It happens 2.2 million times each year — a family needs to take care of the funeral of a deceased loved one. Included in these plans is the transportation for the funeral service.
While funerals tend to only take a few hours to complete and the clientele is generally less abusive than the average party-goer, the funeral director often can be very demanding and the vehicles expensive.
Even so, with 2.2 million potential jobs each year, is this an area livery operators can afford to ignore?
By understanding both the service and vehicle needs of funeral directors, operators can possibly acquire a portion of this steady and profitable business.
Benefits of Business
“The business is there seven days a week,” says John Kirk of Kirk Livery in Pittsburgh, PA. Kirk, who works with 160 different funeral homes, does an average of one funeral run per day. He operates 18 hearses, 15 limousines, and three removal vans.
Arthur Grier of Paramount Limousine Service- in Baltimore, MD, agrees, “Our cars are out 12 to 16 hours each day, six days a week. While other areas of this business are dropping off, this area is going strong.” Grier’s business originally started with funeral homes and later branched into transportation. The company currently has 21 limousines, 13 hearses, five sedans, and two 4X4s. But, says Grier, “The funeral business is a lot different than regular livery work. You must be understanding and give all your attention to the client.”
“Most limousine companies in Pittsburgh aren’t doing that well,” says Kirk “In the 1980s, most companies left the funeral end of the business because they could charge more for the other types of clients. Now, they are still driving around in white stretches and feeling the pinch. The only ones who seem to be doing really well are those companies that do corporate, hotel, or funeral work.”
Grier’s company, which also owns two funeral homes, a cemetery, and a flower shop, does up to 2,500 funerals each year. In fact, funeral work is 87 percent of his business.
Kirk has similar ties to the funeral business. He had been a funeral director since 1970 and been working with the livery company all his life.
Funeral business is not an area every operator can be suited for or can just jump into. Most operators who are heavily involved in this business have been doing it for years — building long-term relationships with funeral homes. For instance, Kirk explains, “My grandfather started this business 80 years ago. We have clients from when this business started.” Likewise, Grier’s father-in-law started his company 32 years ago.
Many of the relationships between livery operators and funeral home directors are cultivated over many years. “We don’t even advertise in the yellow pages. The way we market is to just visit with our clients and find out what their needs are,” says Kirk.
Another benefit of this business is the billing arrangement. Most operators charge a flat rate to the funeral homes, so there isn’t much price gouging going on. “Historically, the way billing is done with funeral work is to bill monthly. Most funeral homes pay within 30 days,” says Kirk.
Understand the Basics
Funeral homes vary in their practices around the country. In smaller towns, most homes will have all their own vehicles. In other larger metropolitan areas, funeral homes are likely to not keep any vehicles and always use outside vendors. There are also funeral homes that will only have a hearse and need to rent only limousines from their vendors. The part of the country an operator is in will dictate what types of vehicles he chooses to operate.
Thad Luyben of Luyben’s Funeral Home in Long Beach, CA, operates five vehicles, including hearses and removal vans. “We use one service to provide us with extra vehicles when we need them, he says Bill Sandberg of Sand-berg’s Funeral Home in North St. Paul. MN, has vans that he uses for removals [picking up the body at the place of death and bringing it to the mortuary]. For every one of the 200 funerals his mortuary performs each year, he needs one hearse and one or two limousines.
There are three basic types of vehicles funeral homes need — hearses, six-door limousines, and “24-hour” limousines. The 24-hour limousine generally has solenoid-release middle doors to give the impression the car is a regular stretch limousine, either a TV mounted in the roof facing the rear or one mounted in a removable console in the door, and a flip seat.
“We don’t even have six-doors in our fleet. Our entire limousine fleet is 24-hour cars,” says Kirk. “You’ve got to go with the 24-hour car” Grier agrees, “With the flip seats the 24-hour cars can be used for both funeral and livery work.”
