It was a cold, cold wintry day back in 1978 when a young Larry Dunn drove in Hubert Humphrey’s funeral procession. From then on, it seemed destined that the full-time funeral home office manager and part-time chauffeur would end up carving his niche in the livery industry.
Dunn was looking for the right “vehicle” to fulfill his passion for automobiles and at the same time explore an entrepreneurial adventure. Consequently, he purchased the limousine service that was the vendor for the funeral home where he worked.
Today, Dunn is responsible for up to 70 employees and operates 52 vehicles, including 22 hearses, 18 limousines, six sedans, five vans, and one Airstream Family Funeral Coach. Up to 60 percent of his business is devoted to the funeral industry and the other 40 percent is corporate based.
Over the years, Dunn has developed this two-pronged business base that works hand-in-hand — both require precise service, specific vehicles, and impeccable service.
Dunn’s company, Johnson-Williams Limousines in Minneapolis, MN, was created by a number of acquisitions that have formed his client base. “I bought the Johnson part in 1979. That was mainly funeral-related livery. The Williams part, which I bought the next year, was mostly corporate work,” Dunn explains. Later, in 1988, he solidified his position in both markets when he purchased the Funeral Car Service of Minneapolis, which was an affiliate of Carey International.
Does 10,000 Funerals Yearly
Dunn currently works with approximately 65 funeral homes in the Minneapolis area. He performs a total of almost 10,000 funerals per year. “That number includes both ‘first calls’ and funeral hearses and funeral limousines,” he explains. “The first call is the beginning of our service. We go to the place of death, pick up the body and bring it to the mortuary. Then we provide the scheduled funeral coach on the day of the funeral and a family or pall bearer limousine if needed.”
Each funeral takes approximately two to three hours to complete. “We usually arrive as much as an hour earlier than the actual funeral. The service takes approximately one hour. There is about another hour while the cars proceed to the cemetery. Sometimes the driver will standby until everyone has left the cemetery,” he says.
Dunn has a well-established relationship with the funeral homes he works with. “Johnson was in business about five years before we bought it. The funeral car service that we also acquired started in the 1920s or 1930s,” he explains.
The best way Dunn has found to maintain these long-standing relationships is to keep up-to-date on the individual needs of each funeral director. “We keep in touch with people. We have seen a lot of change in mortuary procedures over the years. We try to address any problems and keep up with what the needs are. We are an extension of each funeral home we serve. We want to make the funeral director shine,” he adds.
Counts on Chauffeurs
Dunn credits much of his success on the quality of service his chauffeurs give to the funeral directors. “We match a lot of our drivers to our clientele. We like to give the funeral service something stable it can rely on. The funeral director realizes the chauffeur knows when to block open the church doors, when to bring the church truck around, etc. The chauffeur is someone to ‘work the program’ with them,” Dunn adds.
Dunn, who still enjoys doing funeral runs himself, tries to get behind the wheel every day. Besides himself, he has two types of drivers — funeral oriented and corporate oriented. The majority of his work force is retired, part-time chauffeurs. The retirees tend to work on the funeral side. “These chauffeurs are often more available and they seem to have more people experience. The job fits a purpose for them and that works for us. The corporate driver is usually someone doing something more than supplemental activity. They want to make hours and miles,” he explains.
“Driving in a funeral procession is entirely different than regular driving,” Dunn adds “You get gaps in the procession, it’s tough to keep it all together. There are a lot of little things that it takes to administer good service.”
To ensure his drivers are up to par before going out on their first funeral run, Dunn has all drivers go through a training period. “The funeral driver goes through a period where he will only go out with someone else. Then, his first funeral run is a multi-car order,” he says.
Vehicles Do Double Duty
In the past few years, Dunn has begun integrating “24-hour” limousines into his fleet. “The beauty of that car is that you can flip the seat and it makes a very nice business travel car. With the conservative colors being either black or blue, it fits in nicely with the corporate market,” he says.
The 24-hour cars Dunn uses in his fleet are different from regular six-door limousines in that they have solenoid-released center doors, instead of having door handles, to give the vehicle the look of a regular stretch limousine. In addition, the vehicles will have a seat that can be switched from forward-to rear-facing and usually have a small rear-facing TV and a portable console that houses an ice chest and decanters.
In order to keep the vehicles running in top condition, Dunn performs basic maintenance in-house. “We clean the cars, check the fluid levels, and do other minor maintenance. We have a couple of shops that handle the major work. Every 2,500 miles we take the vehicles in to be serviced,” he says.
One vehicle that has been utilized in both areas of the operation is the Airstream Family Funeral Coach. This is a 32-foot motor-coach built by Airstream that seats 14 people, has a restroom, refrigerator, casket chamber, and another storage chamber.
According to Dunn, “The ideal setting for this vehicle is when the funeral takes place in Minneapolis and the service in Duluth [a nearby suburb]. We bought this in an effort to increase efficiency and it has not been as successful as I would have liked — it is expensive and breaks with tradition. It’s not a funeral-looking piece of equipment.”
While the coach has not had great acceptance in the funeral side of the business, it has had acceptance in the corporate end. “We have a couple of corporations that use it. All in all, I won’t call it a mistake. It’s one of those things that you try,” Dunn admits.
Expanding Corporate Market
“Ideally we would like to balance the corporate and funeral work, because there is only so much funeral work out there” he says. In an effort to expand the corporate side of his business, Dunn has added sedans to his fleet. “Three years ago we didn’t have one sedan. Now, that is our biggest growth area,” he adds.
Since becoming a Carey International affiliate in 1988, his corporate business has had a substantial increase.
Minneapolis, which headquarters many Fortune 500 companies, is becoming a destination city. “A new convention center was recently built and we have just had the world’s largest mall — complete with hotels and Snoopyland — open. This should be great for us in transportation,” he predicts.
Dunn can see the light at the end of the tunnel. “The livery industry is always going to be here. I think it can be great. There will always be a limousine industry — there will always be special events in people’s lives.”