William W. “Bill” McReavy is a fourth-generation funeral director and President of Washburn-McReavy Funeral Chapels, Cemeteries and Cremation Services in Minneapolis, MN. Together with Selected Past President Lance Larkin, he spoke about marketing, managing and growing combo locations during the 2016 Annual Meeting Funeral Home/Cemetery Combo Special Session. Bill recently shared additional thoughts with The Bulletin.
Please remind us of your cemetery operations.
“We have four cemetery-funeral home combinations, as well as 12 other chapels in the greater Minneapolis area. We have 16 preneed salespeople, nine of whom sell specifically at our combos. They’re cross-trained to sell at-need, preneed cemetery property and preneed funeral arrangements. Our funeral calls to cemetery and interment ratio is about 68%. We feel that’s a healthy ratio, because we don’t want one greatly underperforming the other.
“Our company is in its 160th year, but we didn’t own our first cemetery until 2001. Then four years later, we bought three more. Two of them had funeral chapels on the grounds, to which we made substantial improvements. And we built a brand new facility at the third location.
“Our goal is for 2017 to be our best year yet. We can do that if we continue to serve more people and create new relationships. So we constantly are looking for ways to improve and grow. It’s not easy, but one of the best methods is listening and responding to consumers. We recently created three committees: an Operational Standards Team, a Quality Assurance Team, and an Onboarding and University of Minnesota Relations Team—all charged with the task of gaining feedback from people about how we are doing and to help develop long-term strategies.
“In the mid Eighties, a competitor built a cemetery/funeral home combination in our market, and we literally thought it was the end of our company. We almost sold, but we made the decision to reinvent ourselves and turn things around. At the Annual Meeting, I used a quote from Walt Disney, ‘First, think. Second, believe. Third, dream and, finally, dare.’ This was very applicable to our situation in the Eighties. We spent a lot of money and took a lot of risk. And we really had to dare to take the next step, but it finally paid off.”
What is your greatest challenge today?
“I think the greatest challenge is anticipating and responding to changes in consumer preferences. In the past, a funeral wasn’t optional. Everyone had a funeral of some type, but that’s not the case today. They can have a celebration of life that doesn’t include a funeral director. We just remove the deceased, dispose of the remains and file a death certificate. Anyone can do that, and that’s dangerous.
“We also have new forms of competition for where memorials are held—places like the local country club and VFW hall. The cemetery has a new competitor, too—the church columbarium. Churches are realizing this can be a profit center and a way to build their congregation. And then there’s the family’s back yard, their garden, their cabin up north. Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes. That means there’s 10,000 places to scatter cremated remains.
“So we need to offer something that’s more attractive than those options. And while it’s impossible to offer absolutely everything, we should at least make an effort to have offerings for the widest range of tastes. We don’t know what a family’s ‘hot button’ will be. It might be just a nice expanse of green grass or a quiet niche for reflection or an elevated area with a commanding view.”
What features seem to be most popular?
“Water is by far the most popular. Whether it’s a lake, a pond, a fountain, or trickling water from a waterfall or stream; people love water features as well as winding pathways and flowers. So we’ve developed as many unique water features as possible with plenty of graves and niches nearby.
“Consumers fall into two groups: solution seekers, who want the best location and most beautiful view, and price seekers, who want a proper but more affordable burial option. Price seekers don’t mind if the location is in a low-lying area or near a fence line. But solution seekers will pay a premium for the best property available.
“In his book, Why We Buy, environmental psychologist Paco Underhill writes that people spend money where they spend time. Since we know that people love water features, it makes economic sense to provide them near our premium areas. Underhill also writes that good retailers perform a kind of retail judo where they use the consumer’s own momentum—their inclination and desires—to close the purchase. It’s not enough that the right space is available; the consumer must want it. So we carefully position our features to benefit the greatest number of people. And we have to find creative ways to keep from running out of inventory.
“Another thing we’ve learned is that, many times, consumers feel the act of memorialization is more important than where the actual burial takes place. The 9/11 Memorial is proof of that. Tens of thousands of people go there to honor the memory of those who perished, even though they may not be buried there. Family members are able to see and touch the names, and that has a unique meaning for them.”
Why is Memorial Day especially important?
“We feel that Memorial Day is actually cemetery day, so it’s an extremely important opportunity. It’s the prelude to the summer season and chance to showcase our beautiful properties to the community, as well as cross-market our cemeteries and funeral chapels. Among the hundreds of people who come out for our annual Memorial Day events, several could be potential customers.
“It’s all about relationship marketing. We want to create a meaningful and uplifting experience for people. We certainly appreciate it when they come up to us afterward and thank us for the beautiful ceremony. But we also want them to be thinking in the back of their minds that this is the place to have a funeral and the place to purchase cemetery space.
“In terms of sales, we feel patience is a virtue. Our number one salesperson plans to almost always have two appointments with a prospect family. She deliberately doesn’t try to sell them the first time. She says she wants them to want to buy from her, and that creates referrals.”
What else do you instill in your staff?
“Of course, number one is to be caring and compassionate. It all starts from there. Next is to communicate with your peers and share ideas. Beyond that, we encourage them to look for synergistic opportunities and ways to capitalize on economies of scale that provide better service at lower cost.
“When we bought our first cemetery, I wanted all of our staff involved, to make sure we all shared the same vision. We needed to create opportunities where all of us working together could accomplish more than we each could alone. Capitalizing on the synergy between a funeral home and a cemetery is the essence of this type of operation. In its simplest form, this means if a family uses our funeral chapel, there’s a high likelihood they will buy property. If they come there because they own property, they’re more likely to utilize our funeral services.”
What is your advice about becoming a cemetarian?
“Let me first say that if you don’t currently own a cemetery, it doesn’t mean you can’t. It happened for us relatively recently. So it’s important to keep an open mind. If a popular cemetery comes up for sale, you need to seriously consider if you should buy it. If you don’t, someone else will. Of course, it has to be a financially viable entity or at least be in the position to promptly be made into one. It must be an opportunity to grow your business. If you own it, you control it.
“Yes, there is an enormous responsibility associated with owning a cemetery. But there also are enormous opportunities, if the interment numbers are high enough. Your decision must be based on sound reasoning and not on a fear of entering the cemetery business.
“However, there are times when you should pass. We walked away from two cemetery deals because the interment numbers were too low to justify building a funeral chapel on the property. It all comes down to how many annual interments are done and are likely to be done in the future. Here again is the synergy. The more interments you have, the more funerals you’ll have—the more funerals, the more interments. If one starts to cycle down, the other will follow. So you have to figure out ways to keep them both in an upward trajectory.”
Audio recordings of the presentations by Bill McReavy and Lance Larkin at the 2016 Annual Meeting Funeral Homes/Cemetery Combo Firms Special Session are available for members to download at selectedfuneralhomes.org/2016-annual-meeting.