Larkin Mortuary of Salt Lake City, UT, operates four funeral home locations and two cemeteries. Sunset Lawn has12 acres, an indoor mausoleum and a new cremation garden. Sunset Gardens covers 76 acres in the southern Salt Lake valley. CEO and President, Lance C. Larkin, and CFO and Secretary-Treasurer, Steven D. Kehl, recently spoke to The Bulletin about the firm’s many operations.
What do you feel most contributes to the success of your businesses?
Kehl: “Part of it has to do with our strategy to diversify our cemetery grounds specifically for cremation dispositions. This has had a very positive impact on revenue, as our cremation rate doubled during the last eight years.
“Our cemeteries not only offer traditional ground burial but also indoor and outdoor mausoleums, niche fronts and niche walls. And we have the ability to customize those granite fronts through our own headstone company.”
Larkin: “That’s another part of our success. During the last 30 years, we have worked hard to vertically integrate our company to benefit customers, so they don’t need to go anywhere else.
“Our parent company, Larkin Mortuary, is 130 years old and operates the funeral homes. Larkin Memorial Corporation owns the cemeteries and mausoleums. Our subsidiary, Rocky Mountain Monument & Vault, owns the Doric franchise for Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, and manufactures burial vaults, crypts and niches. It also produces thousands of headstones each year, from flats to large estate stones. We also own a full-service florist with locations at each of our facilities. This makes us uniquely able to serve all of our client families’ needs.”
Does this diversity give you greater quality control?
Larkin: “Absolutely. It forms a synergy and takes our ability to customize and be creative to the next level, as one area influences and supports the others. It also gives our arrangers and sales people a wider range of options to offer.”
Kehl: “Something that has helped us create this diversity is having the mindset of never being content. The market is continually changing, so we can’t rest on our laurels.”
Larkin: “For example, through our floral company, we have created a beautiful courtyard garden at our big cemetery with gorgeous flowers, gazebos and fountains. We also have state-of-the-art, working greenhouses; and we’ve turned this area into a unique reception center called Le Jardin, lejardinweddings.com. We do more than 200 weddings, receptions, memorial services, luncheons and civic events each year. This not only provides an additional revenue stream but also generates a lot of great publicity for us.”
Kehl: “Demand is definitely increasing. We employ two wedding planners, and they already have some 80 weddings booked for 2016. So we’re working on ideas for how to keep up as well as for taking this to the next level.”
Larkin: “Everything has to look superb and exceed expectations, because the consumer knows we are the ones doing everything. It can be challenging; but it also is a distinct competitive advantage, because we’re on top of our quality from the very beginning to the very end. Do we always hit a home run? No. Sometimes there are mistakes, but we are able to rebound and correct those mistakes more quickly than our competitors.”
Where do you look for inspiration in developing your operations?
Kehl: “One of the things that benefited us from Lance’s leadership in Selected and his year as its president is greater exposure to the operations of fellow members and to the European market. Through this, we’ve seen ideas we hadn’t thought of in regard to cemetery products.”
Larkin: “I’m very intrigued with how the European and Pacific members are handling a 90% cremation rate and still managing to sell graves in which to bury the ashes, marked with really nice stones. We need that to catch on here! I’d like to take an acre at one of our cemeteries and develop it into a cremation section where the graves are smaller, like they do in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.”
What is your approach to developing new cemetery gardens?
Larkin: “It is very, very important to us to perform proper due diligence when developing a new garden. That directly impacts pricing and our return on investment. Within our gardens, we want options for single-space interment, companion estates, bench estates and private family estates. Again, diversity—even within the garden itself—has definitely helped us advance to the next plateau.”
Kehl: “Years ago, when we bought these cemeteries, they were what were called memorial parks with only flat markers. People would ask why they couldn’t have an above-ground headstone. So about nine years ago, we took four acres and developed a new garden for above-ground estates. Demand was greater than we anticipated. We sold them so quickly that we had to retool and expand that section!”
