Presidency: the handover


As SAIF’s National President Mark Porteous passes the reins of office to Jo Parker, we catch up with the pair to talk challenges and triumphs.

When the SAIF AGM Banquet Weekend begins at the Dalmahoy Hotel & Country Club on March 17, Mark Porteous will breathe a sigh of relief. Not just because he has played a large part in organising the event, but because it will be his last official role as National President of SAIF, a position he has held for an unprecedented two years because of COVID.

Jo Parker has been in the wings for those two years, with the pair working closely to advocate for members and drive SAIF forward. SAIFInsight caught up with them on the eve of the handover…

Mark, you became President a week after COVID hit, so it has been an unusual time to say the least. What have your highlights been?

Mark: “There’s no doubt about it, it’s been a difficult term. I could still meet members in year one, but it was online. The highlights for me have been meeting members, particularly face to face. If Jo gets the chance, she can go and meet members in their own premises and see what they do, what help they feel they need from SAIF, what they’re expecting from you as their President.

“Another highlight was the way we rose to the challenge, I think SAIF, myself, Jo and Mark Horton stepped up to the plate. Normally the President’s role is very much an ambassadorial one but that changed for us, and we contributed a lot to SAIF’s communications and information during COVID. I also did a challenge last summer which almost killed me – climbing hills for my chosen charity, Winston’s Wish. That was a real highlight for me because nobody thought I would complete it, and we raised £13,500. I also met Princess Anne recently in my final official job, which was a high point – a good way to sign out from the role.”

What advice would you give to Jo going forward?

Mark: “Jo comes from a family of presidents, so I’m sure she’s getting plenty of guidance already. I’ve spoken to Jo briefly about this, though, and getting the diary and timetable in order is essential. It’s full on. I can only say enjoy it, though. It will be a shorter period than mine, although I’m glad I did have two years as I would have regretted finishing at the end of year one because it was so restricted. And that caused issues for Jo in terms of her plans – not least her dad’s 80th – and I do appreciate Jo stepping aside so I could have two years. As I was an ambassador for SAIF I had to hold my tongue sometimes, so that would be something I’d say to Jo because she’s not very good at holding her tongue.”

Jo: “Ha! I’m not!”

How big is the role?

Mark: “It’s very busy. Jo’s been at all the meetings, including SAIF business meetings, resilience groups, Government stuff – it has been full on. I’m also still part of the Scottish Executive so I’ve had meetings and some ambassadorial roles on that side too. Jo and I are also involved in the HR activities for SAIF. Would you agree it’s pretty full on, Jo?”

Jo: “Well, I thought it was full on until I saw my diary for this year. It’s mad.”

COVID was a trial but it threw up a lot of opportunities in terms of learning, didn’t it?

Jo: “Yes, my local resilience forum has only just stopped meeting, so we’ve been all the way through this. There’s now a different sort of appreciation for our profession, and an understanding by central Government that funeral directors are needed in a pandemic, and we need to be in the room. At the beginning, there was no appreciation for what we were doing. Every death that happened within the past two years was under those restrictions, and we were dealing with such sad situations. And all we got was the CMA report. There was no applause, not even a mention. I think the binmen got mentioned about ten times by Boris and we didn’t get one.

“There was a lack of understanding of what funeral directors were doing. A few vicars acknowledged our work, but actually we needed bigger recognition. I found with the Kent resilience forum that we are now completely in the loop for every decision that’s made and they’ve referred back to us on everything. In general, I think funeral directors have been amazing, thinking outside the box and working together. They haven’t put business first, whatever the media says about us and however the CMA has portrayed us.

“At no point during this last couple of years has profit come before families – it has all been about what was the best for the family. And what’s best for your staff and trying to juggle your staff and families during a pandemic is really tricky. That’s been my learning curve – how good the profession is. And it’s not an industry, it’s a profession without doubt.”

How influential is SAIF in making funeral directors’ voices heard?

Jo: “I think without doubt Terry Tennens has been amazing, and he, Paul Allcock and Joe Murren  are some of the key people that have really got us seen by central Government. The profile of SAIF has really risen and we’re now a stronger trade association – we’re not the second one to the NAFD.”

Mark: “I would echo that, Jo. I started dealing with the Scottish Government six years ago and at that point, the NAFD was the focal point. But now they come to SAIF before they go to the NAFD, and we’ve got Scottish and National SAIF to work together, which has been another highlight of my term in office.”

Jo: “We couldn’t have done half the things we’ve done as an executive without the help of Scottish SAIF. Joe Murren and Declan Maguire have been absolutely outstanding and we have come together as two execs, which is a really powerful thing. I think SAIF has definitely come out stronger. The constant SAIF updates were precise and clear, and the members really did engage with that, saying how thankful they were for SAIF to get them through the pandemic and the CMA changes and everything else that’s going on.”

