’ve designed and it’s state-of-the-art compared with any other acquisition company.”
Address Concerns Proactively
Understand that employees may have concerns and anxieties about the change. Be prepared to address these concerns by organizing meetings or open forums where employees can voice their questions and apprehensions. Provide honest and accurate information to alleviate their fears.
Provide a Vision for the Future
Paint a clear picture of how the new ownership will positively impact the company and its employees. Highlight potential opportunities, such as access to new markets, benefits, resources, or technologies, and emphasize how these changes can contribute to the long-term success and stability of the organization.
Emphasize Job Security
One of the primary concerns employees may have is their job security. Reassure them that the new owner is committed to the growth and success of the company and that their skills and contributions are valued. Provide examples of how the new owner has successfully managed transitions in the past without significant layoffs.
Maintain a Positive Tone
Foster a positive and supportive environment during the transition. Encourage open dialogue and invite employees to share thoughts and ideas. Highlight success stories of organizations that have undergone similar ownership changes. Many new team members choose to remain serving families, while some have transferred to other areas.
Joining the Foundation Partners Group family is an exciting but understandably stressful experience for our new team members. Our new partners play a significant role in making this transition as seamless and rewarding as possible for the best results. Together, we can use our experience and energy to build the funeral home of the future.
Acquisition from An Employee’s Perspective
Selling your business to a larger partner is exciting and stressful for owners and their employees. It is vital to have a robust onsite integration team to train staff and familiarize them with their new company’s processes. And when those trainers have been through acquisition themselves, the result is relationship building at its finest.
Funeral homes are traditionally small, family-owned businesses, usually with long-term employees with whom they’ve worked closely for years. When the business owners decide it’s time to sell, their employees are understandably worried. Will they be let go? How will their jobs change? What new systems or applications will they have to learn? And what about income and benefits?
For several reasons, onboarding employees via acquisition (versus recruitment) should be a priority for any potential partner.
Onboarding from Trainers Who Truly Understand
Foundation Partners Group is the nation’s second-largest funeral home group (by number of families served), with over 250 locations across 21 states. Onboarding and training are such a priority that we have a team dedicated to integration and assimilation. Moreover, this team includes three professionals who know first-hand how uneasy this transition can feel. They’ve been in similar conference rooms when their employer informed them that a Florida-based funeral home group was acquiring the company.
Kristina Martin, Kenneth Carlson-McLagan, and Cheri’ Bobeda have decades of combined experience working in funeral homes as embalmers, crematory operators, funeral arrangers, operational & administrative specialists, and funeral directors. They’ve worked long hours and comforted family members. The trio, along with team members Chris Hamiel and Stephen Ballard (who have experienced acquisitions with previous employers), are on the front lines whenever Foundation Partners Group invests in a new funeral home, cemetery, or cremation operation.
That is why onsite onboarding support from fellow funeral home alumna resonates strongly with these fledging team members. When employees at newly acquired locations meet Kristina, Kenneth, or Cheri’, they recognize a kindred spirit: been there, done that, we’ve got you.
Personal Experience Makes the Difference
The Integration and Assimilation team is responsible for setting up new employees with payroll, benefits, and human resources. They also train people to use Foundation Partners’ customer management system and other processes.
The five-person team works remotely from their homes, from North Carolina to Oregon, Florida to Minnesota. They spend nearly 80 percent of their time traveling between spending the first three to six weeks onsite, training new team members and ensuring the transition is as smooth as possible.
Although each integration manager has their style, all follow a basic schedule. The first week is about getting employees set up in payroll and HR and telling them about the expected benefits and compensation. The next three weeks are dedicated to setting up the customer management system and other processes unique to Foundation Partners Group.
But equally important to hands-on training for applications and systems is the compassionate support that the integration provides. This is even more powerful when the support comes from someone who has been in their shoes.
Integration and Acquisition Director Chris Hamiel joined Foundation Partners via recruitment, but he’s experienced several mergers in his 32 years as a funeral professional. Chris says none are as thoughtful or successful as the transitions he and his team members implement.
“We have a very structured program,” Chris says. “It is state-of-the-art compared to what others do in the industry, if they even have an onsite integration team at all. However, it’s still challenging, especially on that first day. But once we do the onboarding, the new team members say, ‘Wow, this is actually great.’ And when they’re trained by Kristina, Kenneth, or Cheri’, they really get the whole experience and reassurance from someone who has literally been in their position.”
