Buchanan Group, Inc., is a management services firm operating 16 funeral centers of which six are located on cemetery grounds. It has operated combination locations since 1990, and it also manages eight cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Sister company and Selected member firm Flanner and Buchanan Funeral Centers performed approximately 2,500 services in 2015. About 1,000 of those occurred at their combos. Bruce W. Buchanan, Owner and CEO of Buchanan Group and Flanner and Buchanan, and Tony Lloyd, President and COO, spoke to The Bulletin about their company’s approach to combo operations.
Can you give us an overview of your operations in addition to funeral homes and cemeteries
Lloyd: “We also have a casket distribution business concentrated primarily east of the Mississippi. We operate from Montréal to Puerto Rico and are continuing to expand. We also have a granite manufacturing company in southern Indiana that delivered 4.7 million pounds of granite last year.
“Our Community Life Center hosted about 240 events in 2015, with around 60 of those being wedding-oriented. That aspect of our company has now expanded to handle all of the food and beverage needs throughout our locations. And we have a new event center location that also provides funerals.
“We have probably the largest community mausoleum inventory in the Midwest, outside of Chicago, with more than 100 four to eight-story buildings. Our organization has about 200 full-time staff and about 300 part-time workers and seasonal ground staff.”
How do you keep these people and businesses working together?
Buchanan: “First of all, everything from the smallest task to the grandest memorial has to focus on serving families and celebrating life. Secondly, when you are this diverse, it’s
important to have control over your vertical supply chain, to be successful these days.
“We try to look at what’s happening in our markets and be prepared for changes. Instead of being reactive, we’ve always tried to be proactive. In each generation of our company, we’ve been fortunate to have leadership that includes a funeral director and a businessperson from outside the profession. That has given us a broader perspective when looking at how to best serve our client families.”
Lloyd: “We have a lot of physical assets, but it’s really about the people. If we don’t have the right people to provide the right types of services that families want and need, it doesn’t matter how many buildings we have or how nice they look. But when you have great people all rowing in the same direction, there really is nothing you can’t accomplish.”
Buchanan: “And by ‘great people’ we mean the right personalities with the right education and training. The profession has plenty warm, caring people; but we also need them to be skilled in reliably carrying out a family’s wishes without fail.”
What is the key to finding and retaining these kinds of employees?
Lloyd: “Fortunately, we have a very stable workforce with no more than 7% annual turnover. So when we get good people, we tend to keep them. One of the things we like to do during the interview process is have coworkers involved as much as possible. We like a candidate to shadow an employee in a similar position before we make an offer. If they’ll make the commitment to come and live in our world for a day, we can really learn a lot about them and make a smarter hiring decision.
“For example, we just made a sales hire about four months ago using this process. It was for a location where the service staff has been with the company more than 10 years each. As a result, they have a certain rhythm to their workflow. But they helped with the hiring, and now they’re helping train their new coworker who technically is taking away income from them. However, they know the location can’t be successful with fewer people, so they work as a team. We have this happen on a fairly regular basis, particularly in the sales organization.”
Buchanan: “Hiring is extremely difficult; I would almost say painful sometimes, because it’s hard to find the right fit. But we would rather have a position go vacant until we find the right person rather than arbitrarily jump to fill it.”
Lloyd: “We don’t want our managers spending 80% of their time dealing with a hiring mistake. So a big initiative for us now is growing our own; we are investing heavily in interns. When we have a vacancy, we try to wait for an intern who has grown within the organization to blossom. We like to hire for attitude and train for the skill.”
How do you get your funeral home and cemetery staffs to work smoothly together?
Buchanan: “We’ve been very patient evolving our company toward excellence—especially with our licensed staff. You can’t just flip a switch and have everything work immediately. We use the three T’s: tolerate, train or terminate. There have been some people we’ve tolerated longer than necessary, because we are a caring organization.”
Lloyd: “We have to understand that the personality of a sales person is very different than that of a caregiver. A sales person, by definition, is motivated by converting an ever-increasing number of customers. That can seem overbearing by a funeral director whose main concern is caring for families. We’ve come a long way toward balancing the two. I’ve been with the company more than 17 years, and I remember when we used to not be able to get the two groups to sit down together in the same room.
“Now, we focus on jointly serving the needs of families and paving the way toward sales opportunities. We try to bridge the personality gaps and come to mutual understandings. We do a lot of joint meetings and discussion, and we do debriefings about family arrangement conferences. At the end of the day, the client gives us feedback on how we did. We freely share the information—both positive and negative—with staff, in an effort to learn from it and continue to mature.”
Buchanan: “It’s actually a fine art we’ve developed over the years to encourage the service staff to sell and the sales staff to be more service-oriented. Some of that is done through compensation and through scheduling. We also do team building activities and, of course, have created vision and mission statements that try to align the two forces.
“Tony talked about having staff involved in hiring. Well, we do the same thing with adversarial departments and situations to get people on the same page mission-wise. When a customer comes into a combo operation, they don’t see two companies; they see one entity. But if they discover that territories exist or are told, ‘No, you’ll need to call this person for that thing.’— it completely undermines success, and you have to shut that down. You must make it seamless for the family, and that’s not easy.”
