Afternoon Edition: Funeral Home of the Week

Jeff Smith with his father, John, and their spouses

Today we start a new feature with Funeral Director Daily.  This feature is entitled, “Funeral Home of the Week”, and is just what it says it is — each week we will present one funeral home in an interview process for others to learn about.  It is our hope, as we feature all sizes of funeral homes from North America, and once in a while from other continents, that funeral practitioners will be able to glean information that can be used to help all families that we collectively serve.  In essence, knowing and instituting the best practices of differing firms should allow for better service to all families we serve.

We have invited Smith Family Funeral Homes, headquartered in North Little Rock, Arkansas, to be our first “Funeral Home of the Week”.  I met the owner, Jeff Smith and his father, about fifteen years ago at an annual event for the industry.  I’ve got to know Jeff a little better during our time together at the annual event and he has always struck me as someone within our industry that keeps a balance between pastoral funeral home care to families, a desire to lead a profitable business, and a vision for what is coming that will help him do both.

I asked Jeff our questions for this segment and here are his answers:

Q1. Can you describe the dynamics of your business within your comfort zone confines, as to how many facilities, how many calls per year, percent cremation, percent earth burial, how many employees and the like? Is cremation growing?  Also, how long has the business been in business, how long have you been there (owned or managed it), and any other relative things about the nature of the business that you work at every day? Is your preneed very up front and active or do you prefer to be more reactive to families that inquire about such? Do you have an on-site crematory retort or a cemetery (memorial garden)? — Tell us as much or as little as you would like and feel comfortable on this question.

A.  I am Jeff Smith, a 46-year-old third-generation funeral director and owner. My grandfather started our first funeral home on Valentine’s Day 1955. I grew up working around the funeral home first mowing and later in college apprenticing, but after school my father encouraged me to work in a different industry to discover if the funeral home was truly right for me. In 2006 I joined full-time, and on Jan 1, 2010 my wife, Leslie, and I bought the business.  In the decade since taking over we have expanded greatly from one location doing 500 calls annually to six traditional funeral home locations, a cremation society, three small cemeteries and two on-site crematories. We have 47 full-time employees and 38 part-time employees. In our traditional funeral homes, our cremation rate is 40% which is increasing a few points per year and direct cremation is only 36% of cremations. We have an active preneed program with over $40m on the books.  But this grow didn’t happen by accident.

After a couple years of ownership, I realized a great mystery of our industry is, “How does a firm attain Sustainable Growth in a constantly changing market?”  We needed a better business model for the future.  So, I sought consultants and examined our industry and similar industries intensely.  This led me to a new and fresh approach.  I established many of the successful business tools used in other industries while maintaining the good qualities of our own industry.  In short, we changed how we lead and look at the funeral home business which has produced much good fruit.

We now serve 1500 families a year in our traditional funeral homes and 600 through our cremation society for 2100 total families annually. In all of our markets we have dominant market share, and our employee retention is excellent. With all this growth I am most excited we have also attained national customer service awards for six consecutive years through JCG’s Customer Satisfaction program.

Currently, my passion is a desire to help other funeral home owners be successful and enjoy their calling. We have discovered a clear path to increasing profitability while overcoming declining average revenue per call and increased competition by discounters. I regularly receive calls from other owners that are seeking advice and love to help them.  I am organizing our strategies so we can help more.  I have just bought our family preneed life insurance company, and I believe this will give us a platform to share our proven strategies for success. I keep telling my wife and team, “I know what keeps funeral home owners up at night, and we can help!”   With our strategic approach to the industry and leadership principles, we have found sustainable growth, profitability, and enjoyment in our industry, and I desire to share these principles with my peers.  

Q2. Can you tell us a little about your community and how your funeral home fits into the culture of the community? Do you sponsor any annual events that the funeral home is known for? Is there anything about your community that you think may be different from many communities as it comes to death care?