Cheri’ remembers her acquisition experience as an employee in a family-owned firm that was sold to Foundation Partners Group. She was a managing funeral director for an Oregon-based chain of funeral homes and crematories when the business sold in 2021. “I did know ahead of time that the business would be sold, but that didn’t stop me from feeling anxious,” Cheri’ recalls. “When owners don’t tell their team about the acquisition, it’s much harder. You have to earn their trust.”
For Cheri’, one of the biggest challenges of onboarding new locations is helping team members who feel overwhelmed. “I always tell people to hold on and take a deep breath,” says Cheri’. “I get the fear of the unknown, the not knowing. There will be changes, but it’s what you do with the change that determines the outcome.”
Each integration is different, but the biggest reward to emerge from the weeks-long transition is helping employees understand the benefits and opportunities available. Many funeral businesses, like other small businesses, cannot afford to give employees the same access to benefits that a larger company can. “It’s rewarding when people understand that they will have more opportunities, more benefits, and more support,” Cheri’ says.
Being away from her family is challenging. Cheri’ never goes on the road without her lanyard containing several photos of her husband and two sons. She tries to go home for the weekend, depending on where she's training. If it’s too far, she’ll work two weeks onsite and spend a week at her home in Oregon, where her family loves to spend time outdoors.
Kenneth was a funeral director at a large and successful Minnesota business sold to Foundation Partners Group in 2017. He recalls that the owner sat down with everyone for a frank discussion. “The owners wanted us to know they chose a partner who is a people-first organization, and it was important that we know we’ll be taken care of,” Kenneth said. “That’s the one piece I have always carried forward. I want the people in new locations to know we are here for them. They will be taken care of.”
Kenneth knows first-hand that smaller funeral businesses often don’t have the same structure as larger companies because they don’t have the resources and bandwidth to support them.
“It's a little difficult initially, but I have found after many integrations, that new team members love and embrace the structure. The structure is what guides them through and helps them to really understand why we do things and how we do them,” Kenneth notes.
The team always brings “swag” to new locations: mugs, water bottles, and other items as a welcome to Foundation Partners Group. Kenneth makes sure to schedule a one-on-one meeting with each person and gives them the gifts. He says some individuals take the opportunity to talk at length about the transition, while others simply thank him.
“I like to give them space to voice their opinions,” Kenneth says. “I like to listen, and then I’ll answer as best I can and comfort them. But in most cases, they just want someone to hear what’s on their minds and hearts. And I’m glad to be there for them.”
Kenneth likes to be organized, so he never goes on location without his files and notebook to document, in detail, each onboarding session. When he isn’t flying around the country, he and his spouse take their dogs adventuring in their customized, HGTV-worthy RV.
Kristina remembers when the funeral home she worked for in Ocala, Florida, joined Foundation Partners Group. She brought fresh flowers into the room where the owners and “a lot of suits” were talking, so Kristina and the other employees knew something was happening.
Like her fellow integration managers, Kristina believes owners should be forthright about succession planning. The more staff is prepared, the less adversarial training will be. But the integration team prepares for every scenario.
“I’m very open and honest,” Kristina says. “When people ask if there will be change, my answer is always yes, there will be some changes. I talk about my acquisition experience and how I went from being an administrative assistant to where I am today. When Foundation Partners took over, we received benefits and paid time off. I was used to working every day, holiday or not, and if I was sick, I used my one week of paid vacation or took unpaid leave.”
For Kristina, the most rewarding part of training is the difference in energy from the first week to the last. “Some locations bring in going away lunch or a cake,” she says. “We can get a little teary. It touches my heart.”
Successful Partnerships Rely on Building Trust
While the actual integration process might not be the first thing owners think about during a sale, most want their employees to be cared for. Few people embrace change without some level of anxiety, especially when that change comes at you suddenly. Knowing that an experienced, compassionate integration team will literally have boots on the ground is reassuring for all involved.
Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Retaining Funeral Home Professionals
What’s the secret to attracting and keeping great team members? The answer isn’t what you think. Keep reading to learn more from a 25-year Human Resources veteran.
Regardless of the industry, recruitment and retention are two areas of vulnerability for today’s businesses, large and small. Financially, it costs twice the annual salary of a current employee to replace them. And from a human perspective, a company with a high churn rate (attrition) creates a negative-energy workspace as fewer workers are forced to take on more work.
There is no golden ticket to achieving steady recruitment and retention rates. In today’s competitive workplace, attracting and keeping the best employees involves several factors, including salary and benefits, healthy work/life balance, and open, two-way communication between team members and their managers.