Drivers Are Important
“A driver who is courteous and knows what he’s doing is important.” says Sandberg. “We are concerned about the neatness and appearance of both the car and the driver,” adds Luyben.
Both Kirk and Grier initially look for drivers that are suited to this type of business. “I try to find guys that are more like a corporate driver. I like them to be in their 40s, 50s, or 60s, have a dark suit and gray hair. I want them to be gentlemen,” says Kirk.
“The funeral driver should be more grief oriented. The client is not going to be in the best mood and the driver has to be a leader to get everyone moving into the car. He should be calm, relaxed and understanding,” Grier adds.
Grier conducts on-going training every month that stresses appearance, preparing for the run, attitude, and most importantly, safety. Every six months, all of his drivers are totally retrained using a set of training tapes. Another area Grier trains his drivers in is prayer. “Every one of our drivers prays with the family before leaving their home,” he says. “I never put a driver in a car until he’s driven in a hearse a couple of times,” adds Kirk.
Kirk likes to take a “needs” approach with his clientele. He gets to understand the specific needs each one of the funeral homes he works with has. “Not all funeral homes work the same way. All have different personalities. For instance, there is a big difference in servicing a large versus a small funeral home. Because of the smaller staffs at the smaller homes, the driver winds up doing extra duties, such as helping with flowers. One of the larger homes I deal with has a driver’s room. It all depends,” he explains.
Finding the Right Vehicle
Once an operator has decided to enter this business, he must then decide what is the right vehicle to start out with. The decision should be based on both the geographical area and the needs of local funeral homes. With hearses being specific-use vehicles and fairly expensive, costing between $50,000 and $65,000, operators thinking about entering this field may want to start with either a six-door or 24-hour limousine.
“Your decision to buy must be market driven. Talk to a local funeral home. Will your potential clients accept a 24-hour car? If so, buy one and work your way in with that,” says Mike McKiernan, marketing manager for S&S/Superior Coaches.
Operators interested in multipurpose vehicles should consider adding 24-hour limousines to their fleets. Ron Collins, owner of Miller-Meteor, sees a trend with corporate clients getting more interested in these limousines. “Corporate clients seem to prefer this type of vehicle — it looks like a VIP limousine, and has more seating than a sedan. Still, the clients aren’t paying for all the amenities,” he says. He advises operators to purchase funeral vehicles based on quality, safety, design, and trade value.
If, after conducting market research, it has been decided to purchase a hearse, operators should look for certain items. “Play it conservative,” says McKiernan. “You can’t go wrong with a black vehicle. It is also important to look for a dependable and durable vehicle. A plush velvet interior is nice, but not very practical.”
“You need a utility-type vehicle,” says Craig Skinner, chief engineer for S&S/Superior. He advises operators to make sure the floor layout will fit the different types of caskets, from infant-sized to shipping crate. Operators should also look for adequate storage room and a back door that will open sufficiently.
When purchasing a 24-hour car, McKiernan advises operators to look for “lots of leg room. Also, make sure the flip seat is easily transferable. You will pay more for a 24-hour car because of the cost of the center doors, but it is a more versatile vehicle,” he adds.
Establishing a Client Base
Kirk advises operators who are thinking about entering the funeral business to also adopt a needs approach. “Ask local funeral directors what they want. Don’t just go out and buy a hearse and then tell them what you can do,” he says.
Grier suggests operators get an understanding of the both the funeral business and the specific market. “Do your homework. Go to a funeral and watch what is going on. In many of the larger markets, the funeral homes don’t invest in equipment. Those are the areas that you can do very well in this business.”
“The most successful livery people I have seen that serve the funeral industry are the ones who have a background in the business. Operators thinking of entering the funeral end of the business need to understand the funeral industry — know how it operates and what is important to them. It might be useful to find someone who is already in the funeral industry to work with,” advises Collins.
“Run properly, servicing the funeral industry can be very profitable. Operators need to remember, funeral directors musthave a hearse when they order it. If you don’t have one, you need to get it for them,” says McKiernan.