A2We operate in a wide range of markets from large to small, yet we connect with our community the same in all markets, relationship

A Smith Family funeral Home ice cream cart

marketing. One of our core values is, “Community – we want to be integral in our community and will give back to the community.” In all our communities we are seen as a cornerstone of the community which I believe a good funeral home should be.  We connect in several ways. Our most effective is caring for caregivers, pastors, veterans and first responders, and we do this by taking them creative goodies often (think Pinterest) as a thank you and hosting lunches or cookouts. We don’t pass out business cards or brochures, but we take lots of pictures with them which we put on social media.

My favorite relationship marketing is when we take our homemade ice cream cart into facilities and roll through playing “Ice Cream Man” music and handing out ice cream. The only marketing is our logo on the side of the cart and on the napkins.  Relationship marketing isn’t easy, but it is highly effective when coupled with social media!

Q3. Can you tell us a little of your role in the business and how your time is spent? Do you spend a great deal of time in community involvement and the planning of how the future will see your business or are you much more hands on in the day to day operations of your business doing such things as arrangements, prep work, conducting funerals, and doing preneed presentations to individuals or groups.

A3As we have grown my role has narrowed to three primary things:

  • Vision Casting:  Carry the Vision and Values
  • Culture Development:  who we are and how we relate as Team
  • Business Development:  Leadership in our walls and outside, Sustainable and Accountable Growth 

I must carry the vision which is to be the premier life-celebration firm in Central Arkansas. I expect the best out of our team because our families and communities deserve it, and I believe we exist to share our love, core values, and faith through our actions with those we serve.

It’s imperative to encourage and build TEAM.  I love working with families and getting out in our community, but there is only one of me and only so many hours in a day. I choose to focus on pouring into our team. If I work really hard, I can touch a few hundred families a year, but my team is touching thousands!  By loving on them we can do much more together, and my team loves that I trust them to represent us.

I constantly spend time on business development which ties closely into our vision. I try to keep my head above the trees and stay out of the daily weeds, so I can see what’s coming and chart a clear path. This has allowed me to chart new paths for increasing profitability, create organic growth and make multiple expansions.

Q4. What is the best piece of advice you ever received about funeral directing?

A4My dad told me to always tell a family that you’re sorry for their loss. I replied that feels fake and they already know by the way I am caring for them. He wisely shared, “Jeff, I know you care and aren’t faking it because I know you. But they don’t. So, tell them and show them. Don’t leave them wondering.”  I believe this is the cornerstone for making a heartfelt connection with a family which is the building block for serving them.

Smith North Little Rock Funeral Home

Q5. What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing the death care profession in the next 10 years?

A5Ownership transition.

Most funeral homes are owned by baby-boomers, many of whom will transition their business within the next ten years. As the challenges of ownership become steeper, more owners will discourage their children from entering the family business and will sell out to corporations. This leaves a big void in the community where often the funeral home owner is one of the most influential people in town. Local funeral home owners provide leadership, keep money local, and give personal service to friends in their darkest moments. If the owner sells-out, the entire community suffers.

Q6. Tell us a little about yourself, how you got involved in funeral service, and what do you enjoy doing when away from the funeral home.

A6.  I love my work, but my greatest joy truly is my family. My wife, Leslie, co-owns the business with me. She doesn’t work here full-time, but her insight is invaluable. I joke that we often have “10pm Board Meetings” when the house is finally quiet, and she can share her thoughts on the business with me. We are a true team. If I didn’t have her to share my successes, struggles and dreams with, work and life would be hollow. We have three children Hayden (19), Kaylee (17), and Sawyer (13), who light up the room with their smiles. Our family loves being together and laughing together. These are the moments that add full color to my life. We go to the lake a lot in the summer, play a lot of pool basketball, and enjoy family vacations. And I am a golf lover but only enjoy a game if I am with friends.

Here is the website for Smith Family Funeral Homes.

Editor’s Note:  If you would like to be featured in this column please let us know about your interest.  Use the Contact Us feature at the bottom of the page to notify us.  We are looking for funeral homes of all sizes and ownership type to tell us how they serve the public.


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