In the funeral services field, team members also want to feel they are making a difference on the worst day of a person’s life. Recruiting and retaining funeral directors, embalmers, crematory operators, and other exempt workers has particular challenges.
For Julie Judge, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Foundation Partners Group, recruiting and hiring funeral professionals requires unique human resource tools.
Foundation Partners Group is the nation’s second-largest funeral home group in the number of families served. Foundation Partners owns and operates 270 funeral homes, cremation centers, and cemeteries in 21 states. They have over 1,900 employees, including full-time, part-time, and on-call team members. Often, former owners stay on after selling their funeral business. The average employee tenure is five years and six months.
Julie, a 25-year human resources professional, oversees all aspects of recruitment, training, and implementation of resources and benefits. She says that competitive salaries and benefits will always be necessary for recruitment and retention, but they’re not the only factors that make or break a company’s attrition rate.
It’s a valid point. A recent Forbes article revealed that salary isn’t the number-one reason people leave their jobs. In a survey of over 2,200 workers, more people (62 percent) cited a toxic work environment as their primary reason for quitting. Salary was the second most common answer, but most responses had nothing to do with wages. Many respondents cited poor management and a lack of a healthy work-life balance.
Julie and her team strive for a workplace that checks as many boxes for prospective employees as possible, including those discussed below.
Offer Employees a Healthy Work/Life Balance
Like other companies, fluctuating labor levels and worker availability have affected Foundation Partners Group. Unlike other businesses, the deathcare business has specific requirements unique to the services and products it offers families. Funeral directors must be trained and licensed. So do crematory operators and embalmers. And even before the Covid-19 pandemic, front-of-house funeral professionals were stressed by the emotional and physical demands that are inherent to the industry.
Foundation Partners Group prioritizes a healthy work/life balance. “Part of our recruitment message is that we understand that being a funeral director is challenging,” Julie says. “We are conscious about team member burnout. Front-of-office staff aren’t scheduled more than 38 hours a week – they’re paid for the full 40 – because the funeral business is not always a nine-to-five job. We train and educate managers about staggered shifts and other methods to help prevent burnout.”
Promoting Engagement and Inclusivity at Hire
A healthy work-life balance is particularly attractive to recruiting the younger and more diverse workforce that will sustain Foundation Partners Group’s growth. Many of the funeral homes acquired by the company are owned by funeral directors nearing retirement age. And more women are entering mortuary science programs. For decades, funeral directors were almost exclusively men. No more, Julie says, and Foundation Partners is doing all it can to encourage women and minorities.
“We believe in a culture of engagement and inclusivity that starts at hiring,” Julie said. “Our goal is removing bias in all of our processes to build a diverse workforce. We do everything we can to make our hiring process based on an individual’s skill set.”
In addition to aptitude tests for particular job openings, candidates are screened for compatibility that aligns with Foundation Partners Group’s values.
Julie explains, “We are a growing company passionate about serving families – that’s at the core of who we are. We want Foundation Partners Group to be your career destination, not a bullet point on your resume.”
To retain team members equally passionate about serving others, the company offers multiple platforms to grow their careers. “There are many opportunities, whether you want to grow vertically, perhaps from a funeral attendant to becoming a director, or delve into another area completely,” Julie said.
Management Development Programs Improve Relationships & Communication
Employees quit for many reasons, but one of the leading contributors is a poor relationship between themselves and their manager. All new hires are encouraged to complete a survey within their first 90 days on how they prefer to be motivated and developed. Also, Foundation Partners Group has a mandatory three-day training for managers called Leaders in Action.
The company’s Human Resources priority is continuous, two-way conversations between team members and managers. “Some companies do this once a year and employees are labeled in terms of positive attributes and in areas where they could improve,” explains Julie. “No one wants to be labeled or numbered, and a single yearly conversation doesn’t motivate people to work at higher levels. We encourage feedback and dialogue on a constant basis.”
Relationships Can Make or Break Retention Rates
Attrition affects all businesses. Julie and her team are working on reducing churn, particularly within the first 90 days. If a team member declines the voluntary survey within that time, it could be a warning sign.
“We want to know what is driving that disconnect or lack of transparency,” Julie says. “Maybe that team member came from a company where feedback wasn’t encouraged, and this is new. Or perhaps we need to do a better job of accurately describing the day-to-day routine.”
Exiting employees are also surveyed. The human resources team uses that information as action to improve relationships and communication.
