Frank DeFranco, owner of DeFranco Livery Service in Summit, N.J., depends on funeral work for 90% of his company’s business. Launched by his father, DeFranco Livery Service has worked with local funeral homes since 1930. The company’s roster of clients includes 42 mortuaries, all located within a 15-mile radius. Recently, when owners of a start-up livery company began making the rounds to local funeral homes trying to recruit business, they discovered just how entrenched DeFranco Livery Service is in the area’s funeral transportation market.
“Every funeral home they visited told them that they got their cars from DeFranco. So eventually those two fellows came to my garage and asked if they could work with us because no one would hire them,” DeFranco relates.
DeFranco’s story illustrates how difficult it can be to break into the funeral market — not just for startup limousine companies but also for established ones as well. Funeral directors often have a longstanding relationship with a single limousine operator and resist giving other companies a try, especially those with little or no funeral transportation experience. The truth is, catering to funeral homes is a world apart from serving corporate and night-on-the-town clients. Driver responsibilities and equipment needs are markedly different. Funeral work is even billed differently. A run is typically billed at a flat rate, rather than hourly.
Nonetheless, some limousine operators have succeeded in maintaining a mix of corporate and funeral clients. One key to their success has been the “24-hour car,” a six-door limousine with a flip seat in the middle that can be positioned either forward or backward. Traditionally, funeral limousines have featured all seats facing forward, a seating arrangement favored by most funeral directors.
“We can flip the seat forward for funerals and then switch it back around for our nighttime corporate work,” says Chuck Bradway, owner of Bradway’s Limousines in Agawam, Mass. “Actually, in some cases, we leave the seat facing forward. We have a couple of corporate clients who prefer having all the seats facing forward.”
Other popular features available in today’s 24-hour cars include panels to conceal bars as well as flip-down LCD TVs that can be tucked away from view.
The removable center beverage island in Federal Coach’s Cadillac 24E model, for example, accommodates six rock glasses, six champagne flutes and an ice bucket for night-on-the-town and corporate runs. But when the island is removed for a funeral job, there’s no sign of a bar.
Bradway says funeral work accounts for 10%-12% of his company’s business. “My predominant volume is airport and corporate work, but funeral work is still a very important part of the business,” he notes.
Bradway’s Limousines services five local funeral homes, primarily using the company’s two hearses and six 24-hour cars. Of the company’s 24-hour cars, three are silver and three are black. Silver and black, along with white, are vehicle colors preferred by the tradition-conscious funeral industry.
“What’s important in the funeral business is having clean equipment and well-trained, professionally dressed chauffeurs who are well-mannered and polite,” Bradway says. “The cars must be clean and neat, but they all don’t have to be brand new. Our six 24-hour cars are 1992 and 1996 models.”
Bradway says he prefers older-model Cadillac 24-hour cars because they are roomier. As a result, elderly and large passengers can enter and exit vehicles more easily. Bradway, who launched his company 17 years ago, has worked in the limousine industry for 50 years. The company has 42 employees and a fleet of 23 vehicles. For funeral work, Bradway charges a flat rate that covers 3.5 hours.
Drivers Expected to Assist Funeral Directors
Funeral work places little wear and tear on vehicles, but can place more demands on drivers. In the funeral transportation business, limousine chauffeurs assume many responsibilities that have little to do with chauffeuring. Funeral directors typically expect them to act as their assistants. Many funeral homes are small, family-run businesses, and they count on the help of chauffeurs to keep funeral proceedings moving along smoothly.
“In the funeral business, chauffeuring is the smaller part of the job,” notes Dave Wilner, owner of Wilner’s Livery Service in Edison, N.J. “When my men arrive at the funeral, they do everything that’s needed to be done — greeting people, parking cars, moving flowers, carrying the casket into the church, assisting the family, anything the funeral director needs them to do.”
Like DeFranco, Wilner runs a limousine business his father founded. Launched in 1923, Wilner’s Livery Service operates 20 hearses, 10 flower cars and about 35 limousines for its funeral-home clients. Most of the limousines are 24-hour cars. Funeral work accounts for 60%-70% of the company’s business, Wilner says. The company operates 20 sedans to accommodate corporate clients. The Wilner’s Livery fleet includes a restored 1948 Cadillac hearse and a restored 1948 limousine. Both vintage vehicles are often requested for funerals.
Like most limousine operators catering to the funeral industry, Wilner prefers hiring mature, part-time chauffeurs to work funerals. Often, the funeral directors themselves make referrals.
“Our chauffeurs come from many different walks of life — retired school teachers, retired salesmen, relatives of funeral directors. Our average funeral-service driver is 40 to 60 years old,” Wilner says. “The drivers for our corporate service tend to be much younger and they work full-time. It’s a different kind of business.”
Limousine operators and funeral directors generally agree that older drivers tend to be better-suited for interacting with grieving family members. The job demands a quiet and sensitive demeanor, as well as a willingness to respect the family’s privacy. As a rule, younger drivers are more likely to respond inappropriately to the awkwardness of the situation. For example, they might try to break the heavy silence by making small talk. But listening to a chauffeur’s inane chatter is the last thing a grieving family wants.
“Some of our chauffeurs just don’t have the personality for the funeral work, even though they’re well-trained,” notes Bradway. “They need to be relaxed and to understand what the people are going through emotionally. Some drivers just can’t deal with that.”
Funeral Workload Has Peaks and Valleys
Funeral transportation work is surprisingly sporadic, livery operators say. For example, Bradway points out that his company handled 200 funeral rentals in March 2000. But in July, Bradway’s Limousines worked just 37 funerals. To maintain relationships with their funeral home clients, however, operators must stay prepared for a high volume of requests.
“The thing is, if a funeral director calls for one limousine or for 20 limousines, it’s my obligation to give him what he wants,” points out DeFranco. “I run 22 cars, but there are mornings when I have 40 cars out there. I just have to go to other sources when I need to.”
Locating additional vehicles for peak periods is always a challenge. “When it’s busy in the funeral service, it seems that everybody is busy,” Wilner says. “We stay up until 10 or 11 p.m., searching out extra cars so we can service our customers. We can never say, ‘Sorry, we’re sold out. Try us tomorrow.’ That would be the last time that funeral director would ever call my number.”
What advice would a funeral director give a limousine chauffeur working a funeral?
“Listen to the person who’s in charge,” says Travis Siems, a funeral director with A.M. Gamby Mortuary in Lomita, Calif. “Maybe you have worked 1,000 funerals before or maybe you haven’t, but each director does things a little bit differently. Just be willing and open-minded. Be flexible enough to work with that person and be attentive. I think that’s the main thing — be attentive.
A.M. Gamby Mortuary often hires Secure Transportation in Whittier, Calif., to supply six-, eight- and 10-passenger limousines. Siems says the mortuary prefers that all limousines servicing a funeral match in color and size. A.M. Gamby Mortuary also relies on Secure Transportation drivers to assist in such tasks as book registration, handing out memorial folders, moving the casket into the church and helping pin boutonnieres on pallbearers. The drivers act basically as utility players, helping out wherever they’re needed.
Maintaining a healthy, solid rapport with funeral-director clients is crucial. Face-to-face meetings help keep the lines of communication open.
“You need to keep it on a personal basis,” DeFranco says. “My son Thomas is usually on the road every day, making a personal contact to meet with them and work with them so that we’re not just a phone number. In case there is a problem, we can just talk it out as gentleman.”