Lessons in partnership
Julian Walker assesses the importance of strong direction and key alliances as independent businesses face challenges and changes
“When COVID-19 hit, we were in the process of delegating day-to-day responsibility to a new management team. Very quickly, we had to revert back to centralised control as things became very hands-on.
I believe we accepted the reality of the emerging threats quite quickly, recognised that we needed to have the moral courage to take the difficult people decisions, including separating groups of employees and certainly restricting their daily work experiences. We have since learnt that by taking the initiative early, we earned the confidence and trust of the team which certainly made things easier.
Because I largely share duties with my brother, we’ve had the opportunity to focus on the short-term issues as well as the capacity to scan forwards and identify the emerging threats.
We did an awful lot of learning in the first wave, things like how many coffins we might need to stock, or where to find the meagre sources of PPE. But our greatest discovery was about our people and ourselves. How we all react to stress, how we can all be resilient and how we learned to cope.
One of the difficult leadership tasks was identifying in the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic what roles were no longer needed. We had two people who were fully dedicated to selling funeral plans face to face and, given that opportunity was lost, we went through the furlough process and eventually to redundancy. Likewise, we moved to subcontract our memorial masonry and that reduced our headcount by a further three. That required a different form of leadership – how to continue to manage people who were fearful for their jobs and also to deal with the unpleasant redundancy process that never results in satisfaction on either side.
The pandemic was an opportunity to identify the people with the ability to lead under pressure, so we have developed a team which is now more robust and capable. Nothing will ever be as difficult as the situations arising from the pandemic, so in may respects we all emerge stronger from it.
Not shying away from difficult decisions, acting quickly and accepting the reality without losing hope enabled us to deal with the lack of centralised support. Certainly, in our experience, assistance or guidance from entities such as a Local Resilience Forum, local authority support and local NHS Trust were wholly ineffective. But this gave us the power to lead ourselves and our clients through the practical and emotional challenges that there were. It was challenging, it was at times frightening but with some forward-scanning, active thought and energy we got through. Being proactive was probably the secret.”
“Co-ordination of the profession in order to meet the challenges of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is critical now, because there is an opportunity for the funeral profession to act quietly in the interests of their communities and be identified as a force for good.
The FCA changes are a matter of working closely with a chosen partner – in our case that’s Golden Charter – and understanding the restrictions that regulation brings, then adhering to the rules so that we can effectively sell funeral plans. The banning of commissions and the interrelationship between the funeral director and the funeral plan company are sensible proposals because it’s all focused on doing the right thing for the customer. Funeral directors are in the solutions business, sensitively finding solutions for families who are largely reliant on their funeral director for all practical support. With that mindset, we are probably going to move towards regulation for funeral plans very easily.
I spent six years on the board of Golden Charter and throughout that time, the discussions around regulation were ‘when, not if’: it was always expected to happen. The model by which we had tried to self-regulate through the Funeral Planning Authority (FPA) was focused on the funeral plan as a financial product rather than the execution of the actual funeral: the performance and behaviour of the funeral director on maturity remain critical and will need to form part of the longer-term formal control measures in order to protect the consumer. However, I don’t think the vast majority of independent funeral directors have got anything to hide.
We work in partnership with Golden Charter and it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. I know the value of my business is far greater because of the bank of funeral plans. I can use that as an asset in the future if I should dispose of my business or sell some shares. It’s probably our family business’ closest working partnership.”Tags: AB Walker, challenges, change, COVID-19, funeral directors, Julian Walker, leadership, pandemic, partnership, regulation