Last Thoughts: Retention Starts with Recruiting
As a seasoned human resources leader, Julie knows that retaining exceptional team members starts with recruiting. She works with her team and associated departments to vet candidates carefully. The company is committed to providing ongoing education opportunities, opportunities for advancement, a good work/life balance, and competitive salaries and benefits.
“Our team members are the best in the business,” Julie said. “Our company’s success and sustainability lie in the men and women who choose funeral service. It’s my job to educate prospective employees that we appreciate and value their contributions with a rewarding, long-term, and mutually beneficial relationship.”
Are you interested in joining Foundation Partners Group? Click here for our current career openings.
What's So Special About Cremation Specialists?
Are you open to new ideas? Do you embrace modern channels of customer communications? Are you and your team skilled in sales and logistics?
If you answered yes to each of these questions, I suspect you’ve already embraced cremation as the future of funeral service. In my experience, these are the qualities that set cremation-focused business owners apart from traditional funeral directors. They constantly monitor their target markets and adjust their messaging, services, products and channels to meet consumer needs.
Open to New Ideas
The past two years have seen a quiet transformation in the way consumers talk about death and deathcare services. The cremation specialists I talk with work hard to stay abreast of the evolving preferences of deathcare consumers and are extremely open to new ideas. They have put aside many of their preconceived notions of what a funeral service should be and are nimble in adapting to what today’s families want them to be. Cremation-focused firms are not tied to any one product or service. They recognize the more transient nature of today’s families and the need for more flexibility and personalization in the arrangement process.
Embrace Modern Communications
What people want will change continuously as the years pass and so too will the way they communicate with family, friends and service providers. Cremation-focused firms embrace the most modern forms of communications and take an omnichannel approach to marketing, sales and service.
What do I mean by omnichannel? Omnichannel involves using all available media channels and is centered around the customer. Many traditional community-based firms still rely heavily on word-of-mouth and community connections to market and grow their funeral homes’ customer base. It’s an approach that has worked well over the years for firms rooted in traditional high-end casketed funerals but one that is much less adaptable to the lifestyles of many modern families. The most progressive funeral professionals focus on the customer offering personalized messages and a seamless, unified experience. This allows families to easily access information from any channel, which is connected to all others with a consistent look and feel that builds trust. In fact, the new acceptance of digital channels for deathcare arrangements is essentially what has made high-volume cremation businesses possible
Cremation-first firms are digitally driven using ecommerce, social media and Google ads to reach broad audiences. These firms represent brick-and-mortar locations as well as online portals like Foundation Partners’ two direct-to-consumer brands, Tulip Cremation and Solace Cremation, offering families convenience, simplicity and support online and by phone, without the need to visit a funeral home.
Cremation-focused owners understand that as the preference for cremation increases, the sale of traditional products and services will continue to decline. In addition, the competition from online retailers for products, such as caskets and urns, is greater than ever before. Progressive owners know they must adapt their business models to this new reality. Many are doubling down on pre-need sales, expanding offerings for cremation families and creating new cremation-centric areas in cemeteries to make up for lost revenues. They understand the importance of sales training for their teams and are expanding their pre-need marketing programs across traditional and new media outlets.
When your local market expands from a 30-mile radius of your funeral home to an MSA that spans over a hundred square miles, your operating model has got to change. In addition to solid management skills, a good understanding of transportation and logistics is essential in the high-volume cremation business. Whether that means creating satellite locations or centralized decedent care centers, the most successful cremation-focused business owners understand their markets and adapt their operations to serve families in the most efficient, professional and profitable way. I’ve seen too many cremation firms enter a new area and gain market share quickly, only to fall short on the operations side once the calls start to increase.
I am proud of the members of our profession who are embracing cremation and adjusting their business plans to profitably offer the products and services today’s family want. The skill, dedication and compassion of full-service funeral home owners continue be highly valued by American families, and many long-time funeral directors are expanding their operations to include more cremation-focused offerings. Moreover, cremation does not diminish the need to provide quality family service and counsel. Regardless of their choice of final disposition, all families want and need guidance in making appropriate deathcare plans for their loved ones. Our job, as funeral service professionals, is to continually look for new ways to make that experience better.
Read Jason's article in this month's American Cemetery & Cremation here.
New Year, New Opportunities: Q&A with Zach Mayer, Head of Nationwide M&A Business Development
As funeral and business professionals, we are still navigating an evolving landscape post-pandemic, from inflation to recruitment challenges. I shared my thoughts on why there’s reason to be optimistic – but realistic – in 2023.
