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In the spotlight: Graham Williams, chairman of Funeral Planning Services Ltd.

After 29 years in the funeral planning industry, Graham Williams, chairman of Funeral Planning Services Limited, has decided to retire. He shared with his thoughts on the industry and the future with Funeral Service Times.

Why have you decided to retire now?

“I am nearing retirement age and the business is changing, with more regulation of funeral plans around the corner.

“This is good for customers and funeral directors but could make things more difficult for smaller providers such as ourselves. Ecclesiastical Planning Services has taken over the trading business of Funeral Planning Services as well as Perfect Choice, so they are now twice as big as we were and, as part of an insurance group, they are used to working in a highly regulated environment.”

What has been your highlight as chairman of Funeral Planning Services?

“Seeing the business grow from 440 plans in our first year of trading to over 10,000 plans last year, despite the financial crises of 2001 and 2008. It’s a bit like watching your child learning to walk, coping with school and navigating the difficult teenage years before eventually becoming a confident adult.

“I should also say that it has been a great pleasure dealing with the majority of funeral directors who are fundamentally decent and hardworking people and who, despite the job they do, manage to stay good humoured.”

What do you feel has been the biggest change in the funeral planning industry over the past three decades?

“I feel very old when you put it like that! By far the biggest change has been the increase in competition for funeral business and a consequent increase in the amount that the typical funeral business now spends on marketing, including the promotion of funeral plans.

“Back in the eighties and early nineties funeral directors often said that they did not need to advertise – they concentrated on the service and kept busy, their prices were low and, if they worked hard, they could make a good living.

“Then a few people realised that they could increase their prices and make more money – initially the big groups but independents followed closely behind – and over the years a lot of funeral businesses became very profitable. Many funeral directors sold up and pocketed more cash than their grandfather who started the business could ever have dreamed of. But lots of new businesses or new branches have opened within the last few years, attracted by the potential profits to be made, and competition is more intense than ever before.

“Now every business has to spend more on marketing just to keep hold of their share – it’s no longer enough just to keep the vehicles polished and hope that good service will be sufficient. Many funeral directors regret this change but it’s like a classic case from an economics textbook – there’s no use complaining and the smart ones will adapt and survive.”

How would you like to see the funeral planning industry develop over the next twenty years?

“There seems little doubt that the number of plans purchased will continue to increase, and it would be good if independent funeral directors could stay in control of the prepaid portion of their business. In my view they can only do that if they sell the plans themselves, keeping the essential link with the customers and making sure they get a reasonable share of the purchase price. Those funeral directors who rely on plans being allocated to them are mortgaging their future and I don’t think they will be left with much to pass on to the next generation.”

What do you have planned for retirement?

“Actually it will only be semi-retirement because I will still be involved with the Funeral Planning Trust as it winds down, but I am looking forward to a more relaxed and contemplative lifestyle, some of it on the Norfolk Broads. Oh, and I just bought a funeral plan!”

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