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Brian Snowdon, CEO of Arbor Memorial Services, says embracing social media and technology is crucial to growth. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Brian Snowdon, CEO of Arbor Memorial Services, says embracing social media and technology is crucial to growth. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

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Modernizing the age-old business of death Add to ...

The funeral business is highly traditional, but it is also jumping into the modern age, using social media, computer technology, and innovative marketing techniques. These will be crucial to companies that want to boost their market share as the huge baby boom generation begins to move into its next phase … dying.

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Brian Snowdon is leading the shift at one of Canada’s largest cemetery and funeral home chains, Arbor Memorial Services Inc.

Are you using social media?

We have just hired a social-media manager in the marketing department. There was a time when we would block Facebook within the company. We didn’t want people using it, thinking it was a productivity issue. But we’ve since changed our approach [because]this is the way the world is going. The families want [to use it]as well, because that is where all their pictures are. So when they come in and want a video tribute, or they want a story-board with pictures, they are going to go to Facebook and grab these pictures and download them to us. It is a wonderful way to remember the person.

Any other technologies you are adopting?

One thing [we have]is an electronic arrangement process. On a flat-screen TV you can see us filling out the forms, and once your name and address and everything has been entered once, it carries over to all the other forms. On the cemetery side you can do pre-need arrangements on a computer system. It gives very good pictures of what we are selling and what you are buying.

We have been able to take advantage of custom printing for service cards and prayer cards right at the funeral home on good-quality paper. [We don’t have]to run down to the print shop to get it done. We also offer webcasting [of services]for people who can’t attend but would like to watch. We don’t stream it live, but shortly after the funeral we will post it.

How about arranging funerals online?

Other firms, such as Basicfunerals.ca, have a build-a-quote opportunity, so you can go in and price your own funeral [online] That’s an area we need to get into as well, because people are more and more comfortable with computers and they are happy to go online. They don’t necessarily want to talk to a sales counsellor or a funeral director, and would like to do it in the privacy of their own home, and see what it would cost to put the funeral together. [We’re also looking at]search-engine optimization, so that when you plug in “funeral” or “cemetery” [on Google]we‘re going to come up first.

Are you going to see substantial long-term growth in this business as the baby-boomer generation dies off?

The number of 65-year-olds and over in the population is going to more than double over the next few years. The older they get, the more per thousand will die. So even if people are living longer, you’ve got a lot of people that are naturally aging, and are going to need our services.

How has the change in Canada’s ethnic mix altered your business?

Different ethnic groups have their own cultures and traditions that we have to be aware of. Many Asian people like to burn [representations]of money and cars – worldly possessions they want to take with them to the afterlife. So we have to have the little burner in the funeral home, and there has to be the ability for people to witness it. Certain cultures like to witness the actual cremation [and]push the button to start the cremation process. So you need to have that ability, where the family is safe but they can see the cremation taking place.

Is there an increased demand for very low cost funerals?

There is a segment of the market that wants the inexpensive, very simple approach, which is a [body]pick up and a cremation. We have to respect that and we do. But by far, the majority of people have a traditional funeral. It may end up with a cremation but there is no reason why you can’t have a visitation, a chapel service and a reception, all before the body goes to the crematorium.

What are you doing to make it a more environmentally friendly business?

We have a casket that is not made with any resins or hardwoods. We have “green” embalming fluid, and we [use]hybrid vehicles to the extent that they are available. [In our]mausoleums, we’ve changed all the light bulbs in the [electric]candles to LEDs. We are looking at an eco-diesel tractor for the properties that can use environmentally friendly fuels. Earlier this year we started a crematorium metal-waste recycling program, where medical implants and casket hardware are collected and recycled. And a geothermal system will be installed at a new mausoleum in Oakville, Ont.

Do you get unusual requests for funerals?

It isn’t is that common, but we personalize a lot of the funerals. For a golfer, for example, we may have a golf cart sitting beside the casket, and a set of clubs. We try to accommodate what people want. That’s what it is all about – the opportunity to say goodbye the way you want to.

Is there a stigma about working in the funeral business?

I guess there can be, but it is a business like anything else. When I am interviewing people, I ask them, “Do you get the heebie-jeebies or are you okay with this?” And 99 per cent of the time they say, “I’m fine with it.” It is a very good business. We are stable. We are not likely to get bought out, so people find comfort in that. Our people are in the business because they love being able to take care of people at the most vulnerable time in their lives.

How did you end up in this business?

I was with Touche Ross getting my CA when I was headhunted. The fellow indicated he had a great job for me – the position was controller. As a new accountant, I found that pretty sexy. When he said it was is the death-care business, I had to think about that for a few days, then I realized that wasn’t a good enough reason for me to say no. It has worked out very well.

Is the funeral business recession-proof?

I don’t think any business is recession-proof [but ours is]non-cyclical. In other words the number of deaths has no correlation to the economy. I guess I would call [Arbor]a defensive stock in that regard.

Is the funeral industry still seeing a lot of consolidation, with independents being bought by big players?

We are getting back into the consolidation [that we saw 20 years ago] There was a bit of indigestion at the end of the 1990s, when the wheels came off. Some companies had loaded up with lots of debt and the industry sank down a little bit. But they all have cleaned up their balance sheets. They have strong cash flow. Firms are gearing up to make some more acquisitions. This year we’ve got back into the market. We bought two [funeral]homes in Red Deer and one in Cole Harbour, N.S.

How consolidated is the funeral home market?

In Canada, [the two largest players]Arbor and Service Corporation International, have about 14 per cent of the funeral homes, and about 24 per cent of the number of funerals performed. So there is still 76 per cent of the market that is owned by independents. So there is a lot of room for consolidation left in this business.

When you buy a funeral home, do you try to keep its independent tone?

Yes. You keep the name out front. You keep the owner, because they are generally very well-known in the community and it is important to have them there. But at the same time we transition the processes, the paperwork, the systems over to Arbor, so we have it all consistent.

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BRIAN SNOWDON, president and chief executive officer, Arbor Memorial Services Inc., Toronto

Born in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe);

Age: 50

Education: B.A. in economics from Queen’s University, Kingston,

Career highlights

Joined Touche Ross in 1985

Moved to Arbor Memorial in 1988 as controller, promoted to chief financial officer in 1999

Became president and CEO in 2007

Follow on Twitter: @blackwellglobe

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