Q. Could you sum up 2022 in three words?
A. BIG CHANGES QUICKLY. We’ve got a lot of factors converging at the same time in the funeral business and across the broader economy. Increasing interest rates have placed pressure on financing costs for owners utilizing mortgages and business loans. Inflation is starting to subside, but we’re still seeing spikes in everything from fuel to office supplies. There is a continued shortage of talent across the profession, while wages continue to increase. Plus, many funeral home owners continue to approach retirement age, which adds to the demand for qualified funeral professionals. Successfully navigating these significant changes has been a challenge for everyone in the profession as we strive to continue to serve families with the quality they expect.
Q. What are some of the trends you’re tracking for 2023?
A. Covid forced all business owners to get lean, thoughtful, and efficient. The funeral home owners I’ve talked to picked up a lot of good practices such as engaging with families digitally and optimizing use of third-party vendors. That forced resiliency has proven to be a blessing as we face the current economic climate amidst softer call volume in many markets. We’re excited to partner with these firms to accelerate technology and innovation investment for the next generation of families and consumers.
Q. Foundation Partners Group expanded its reach into key markets. What acquisitions stand out the most to you from 2022?
A. We’re proud of our new partnerships this year – they are all standouts and play an integral role in our growth as we continue to reach more families. Foundation Partners Group will continue to expand in both new and our existing markets. While local trends and demographics may differ, our mission remains the same - partner with locally-owned cremation-forward businesses to augment their community relationships and commitment to serve with the resources and support of a larger operator.
Q. Is bigger always better when it comes to acquisitions?
A. No, some of the best firms we’ve partnered with are smaller operations with strong local ties and a history in their community. Large firms certainly offer scale and resource opportunities, but each business of all sizes places an important role in serving their local communities. Foundation Partners Group offers the speed and flexibility to partner with firms of all sizes to provide the capital and know-how to support them both locally and on a national level.
Q. Did the profile of business owners change in 2022 – that is, are owners still motivated by retirement to complete their succession plans?
A. The number of owners exploring succession plans remains elevated. The average owner is over 65, and roughly two-thirds don’t have a succession plan in place. Given the continued barrage of headwinds facing business owners in recent years, we’re increasingly also hearing from younger funeral professionals who have decided now is the right time to partner with a larger organization - even if they’re not ready to retire. We expect 2023 to be another busy year for partnerships and look forward to exploring those possibilities with family-owned funeral service businesses in the new year.
<<Partnership has many benefits – click here to read why funeral professionals chose Foundation Partners Group for their succession plans>>
Q. Based on what you’ve learned from 2022, are there any significant changes in your business development strategy for next year?
A. You see a lot of headlines about our partnerships, but what isn’t publicly discussed is the continuous investment we make in our infrastructure, technology, team members, and local communities. While the macro economy continues to be choppy, Foundation Partners remains committed to this plan of investment and growth as we build enduring businesses in communities we serve across the country. 2023 will be business as usual across our organization.
We’ll be out on the road, meeting owners, and letting them know that Foundation Partners is well-positioned to preserve their family’s legacy and ensure growth and stability across all economic conditions. We currently operate across 21 states, and expect that figure to grow in 2023 as we partner with like-minded funeral professionals.
Reconnecting at the 2021 CANA Convention
Jason Widing, Vice President, Business Development
It was great to see the industry reconnect in person at the 103rd CANA Annual Innovation Convention in Seattle last month. After a trying year, many of us enjoyed breaking bread with old friends and learning of the latest innovative trends in our industry. While the association has held crucial conversations virtually since the pandemic began, nothing compares to the opportunity to connect face-to-face. For those of you who weren’t able to make the trip, here are a few notable highlights we heard and saw during our time at the convention.
Although it’s a topic that many of us have been talking about and implementing for many years, it’s clear that industry progress toward full digital integration took a giant leap forward over the past 18 months. What struck me in the sessions I attended was the new, higher level of acceptance and understanding of digital tools exhibited by all convention attendees. Our collective industry knowledge increased exponentially. Virtually everyone has started on the digital learning curve and has the hands-on experience needed to get to the next level. This, in turn, allows the organizations providing these services to move more quickly and serve up even better technologies that will help us become more effective, efficient and serve our families better than ever. Virtual services are here to stay and even the most ardent skeptics are embracing the benefits of web integration, e-commerce, online learning and other digital tools.
