Future-proofed, thoroughly planned

words: Stewart McRobert

Every business has its eye on tomorrow.

Owners and managers, while grappling with day-to-day operations, are always thinking about what comes next and the steps they can take to future-proof their company.

One independent funeral director that has recently turned thought into action is P & S Gallagher of West Sussex. The company operates branches in Haywards Heath and Burgess Hill, with a second brand, Bowley Funeral Services, operating out of nearby Hassocks.

As Matthew Gallagher of the company explained, the move to develop the business involved creating a third brand (Bowley & Gallagher) and expanding to a different market environment. “Earlier this year we opened new premises under the new name at Preston Park in the northern suburbs of Brighton.

“The move was prompted by an examination of the marketplaces in which we were already based and how they suited our goals. It was clear that, though our existing offices were successful, they were in locations that have attracted many new funeral director businesses; some independent, some large corporates. As a result, that market has become saturated.”

The local oversupply limited the opportunities for the firm to evolve as Matthew and his colleagues wished. They could hope for some growth, to keep and slightly expand market share, but not achieve a more spectacular expansion.

“We believe we should be able to take advantage of rising population and death rates and our percentage share of the market will go up because we are good at what we do.”

With restricted potential in existing locations, the company’s gaze turned to Brighton. “It proved an interesting place for us since the north of the city is mostly residential and has little retail presence – there are very few funeral businesses.

“The cemeteries in Brighton are comparatively close to the city centre, most are located just off Lewes Road. Traditionally, the funeral directors were clustered around that road because the cemeteries are also on steep hills. In essence, the site of many businesses was dictated simply by the ability of a horse to pull a hearse up a hill.”

As well as that concentration in Lewes Road on the east side of the city centre, there is another cluster in the west close to Hove. “Meanwhile, with effectively just one funeral business in the north of the city we decided to open our own premises there,” said Matthew.

The process of looking for the right site began in late 2014/early 2015 and, after a lot of searching, five targets were identified.

The one eventually chosen is located in a prominent position on the trunk road into Brighton, opposite Preston Park and Preston Manor.

“Our key criteria were an A1 retail space that had rear access. After that we considered other factors such as location, cost, and build required.

“The premises we have ended up in are great because there’s a high level of passing traffic – it’s a really busy area.”

Although the location was ideal, the building itself required a great deal of refurbishment. Every single internal wall was taken down and rebuilt, all the windows were replaced, there was a complete rewiring, and new heating and water systems and other facilities added.

This was the company’s first chance to undertake such a comprehensive upgrading.

“We were never previously in a position to design something from scratch, have the precise spec we wanted and get it all done in one go,” added Matthew. “It’s the first time we’ve really been able to go to town.”

New brand

A key part of the whole process was the decision to create a new brand for the premises. The desire was to develop a brand that indicated a very different business from those already in place.

“For one thing, this business, unlike our others, is in a city,” said Matthew. “What’s more, it’s in Brighton, which is a very individual city with a strong, independently-minded character and identity.

“We wanted a brand that was fresh and clean, modern, comfortable and reflected the quirkiness of the city. We also wanted something that did not look like a traditional funeral directors or had a corporate feel. It had to be eye-catching from a distance, given our position on the road junction.”

The starting point for the branding was the art chosen for the walls, which features work by local artists. Much of that focuses on distinctive local architecture, which has also been used as one of the foundations of the design. In addition, the principal colour reflects the colours used on Brighton seafront.

Matthew said: “It’s a modern, contemporary look and people have responded really well to the environment we have created – we’ve had lots of positive comments. As times change so do people’s expectations. Funeral directors must be like every other business and respond to that change.”

There is the danger that any project like this detracts from the existing operations. However, in this case that risk was avoided.

“We had a bit of capacity in the business that allowed us to give this the time and attention it needed,” said Matthew. “What’s more, we have an excellent builder which helped in a big way.”

Initial signs indicate that the extensive and exhaustive preparatory work he and his colleagues put into planning, identifying and implementing the new business has paid off. In its first few months it has undertaken twice as many funerals as budgeted for.

“We have come from a standing start so we are not looking to do massive numbers straight away. Instead, we’re looking for a slow, steady build and to serve families across the city.

Though our initial focus is on the north, we are promoting ourselves city-wide through work with the local football club, bowls club and Dementia Alliance among other things.”

In terms of future-proofing the overall business, Matthew believes there is exciting potential in this new marketplace, and that his company’s approach will help them make the most of that.

“I think we’ve moved ahead of the curve in terms of what we offer – we can even hold a small service on the premises here. This looks very different from other more staid funeral services and we are well placed to serve the ‘baby boomer’ generation who are looking for something that’s distinctive from what has gone before.

“I’ve no doubt this is going to grow our business and make it even more secure. The work we’ve done this year bodes well for the future.”

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