Meeting Princess Anne on his final official appointment was a highlight for Mark.

How important have the SAIF CMA and FCA Taskgroups been?

Mark: “Vitally important. The quality of the people that are on these things now is up there. In the last five years there has been a huge transformation in SAIF and the last two years has propelled us further in being recognised by Government at local level and central. I think one of the reasons the CMA struggles a bit with our industry – and they do struggle – is because of the quality of the guys that we have on the CMA Taskgroup. They ask them awkward questions and they’ve still not answered them. My personal opinion is that the CMA is used to dealing with big companies like the Co-op and Dignity and not 5,000 small companies, and our representatives made them aware of that.

“Truly, only SAIF can represent Independents. I’m a dual member, but if I had to choose, there’s no choice – it’d be SAIF all the time. I only really look at the local NAFD because it keeps me in touch with what’s going on. SAIF is the only voice for Independents. I think external agencies get that now and that’s due to the work of our task groups. Seven years ago, I don’t think SAIF would be recognised as much as they are now. What do you think, Jo?”

Jo: “No, I think we would have struggled a bit actually. The calibre of some of the exec members is amazing, and that goes for a lot of new independent funeral directors as well as they are more business savvy. That’s no disrespect to the old brigade but I think of Ross Hickton who has such a great business mind but he’s also a really good funeral director, and that’s the quality you get from the Independents. I know those Independents are also with the NAFD, but the NAFD tends to look after the bigger groups which are really just dependent on big management, whereas the Independents have lots of managers and directors who are bringing such a great presence to SAIF.”

There have been lots of technological changes in the past two years too.

Jo: “I was able to attend a Scottish SAIF meeting at 5pm, in my office, with a cup of tea. That would have been three days out of the office previously. I feel it’s now working on a hybrid system really nicely.”

Mark: “It’s certainly here to stay, it’s not going to change. If you look at my presidency without Zoom, Teams or Go To meetings, there would have been nothing there. It’s allowed me to communicate with members. There is a place for it and technology and innovation as a whole has been essential within our organisation, and the Slack forum, which Declan Maguire set up in Scotland, is getting rolled out in England. We will keep changing and evolving and with the CMA we will have to change as well, I’m confident the next generation coming through is going to take us to a different level again.”

What were your ambitions when you took on the presidency, Mark?

Mark: “I was a bit apprehensive taking on the role. I did sort of pinch myself about how I got into this position, because I used to think ‘how did these guys do that? I don’t think I can do that.’ Others will judge if I’ve done it well, or not, but I tried my best and that’s all you can do. I didn’t have a legacy goal – I wanted to represent SAIF at a high level and, whenever possible, speak to people about SAIF and speak to members to make sure as an organisation we were strong as one, rather than being splintered. While together we can be very, very strong, we are 1,000 individual businesses or members, so it can be a weakness as well.”

Jo, what are your ambitions for the coming year?

Jo: “I think it’s more of a personal challenge as well as a business challenge to take on a role like this because it doesn’t come naturally to everybody and it takes you out of your comfort zone as well. I’m really looking forward to visiting the members and for them to show off what they’ve got because they’re really proud of their funeral homes and what they’ve done and it’s great to get an opportunity to see them.”

You have big shoes to fill – not just Mark’s but your mum and dad are past presidents too…

Jo: “Mum was President in 2009 and then dad in 2011, so yes, big shoes to fill. We are a single branch business doing about 300 funerals a year in our town in Kent and we’ve had three presidents for SAIF, so we’re proud of that. And it hasn’t just fallen on our plates, we all worked really hard for SAIF over the years. I’ve been on the exec for about 12 years. That’s a lot of time to put into something that you’re really passionate about because I think the independent sector is so important.

“Everybody thinks about their farm shop and their grocer, and I think the funeral sector is exactly the same – once they’re gone they’ll not come back. So, it’s great that I’ve got this opportunity to be President out of a tiny business, be recognised and appreciated by the rest of the exec to be able to have that position, but the flip side is it’s quite daunting. There isn’t one week in May that I’m in the office for more than two days. June is pretty much the same, so you’ve got to get your staff in place.”

What’s next for you Mark?

Mark: “I’ll still be on the National and Scottish executives and I’m on the Code of Practice group for Scotland, so I’m still going to be busy and active within the industry. Coming out of the presidency will allow me to express myself a little bit more – I won’t have to hold my tongue.”

Would you encourage other members to become President?

Jo: “Yes, to join the SAIF executive and do something for the for the industry is a great thing to do. Initially it’s not that much time out.”

Mark: “Years ago, I’d go to the Scottish meetings as a member, look through a door and wonder what they were talking about, never thinking that I would get into the Scottish executive then become Scottish President and then down to the National role. I’d encourage anybody to take part. If you’re in this industry, why wouldn’t you want to be involved?”

Jo: “Absolutely.”

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