While the subject of funeral service worker shortages is the topic of conversation across the industry today, recent studies suggest that isn’t due to a lack of available labor. The issue is not a shortage of qualified candidates but a shift in the profile of today’s mortuary school graduates that requires us to re-evaluate what we expect and how we communicate. Job seekers overwhelmingly conduct their job searches online, which requires us to meet them where they are. The typical profile of a newly hired funeral director is no longer a 30 – 40-year-old male with 10-20 years of experience. Sixty percent of today’s graduates are young women, who have very different expectations for work/life balance. We can’t approach this new generation of funeral directors the same way our grandfathers approached our fathers, or the way our fathers approached us. Many older professionals are leaving the business, but there’s a great deal of talent out there and we need to adapt and adapt quickly. That will require a new mindset that embraces more flexible schedules, more frequent communications and clearly defined expectations.
New Products and Services
With the national cremation rate now over 56 percent, we continue to see growth and innovation in final disposition including sending ashes to space, and turning cremains into artistic polished stone keepsakes, blown glass and even diamonds. Many of these companies were at the convention and the opportunities for education and conversation were fantastic. I was also surprised to see how many recycling organizations were active on the exhibit floor, another logical result of the increased demand for cremation. A key takeaway for me was how far our industry has moved beyond the urn. Today’s families have a new array of options for remembering and celebrating the lives of their loved ones; we need to understand this shift, embrace these options and do all we can to accommodate the wishes of the families we serve.
Educating a New Generation to the Value of Permanent Memorialization
Jason Widing, Vice President, Business Development
One of the biggest challenges facing our profession is adapting our business models to a world in which the benefits of permanent memorialization are often lost on a new generation of families. The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic brings this issue into even sharper focus as fear of infection, government restrictions and the reality of delayed memorials have caused many families to consider cremation for the first time. These trends have the potential of impacting everything from our cemetery operations to staff training and our merchandise mix.
But where there are challenges, there also are opportunities – opportunities for us to show families new options for recognizing, honoring and remembering a life in a way that will last for generations. This month’s issue American Cemetery & Cremation magazine features a column by Foundation Partners’ Chief Customer Officer Andrew Clark on what permanent memorialization means to his family and for your business. You can read Andrew’s thoughts here.
“The World is Watching” - Foundation Partners Brand Ambassador Assists NYC
Deon Strommer, Brand Ambassador
Deon Strommer, former mortuary owner in Oregon and current Brand Ambassador for Foundation Partners Group, has worked behind-the-scenes at large-scale, mass-casualty disasters for the past 20 years. A member of the Disaster Mortuary Operations Team (DMORT), Deon is part of the federally-organized group of funeral directors, medical examiners, pathologists, finger print specialists, forensic odontologists and other experts dispatched to identify decedents and return their remains to their families in a dignified, respectful manner. Working under local authorities, he served several five-week deployments over seven months in New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, travelled to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria and, most recently, flew across the country to care for victims and support survivors of COVID-19. Deon shares his most recent experience in the interview below.
When and where were you deployed in response to COVID-19?
While the primary mission of DMORT is to forensically identify the dead, my deployment and responsibilities during the pandemic were very different than my previous assignments. I was first deployed on February 1st to California’s Travis Air Force Base to assist with the repatriation of U.S. citizens from Wuhan, China and then to process 400 American passengers exposed to the coronavirus on a cruise ship returning from Japan. I was assigned to screening, monitoring and quarantining those individuals. In March, I moved to Dobbins Air Force Base in Georgia to offer similar assistance to passengers from other cruise ships. Part of my job was running the flight line as they arrived at the bases. I welcomed them home and they we so grateful to be back on U.S. soil. My final coronavirus assignment was in New York City, where we assisted the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner with an unprecedented number of COVID-19 decedents.
Did you have any concerns about working so closely with COVID-19 patients?
To assist people in need is rewarding. That's why I got into the death care industry - to help and serve in a unique way. I worked closely with CDC doctors and have complete trust in their guidelines to the public. While working with returning American citizens, I was in physical contact with over 1,500 potential carriers – taking the elderly by the arm and assisting them down many flights of stairs, and even carrying 70 children. Of course, my crew and I wore Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and followed procedures for donning and doffing it – washing and sanitizing as we went. About 400 of those passengers become sick with the coronavirus, yet my crew and I remained healthy. In the death care industry, we are suited for this kind of work; we understand and know how to work with scared, upset and emotional people. We also understand blood and airborne pathogens and know how to properly wear PPE. If we all continue to follow CDC protocols and guidelines, we can and will remain safe.
What were the chief challenges you and your team faced in New York City?