What do you consider your biggest challenge?
Larkin: “Well, it’s tough to always keep everyone happy. People expect a cemetery to be absolutely picture perfect all of the time. We try very hard, but sometimes, it’s just out of our control. Right now, we’re frozen solid. In the summer, we can burn up. Water is at a premium when you live in a desert climate.”
Kehl: “We have annual Memorial Day remembrance programs at our cemeteries where as many as 400 people come to honor their loved ones. We get our Governor, Senator and Congressman to speak, and we have military and bagpipe bands.
“Getting the grounds prepared for that can be a real challenge. But we have youth groups come onto our cemeteries three days before and walk the grounds in a planned fashion—sweeping headstones, picking up any trash and placing a flag at each veteran’s headstone. We’ve done this the last four years, and it has been very well received by the community—even becoming a bit of a media event.”
What advice do you have for Selected members about operating a cemetery?
Kehl: “For most Selected members, a cemetery is a private operation, and this brings a higher level of customer expectation in terms of maintenance and presentation.
“A Selected member should take the same quality standards that apply to their funeral home and mirror them in their cemetery operations. I know in our marketplace, this is a distinct competitive advantage that we have over municipal facilities and other private cemeteries.”
Larkin: “Our higher level of care is, or course, reflected in our pricing, but I often explain it to people by comparing a municipal golf course to a country club. That’s how we want people to feel when they step onto our grounds—like they’ve entered an exclusive country club.
“I was out at the cemetery recently on a funeral, and one of our guys was up on a ladder trimming a tree in preparation for Spring. You just don’t see that at municipal cemeteries.”
How do you instill this kind of attitude in your team?
Larkin: “Steve and I meet semimonthly with the cemetery, vault and headstone crews and their managers. These teams are viable parts of our business, so we have to pay attention to them, just like our funeral home employees.”
Kehl: “It’s up to us to paint the vision of what we are working to accomplish. Due to the vertical structure of our companies, we have to provide constant reminders that we are all working together. Yes, we may work in different divisions, but we all are part of a larger whole. We can’t afford for anyone on the team to drop the baton. When the funeral director has established a relationship with a client family and exceeded their expectations, then details like the tent, signs and bottled water set up properly at the cemetery are an extension of our care.”
Kehl: “This kind of attitude and synergy doesn’t just happen. It’s something we work on constantly to cultivate and maintain.
“For example, sales for our cemeteries are handled by what we call our preplanning/aftercare counselors, and they work closely with our funeral directors during the at-need arrangement process. After the director and the counselor have an initial conversation with the family, the counselor will step away as the director helps the family make arrangements. When the time comes to choose cemetery property and a marker, the counselor returns to handle those needs. There’s a smooth transition between funeral director and ‘sales person’ through the entire process.”
Larkin: “And since a relationship with the family is established at the beginning, it’s easy for the counselor to then discuss the benefits of prearrangement. It just flows into this new topic after arrangements are made, and this approach has been very successful for us. In fact, we are the highest producing firm selling Homesteader’s preneed insurance. There are agencies bigger than us, but as a single funeral establishment, we’re the leader in sales. I think that’s because we sell everything, from flowers to headstones to preneed. And one thing naturally leads to the other.”
Do your cemeteries offer an opportunity for future funeral home business?
Larkin: “Absolutely. We don’t do all the burials in our cemeteries. Our competitors come in all the time. So our cemetery and aftercare teams have a great opportunity to impress those families by going above and beyond expectations. There have been many times when cemetery families, as we call them, are so impressed with our care, they tell us they plan to use our funeral home next time.”
Kehl: “Another example is the Le Jardin reception center. Our competitors are now sending their families to have memorial services and receptions with us! It’s so nice to serve families for whom we didn’t provide a funeral this particular time.”
Larkin: “We’re in a service profession, so providing the very best customer service is the key to success—on the funeral side as well as the cemetery side.”