Next generation in a family business

words: Vicky Fraser, John Fraser & Son

Vicki Fraser is the proprietor of John Fraser & Son, an Inverness and Dingwall-based firm of funeral directors which has been serving the Highlands of Scotland since 1884. A Business Studies graduate, Vicki joined the family firm in 2003, taking over as the fourth-generation owner in 2014. Here, Vicki shares her own experiences of joining the business as young woman, and eventually becoming sole proprietor.

There was never any expectation that I would take over the family business, especially as I was a girl, and the only child of a funeral director who was 50 when I was born, but it was all I ever wanted to do. If anything, my dad tried to put me off, because he knew how trying it was and wasn’t sure it was the right career for a young woman. I have memories of coming down to the funeral home in the evenings with my dad when I was about four years old. Jeanette, our cleaner who is still with us today, remembers me running up and down the corridor. Nothing was ever hidden from me, and I know I saw the deceased from an early age, but I don’t remember being exposed to anything that distressed me.

I was impatient and wanted to join the business straight from school, but dad was adamant that I should go away to university. I did a Business Degree at Napier University in Edinburgh, and in hindsight that was exactly the right decision. As well as the business knowledge I gained, the degree opened my eyes to different career options. That meant that when I did start working in the firm I was doing so in full knowledge of other opportunities; it was a positive choice to join the family firm.

By the time I started as an employee in 2003 dad had been working as the only family member in the business for 50 years. His own father had died suddenly when dad was 23, and he had worked hard to build the business up into the thriving firm that I joined. Although dad was in his 70s he was as fit as a fox, sharp-witted, and could have passed for 10 years younger. But I was conscious that our time working together would be limited so was keen to get started.

I had started studying for my Diploma in Funeral Directing during my final year at university so was already under way with my training. Dad made me an employee, and it was abundantly clear that he was still the boss. Although he was keen for me to begin to assert myself and my ideas, he was quick to shut me down if he didn’t like my suggestions. I spent my time shadowing the funeral directors to gain experience, but dad was also keen for me to be seen in public. I took responsibility for the organisation and restructuring of the office, introducing tracker systems, streamlining procedures and improving efficiency, and implementing marketing strategies and a website.

There were tricky moments. Because dad hadn’t been certain that I would take over the business he had held back on capital investment in case he’d had to sell. So, when I started, we needed to refurbish, rebrand and step up a gear – I wanted us to be number one in our marketplace. I was young and impatient, he was canny; and although he was keen too, he was reluctant to change everything at once. I was full of new ideas but had to be careful not to ride roughshod over everything he had achieved in the previous five decades.

Around my 30th birthday, after seven years as an employee, dad made me his partner, albeit a junior one. Together we undertook a major refurbishment and opened our Dingwall premises. Gradually I noticed he was coming into work a little less. He started taking longer lunches or popping up to the golf course. Nothing was ever said, but slowly responsibility for the business was passed over to me. Dad knew I was ready because we had worked together side by side. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Dad wasn’t demonstrative – he didn’t gush, or tell me I was doing well, but I know he was proud of me and approved of what I was doing. He did once tell me that I must never feel bound to the business; my life circumstances might change, and a move might one day be right. I know that if I did have to sell I could do so without feeling guilty, but I can’t see that happening.

My dad died in 2014. He was diagnosed with cancer and given about two years to live but was gone within 11 weeks. Of course, we missed him dreadfully, but the business and the team continued exactly as before because he had trained me so well and had had the grace to step back and let me shine.

Passing a family business from one generation to the next is always going to be a tightrope act; a balance between implementing new ideas and respecting the practices and traditions that have built the business up. I am proud of what my father achieved during his tenure; I feel sure he’d be proud of the progress I’m making too.

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