Supporting the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City was a job like no other. I was Morgue Operations Manager on a two-week assignment that stretched to six weeks. When we arrived in early April, the City’s existing morgue facilities were already stretched well beyond their limits. The initial challenge was to set up facilities to house the overflow and the thousands of COVID decedents expected during April. The world was watching so he had to get his right. We divided the main DMORT team into three small teams to cover three borough morgues in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. I led the Queens team, which was embedded with the military’s Decedent Affairs Unit. Our teams worked round-the-clock in 12-hour shifts. The scale of the death toll was staggering and I was so impressed with the young National Guard troops who did the heavy lifting for us. It takes bodies to move bodies, as they say, but these young men and women had never been around anything like this. And there were lab techs on-site, many of whom had never seen a dead body. Even the Mortuary Affairs Officers had to take a knee now and then. No one has ever seen anything like this. We eventually set up a large facility on a Brooklyn pier to freeze decedents until the proper arrangements could be made.
What did you learn from this experience?
This experience has reinforced my faith in the power of the human spirit to persevere and overcome obstacles. It also made me appreciate the human connections that can be made during a time of crisis. While in New York, we were housed in hotels. We came home dog-tired every evening and had to venture out for take-out dinners. One of the cruise families I had assisted on the West Coast was from New York City. Somehow they tracked me down and brought me ready-to-eat, homemade meals every night for a week. Now that’s very special. I’ll never forget their simple act of kindness and gratitude.
I also was impressed with the support I received from Foundation Partners Group, which was behind my work on the DMORT team 100 percent. They are equally supportive of my plans to visit all 36 counties in my home state of Oregon to share my New York experience with local Office of Emergency Management personnel and National Guard teams so they can be better prepared for the next major incident.
Lights, Camera, Action: Media Relations During COVID-19
Scott Ankerholz, Vice President of Marketing
Long accustomed to operating in the background, funeral professionals across the country have been thrust into the media spotlight as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The unprecedented volume of COVID-related deaths, restrictions that make it difficult for families to gather and grieve, and fluctuating geographic hotspots continue to drive ongoing media interest.
Our Team Members across the country have responded to nearly 100 calls from local, national, and trade media since March. Each call has presented us with an opportunity to inform, educate, and reassure our communities that we are ready, willing, and able to meet every family’s unique needs as we navigate this uncharted course.
Since media relations is not necessarily in every funeral director’s toolkit, we thought it would be helpful to share the following best practices, tips and lessons learned from our Foundation Partners experience.
Before the media calls:
• Identify your primary company spokesperson -- a funeral director or another key team member who has roots in the community and is comfortable in the spotlight
• Prepare a high-level list of key messages and create talking points that will guide your spokesperson to present your story in the best possible light
• Before each interview, select 3-5 key points to emphasize based on the query
• Update your talking points regularly as the situation changes
• Know what’s proprietary and don’t hesitate to say so if asked to share such information
When the media calls:
• Resist the urge to answer questions on the spot
• Ask the reporter for his/her name, media affiliation, email address, cell phone number and deadline and tell them you’ll get back to them ASAP. This will give you time to prepare and ensure you’re in the right location to talk
• Understand your audience –media are interested in what’s new, different, first, or dramatic
• “No comment” should never be your initial response. If you decide not to respond, take down the reporter’s contact information and reply with a “responsive non-response,” such as “I’m sorry but I don’t have time for an interview now” or “Due to privacy issues, I cannot share that information”
During the interview:
• Always be responsive, but you don’t always have to answer the question asked
• Never answer a question if you do not know the answer – Interject with “we’ll get back to you“ when question is troublesome or inappropriate
• When a multipart question is asked, answer the one you want first
• Every question is an opportunity to score points with the audience and bridge to key messages
• Be brief, provide positive drama, and get the headline up front
• Tell stories/paint a picture in mind of the audience
• Always be prepared to summarize or add new messages when a reporter ends interview with “Is there anything you’d like to add?”
• For telephone interviews:
o Stand up – this allows you to better project your voice and positive energy
o Have talking points in writing in front of you for reference
• For in person interviews:
o Personal presence is important and will be remembered more than the content of a conversation
o Maintain eye contact and remain friendly, even when rattled
o Sit forward, with arms on knees – it will make you more engaging and credible
o For online video interviews, be aware of your background, camera angle, lighting, and presence on the screen
After the interview:
• Thank the reporter for his/her time and interest
• Ask if he/she would like photos and email them as a follow-up
• Ask the reporter when he/she expects the story to be posted, printed or broadcast
• Watch for the news clip and thank the reporter again if the article is accurate
• Request a correction or clarification if you were misquoted or your remarks taken out of context
Is it the "Food or the Mood"?
