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The challenges of the funeral profession

The UK’s funeral sector is facing many challenges, from increased competition to price wars between the large providers – but what are the thoughts of the independent funeral directors? Our detailed research – in partnership with a specialist polling firm – into the professions sector outlines funeral directors’ views on a range of key subjects, from access to finance to the impact of Brexit on business confidence – By Aileen Boyle, managing director of Braemar Finance

Access to funding and appetite for investment

An incredible three quarters of funeral directors (73 percent) we polled find it a challenge to access the funding they need to invest in their businesses. Only 10 percent think it’s becoming easier, which challenges the commonly held view that there is a strong appetite to lend from all major funders and that there is a lot of ‘easy money’ in circulation.

Despite the funding challenges being faced, there is the appetite to invest, with 62 percent of those polled planning to actively seek finance for business investment in the next 12 months; a further 20 percent won’t be investing while the remaining 17 percent are still undecided.

With so many funeral directors feeling the challenge of accessing funding, it’s clear that it’s a mixed picture out there.

Q: Thinking about access to funding, is it….
A major challenge 25 percent
A minor challenge 44 percent
Becoming easier 10 percent
Never had a problem 14 percent
Don’t know Three percent

Economic outlook

Funeral directors in the UK are best described as ‘cautiously optimistic’ about their prospects for the coming 12 months, with 39 percent ‘confident about the steady recovery of the economy’ and a further 25 percent feeling that while the worst is behind us, albeit with a slow path to recovery ahead. Nearly one in five (18 percent) feel that the economy could yet decline and 14 percent are yet to see a true recovery.  

Looking at forecasts for anticipated business performance, over a third (36 percent) are hoping to expand, which sends a strong message about practice owners’ ambitions. The majority; however, (61 percent) are expecting to tread water, which for many is success in its own right, while only three percent predict a scaling down of their operations and none thinking of closing down entirely.

Q: How do you expect your business to perform over the next 12 months?
Expand 36 percent
Stay the same 61 percent
Contract 3 percent
Close down 0 percent

Barriers to growth

At 24 percent, the funeral sector is the only profession that cites ‘general economic conditions’ as their main barrier to growth. This should not come as a surprise because the health of the funeral sector is more closely tied to the general economy than many others.

To illustrate this, in 2017 the average cost of a basic funeral increased by 4.7 percent to £4,078, according to a SunLife report called ‘Cost of Dying’. It was the 14th year in a row prices had risen, with analysts pointing to examples of families using crowdfunding to cope with the cost of unexpected death.

The SunLife report said one in nine families struggled with funeral costs and tried to make savings by buying a cheaper coffin, fewer flowers and in some cases not using a hearse.

Q: What is your main barrier to business growth?
General economic conditions 24 percent
Competition 17 percent
Skills shortage 14 percent
High cost of finance 7 percent
Keeping pace with technology 7 percent
Lack of marketing budget 7 percent
Restricted cash flow 7 percent
Utility bills 7 percent
Regulation 7 percent
Obtaining finance 3 percent

Business priorities  

Paying down debts is the highest priority for 25 percent of the UK’s funeral directors, followed by ‘achieving growth’ and ‘standing still’.

The results should be seen as a positive indicator of the appetite for sustainable growth and the overall financial health of funeral businesses in the sector. Combined, more than a third (36 percent) of firms see developing staff, products / services and equipment as their main priority, demonstrating that they are looking to the future with optimism and have plans in place to achieve their objectives.

Q: What is your main business priority at the moment?
Paying down debts 25 percent
Achieving growth 21 percent
Standing still 18 percent
Investing in equipment / assets 14 percet
Developing products/services 11 percent
Investing in staff 11 percent

Sources of financial advice and support…

Unlike the other professions polled, funeral directors’ first port of call for financial support and advice is their financial advisor and not their accountant.

Financial advisors have a big role to play in advising and helping funeral directors unlock the doors to finance and investment, ensuring funds are sourced and directed correctly and effectively.

 

Where do you (as a business) mainly go for financial support and advice?
Finance Advisor 45 percent
Accountant 28 percent
Bank Manager 17 percent
Online Seven percent
Friend/family Three percent
Peers Zero percent
Solicitor/lawyer Zero percent
Other Zero percent

Brexit

Much has been said and written about Brexit and the UK’s decision to exit the European Union. With so much uncertainty about what that means for businesses, funeral directors don’t see the UK’s impending exit from the EU as either an opportunity or damaging to their future, with 86 percent choosing ‘the same’ when asked ‘does Brexit make you more or less confident about your business prospects?’.

Q: Does Brexit make you more or less confident about your business prospects?
More confident Seven percent
The same 86 percent
Less confident Seven percent

Late payments

Late payments are an underreported issue that affects businesses across all professions and sectors in the UK, and it’s no different for funeral directors. Four out of every 10 firms admit to having problems with late payments and with cash flow funding already being demonstrated earlier as being an issue for some professions to obtain, it’s critical that funeral directors find a way to reduce late payments for continued survival.

Q:Are late payments a problem for your business?
Yes 39 percent
No 61 percent

Braemar Finance is a nationwide leading direct funder to professions, including the funeral trade, offering a range of flexible funding options designed to help grow your business. Find out more at: www.braemarfinance.co.uk

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