How is cremation impacting your sales?
Lloyd: “It’s affecting our burial rate more than dollar value. We’re down from our peak of nearly 10%, but it changes annually. One of the measurements we try to focus on is how our burial rate compares with our cremation rate. We’ve set targets, and we’re gradually achieving them, but we have to be creative. When we develop land, we look at inventory and unique options.
“We’re also focused on retention. Instead of a family simply taking cremated remains home and not having any idea what they’re going to do with them, we are offering them memorialization at one of our cemeteries. We track retention numbers closely. We have to keep them above a certain level, or it will spell trouble.
“Of course, having a complete range of products and services to offer families has its advantages. One of the unique options we’ve developed is using native Indiana rocks and coring them for placement of cremains. These are not prefabricated stones, and the size determines how many cores we can put in it for a family. The stones can be taken home, but we try to make one of our memorial parks the final destination.”
Buchanan: “When we have an arrangement conference, the goal of the first half hour is to find out as much about the deceased as possible—their interests and hobbies. Then, when it comes time to present options, we know something about the individual and can present what is appropriate. If we learn they were a member of the Sierra Club, we would present our Cumberland Trails Cremation Garden that looks very rustic. The family often has no idea something like that exists.”
Lloyd: “This means that staff needs to be trained to ask the right questions and look for opportunities to present meaningful options. We call that the warm up in the arrangement conference.”
Where do you find new ideas and support in operating combination locations?
Lloyd: “A number of years ago, we made field trips to Arbor Memorial in Toronto, and we gained a lot from that experience. The Canadians can teach us much, because of their high cremation rate and particularly their retention of cremation. Up north, the culture is that you don’t take the cremated remains home.
“I suggest having your team visit other operations and talk with their front-line staff, not just the managers and VPs. I like to look behind the curtain and talk to the people who are meeting with families every day.
“We’ve spent time learning and sharing with Selected member firms like Larkin’s in Salt Lake City, Horan & McConaty in Denver, French’s in Albuquerque and Baue’s near St. Louis. We took field trips to see what they were doing, confirmed some things we wanted to do and discovered some ideas that might be interesting to try in our market. Networking with fellow Selected members is one of our best tools.”
Buchanan: “For combinations, you also can learn from other types of businesses that serve multiple functions—like car dealerships that sell new and used cars and do repairs. You can look at hospitals that have surgery, emergency and physical therapy departments to see how they coordinate and handle their patients.
“Do they have multiple entrances? Do they have a single receptionist or multiple ones? How do they brand their companies? There’s a lot to learn from other companies that already have tackled synchronizing multiple operations.”
Is there a philosophy that has guided your company’s growth and success?
Lloyd: “Basketball coach Jim Valvano once said, Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up! That’s a great quote which really applies to fusing cemetery and funeral cultures. You have to stick with it. If it’s not working, you have to try something different. You never reach a destination, particularly as client expectations and needs continue to evolve. If you think you’ve arrived, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
“At the senior levels within organizations, I think you must have an absolutely unwavering commitment to do whatever it takes to gain success. If that means the owner must roll up their sleeves and get involved in things they don’t really want to, then that’s what they must do to make progress.”
Buchanan: “And other times, they need to step back. Often, particularly with smaller businesses, the owner wants to control everything; and that can inhibit growth.
“Something we did a few years ago when we were specifically focused on improving our combinations, was to bring in a time management consultant. He taught us some simple skills about listening and putting a work team together—how to let the voices of the different opinions work out the direction for certain issues. That was very helpful.
“The funeral director personality can sometimes be passive-aggressive. You can have a meeting and think everything is fine, but then there’s no progress. You have to encourage honest discussion in a work team environment to work out the issues. It may take time, but if you can start by agreeing on the little things, then tackling bigger issues becomes easier.”
Lloyd: “People tend to hear less than half of what others say, and they filter it in a way they can understand. We try to slow down and really listen to not only what other people are saying but what they mean—not just what we are hearing. It’s called reflective listening, and it’s how you affect change at the front lines.
“You can’t have silent disbelief. Meaning, if a group of us has a meeting, and a person doesn’t agree with what’s being discussed; they might be tempted to never offer any concern or countering opinion. That ends up torpedoing all efforts to built a consensus and direction.
“If you set up a work team environment correctly and build confidence within the staff, they’ll freely share their thoughts. It’s not about someone winning or losing; it’s about being honest and getting all perspectives, because you’re trying to improve the organization.”
Buchanan: “Admittedly, our company was out of track on this years ago. People were afraid they were going to be criticized for being honest and offering an opinion. We knew we had to change that. It took some time, but now everything is measured in terms of serving families through partnerships. We now work together in striving for excellence.
“There’s a great book called Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather Grant. Even though it’s written for nonprofits, I think it offers one of the best definitions of a successful organization—that it focuses on its own mission, regardless of what its competitors are doing; and it constantly looks to partner with like-minded organizations.”