Danny Jefferson, Funeral Director
Danny Jefferson, location leader at Pierce-Jefferson Funeral and Cremation Services, speaks on how disruption is an opportunity for an industry to reconnect with its purpose and grow. In this video, Danny Jefferson looks to the restaurant industry to demonstrate the importance of a holistic approach to service when caring for families. It is important to remember that we don’t just sell products, he says, but we create experiences for families. Just like takeout cannot fully replicate the experience of eating at your favorite restaurant, cutting corners when providing funeral care negatively impacts customer care. As we help our communities to navigate grief in the wake of the pandemic and begin to rebuild, we should remember that the experience for families is at the center of everything we do, he says. Click below to watch the video.
Andrew Clark, Chief Customer Officer
As COVID-19 hit Washington State toward the end of February, Foundation Partners began preparing for its potential impact on our business. We began hearing rumors of impending “shelter in place” orders and how schools may be cancelled throughout the state.
We knew we needed to develop alternatives to the standard in-person arrangement conference. Before the pandemic, our funeral directors were already familiar with using technology to assist families when discussing services and merchandise options. They are also trained to use screen sharing tools and regularly leverage technology when planning ShareLife services with families. Despite being fairly prepared to complete arrangements virtually, we needed a way for families to view and sign legal documents before we could fully transition to serving families remotely.
Fortunately, we had already anticipated the need for a virtual signature software and our team was in the process of researching options and exploring necessary next steps to integrate the capability into our arrangement software. Unfortunately, that work was still in progress when COVID-19 hit the US. Thankfully, we were able to accelerate the effort; Within one week, we had researched several options, negotiated terms, and signed a contract with DocuSign.
While our current solution does not yet integrate with our arrangement software, we have found a fix for the interim. Our entire field operations team has access to the DocuSign capability and can assist families with signing documents remotely. Within minutes, a funeral director can generate all necessary forms for an arrangement and have them sent to a client family for signature. In some cases, we need to collect multiple signatures from multiple family members, and DocuSign accounts for that need, allowing our funeral home staff to work on other tasks.
Our new digital signature solution complements our entire virtual arrangement presentation and effort. We are finding that both funeral home staff and families are comfortable using these tools and the transition to virtual arrangements has been smooth. We will also soon have a seamless integration of DocuSign with our arrangement software to increase our efficiency in serving families.
At Foundation Partners, we believe that technology can help us better serve families and support our teams. By accelerating our partnership with DocuSign, we quickly responded to a pressing need, so our community could continue to make arrangements safely.
How to leverage technology during a pandemic
Greg Gent, Vice-President of IT
Long before the current pandemic, Foundation Partners technology infrastructure was designed to handle employees working remotely. So, when COVID-19 forced much of the FPG workforce to work from their homes, we were well equipped to support this quick change to our work environment. Our focus on consistent communication and information security has allowed Foundation partners to continue to support families while ensuring that our business maintains a high level of security.
Communication is critical during a crisis such as COVID-19. Our communication systems, including our cloud-based email system, continue normal operation during this time, ensuring there has been no break in communication with families we serve. Our team members also use Microsoft Teams, which allows them to communicate and collaborate remotely online. Since migrating to Microsoft Teams in late 2019, our company has relied upon teams for chat, audio, and video conferencing functions. Our virtual communication systems have made a relatively seamless transition for our team members who now work remotely. Microsoft Teams usage has increased dramatically during this time, and Teams has proved to be an effective tool for virtual communication, continuing to support our remote teams.
Our essential employees working at our funeral home locations across the country are also supported by our virtual communications network. Our primary tools, such as email and our case management system, are cloud based, allowing any employee with an internet connection to access these tools. Our existing technology infrastructure has become increasingly important during this time. We can continue to meet safely with families virtually to make their arrangements when meeting in person is not possible. Families can also electronically sign all documents and paperwork safely and securely from their homes. We have also leaned on our webcasting technology to include families and friends who are unable to attend a service due to social distancing.
We hope to return to normalcy soon, but until then Foundation Partners will continue to innovate and adapt to current events so that we are always able to provide support to our team members and to all of the families we serve.
Please send us a message if you have any questions on the topics listed above. We’ll anonymously share your question and provide an answer to share with our community. Together we can help plot a path to a better future for our profession and the communities we serve.