William Hall, William Hall Funeral Directors, Newchurch
“Innovate!” says William Hall, Funeral Director.
“I worked in a local funeral director's establishment for some years. At the time, in the 90's, the whole profession was very traditional – paternalistic and impersonal. I grew to feel strongly that there was a more compassionate way to provide this service.
“The firm was taken over by a national chain. I felt the quality of service went down while the prices went up. I was very unhappy about this and I left.
“I was determined to do it differently, putting people first and offering more choice in arrangements. We introduced wicker and seagrass for environmentally-friendly coffins. Hand-painted coffins also gave a more personal touch.
“The other Island establishments frowned on this, seeing it as too informal. But I was quickly confirmed as correct: people wanted this new approach.
“As a professional service, it's perhaps not generally thought of as a competitive industry. But we have to balance our books and pay taxes like any other business.
“I'm sure now that we got it right: we still hold those values and families feel comfortable with us. And after a delay the industry has followed suit. But it was not easy!”
as published by IW County Press, Column by Dave Simon, continues below.
In the shops, anything new is almost always exciting.
Commentary by Dave Simon
New products in industry are also interesting as customers may save money or allow new developments.
The word 'new' is a magnet to most of us. Perhaps it is just curiosity, perhaps it is a survival instinct.
When developing new products, market research is vital. However, businesses often view it as time-consuming, costly and difficult.
But the cost of getting innovation wrong is worse. In 1985, Clive Sinclair's revolutionary electric vehicle, the C5, cost several million pounds in development. But of 9000 built, only half were sold.
Market research means understanding customers. It seems many new products waste 10% of their cost by offering features that customers don't want or don't like. The best companies are twice as likely as bottom performers to ask what, exactly, customers want. That makes everything easier.
Most businesses talk to customers every day – adding an extra question or two costs next to nothing. Most of us are pleased to contribute opinions: it means we are more likely to get what we want.
And this way we can help our neighbour's employer avoid costly mistakes.
More about William Hall's experience:
Before I Started
As a child I grew up in the garden centre business my parents had created. My father had been brought to the Island to build and commission a large greenhouse complex, and was suddenly sacked after he'd completed the job. He bought a piece of land, and we lived that business day in and day out.
I realise now that I learned a lot at the kitchen table. All the ups and downs took place in front of me. Osmosis, rather than teaching, showed me how to survive in business. School taught me little other than sports, but I absorbed a sense of courtesy and self-discipline that has stayed with me.
My first few jobs were not the ones I wanted, and I didn't want to follow Dad into the nursery.
I had become interested in the services provided when someone dies. I don't know why that interested me – especially as a teenager – but it did. Perhaps it was living and working in horticulture and agriculture that made me aware of the whole life-cycle.
So it was natural to me to seek a job in a funeral directors. But I was repeatedly turned down. They thought I was too young because it was literally an older man's industry in those days. So I worked as a milkman and on farms for a few years.
I kept applying to funeral directors, and eventually one local firm, desperate that its last three recruits had not lasted the year, rang me up. I must have made a good impression because the owner gave me a wide range of work and a lot of responsibility. But then he sold up and I felt things went downhill.
How I Started
Actually starting up on my own was very difficult. I needed staff and vehicles, and funds to pay for other services like crematorium or cemetery fees, doctors certificates and ministers for the service. The banks wouldn't lend to me – they thought I was too young in my mid-twenties. So in the end, my father set up a joint account and we traded quietly through that.
I was confident I would get a lot of work. I had already listened to customers for years. It is part of the service anyway, but I heard many people say they wanted something different to what was then offered. I had the optimism of youth perhaps, but I was sure I knew what would be popular.
And years later I started the woodland cemetery. Another innovation – it was the second in the UK and the first to be consecrated. I was just as confident in that, too.
Surviving in Business
Once started, the business has never gone wrong.
I was right, people did appreciate the choices I was offering and I priced things carefully to make services affordable for families in difficulties. Even so, I have had a few people trying to avoid payment, but you get that in any industry.
I've never been worried about the business. Despite the initial hostility from other funeral firms, it has gone well and I think now we are respected as a highly professional service.
I learned that 'No' is not final – there is always a way. You have to have a Plan B. Determination will get you through many difficulties. When the banks were loath to lend to me, it made me even more determined to be independent.
I never had any coaching or business lessons. I've never seemed to need that. But I started with the unwavering support of my parents and I have become completely independent in time. I think that mentoring is a good way for people to realise their full potential.
It has become important to me to help youngsters. I had next to no qualifications when I left school so I know what that's like. So I always recruit youngsters, and then train them in our way of doing things.
When I'm recruiting, I look for initiative. I want someone keen to do well. I scan CV's to find mention of paper-rounds, Scouts, sports and so on: it speaks of energy and positivity.
This works well for everyone. I get staff trained the way I want, with no un-training of habits from previous jobs. They get a good job – and very few leave. And I know customers are more concerned that we provide a good service at a difficult time than what age we are.
Profits Grow Futures
Nothing stands still. Independence and self-sufficiency depend on re-investment. To keep any business going you have to put money back in to keep it up-to-date.
The best money to use is profit. I really wanted to work without a bank loan for as long as I could. At first it was by necessity because the banks wouldn't lend to me. But later it has been by choice. We just make our improvements slowly.
The Island seems to be on an upturn at the moment. As far as I can see, it markets itself well and businesses work hard. We have our problem areas it's true, but like everywhere else we need to reinvest to improve things.
So all progress comes back to human character: holding a determination to build carefully towards an ambition you believe in.