Funeral professionals discovered in July 2012 that a private equity firm would be acquiring Aurora Casket Co., and some of them were understandably nervous about what the future held. But more than two years into Kohlberg & Co.’s tenure, the company seems to be on solid footing – having stuck with one president and CEO – Michael Quinn…
Quinn sat down to revisit what Aurora has recently accomplished and what it’s planning for the future in a wide-ranging interview. Edited excerpts follow.
It’s been almost two years since we last interviewed you for Funeral Service Insider. What’s been the most surprising development you’ve seen in funeral service during that time?
The most surprising thing to me is it has been two years. Time flies when you’re having fun, and it has been fun.
When I think about surprising things, there was a significant decline in the number of casketed deaths in 2014, and it was interesting watching how customers had to adjust and how we had to adjust. The first half of 2014 was definitely slow, but the fourth quarter was strong.
When I think about the industry, funeral directors as a whole are cautious and methodical, and that comes into play when they have to undertake change. It’s a slow-moving industry.
What’s the message you’re trying to get out about your company?
Aurora is a brand new company in its 124th year in business. This is a message we are taking to the market and talking to employees about because we are new, and we can think and act differently. We are working to drive positive changes, including the tools we offer to our customers, driving change in our product line, improving service offerings and really raising the bar for what customers can expect from Aurora. We are trying to bring innovations to funeral service.
And how are funeral professionals responding to that message?
Funeral directors are evolving. We see it every day; they are adopting new products and services because their customers want that and need that – we think by constantly having something new to talk about and providing funeral directors the innovations they need, that we will help grow their businesses and profitability and that will help grow our appeal to customers.
In what area(s) do you see the most opportunity for growth and why?
There is value in being a full-line supplier. We believe we have opportunities to grow our business in each of our major product lines. We are adding new and innovative products within each product line. We are also introducing new business-building solutions.
In some product lines like cremation products, the market is fueling our growth because funeral directors are expanding the products they offer families. They recognize families’ willingness to understand a broader product line and purchase a broader product line. This helps families be satisfied with the funeral experience.
Caskets are certainly very important to us and while they are a flat market, we are growing volume by keeping the customers we have and providing them with more products.
We have also been a leader in funeral service professional training solutions. When you tie together the ideas of generating more leads, providing technological solutions and having training that supports a funeral home’s ability to serve consumers better, that is a great collection of business-building tools. Follow that up with all the products we provide, and it has proved to be a compelling opportunity for our customers.
It’s important, I think, to note that Aurora offers products in each of our product lines that fit into family budgets – no matter what level of budget it is. We are focused on serving a wide variety of consumers, and that’s important to know, because no matter what their budget, we have products that meet family needs and that will make them feel good.
You’re focused on being a one-stop supplier for funeral homes. How are you doing with that goal?
Funeral homes get more value by buying more products and services. The more we are involved with a firm, the more we can help it grow. Our customers are often great care providers, but they look to us for the greatest marketing and merchandising ideas. When we become that full-line supplier, we become a more important partner and, frankly, probably more efficient in growing their businesses.
The best deal they get is growing their market share and the number of families they serve. That’s the best benefit that they can get because it drops to their bottom line.
Aurora has bucked the trend a bit in terms of its stance on casket selection rooms: You’ve argued that funeral homes can just as effectively present options in an electronic or catalog format. Tell us a bit more about your views on that front.
We are very focused on the consumer experience and how consumers want to be served. We all know that they spend an awful amount of time on the Internet and are very comfortable with electronic presentation. I think Aurora definitely did buck the trend when it first developed and deployed Advisor, our leading electronic customer platform.
We continue to focus on technology-based merchandising solutions – what consumers want and also what’s good for funeral homes. We are bringing a new Advisor product to market in 2015, and we’ve already announced our Advisor tablet app. Consumers are comfortable with apps, and this is a step forward in making casket selections. It’s very useful in the preneed marketing world and in the at-need service world. It’s something consumers warm up to, and funeral directors understand it as soon as they see it. We will announce several more technology-based products in 2015.
You’ve recently been conducting more conferences focusing on how funeral homes and hospice organizations can work together. Can you tell us a little more about that?
What we have been doing is we developed and have been holding a series of funeral home marketing conferences around the country. They are focused on helping funeral homes use Aurora’s business-building solutions to grow their market share. The initial reaction has been great, and we’ve gotten rave reviews from funeral directors.
The conferences explain current ideas: The latest successful methods to grow their businesses like using social media to effectively target special groups, such as hospice care providers, senior care facilities and veterans. We also explore the latest in electronic tools like BeRemembered.com and innovations in consumer websites that can be applied to funeral home websites.
Hospice is important because 46 percent of U.S. deaths have received hospice care, and funeral homes have to understand that hospice plays an important role in helping families navigate end-of-life decisions, including decisions about funeral service. Aurora can help funeral homes create value-adding relationships with hospice providers so that they, the funeral home and families mutually benefit. There cannot be one without the other.
We only recently kicked off 2015: What are some of your main goals for this year?
We are highly invested in the launch and continued development of BeRemembered.com – that’s on our high list of goals. We want to create opportunities to have more business-building conversations with more progressive funeral homes more often, so I can measure our sales teams’ performance by how often they are having those conversations and the quality of those conversations. We are doing a lot of training to make sure that is happening.
We will also launch a number of new and innovative products in 2015 in each of our major product lines, including caskets, stationery and technology products. We will also continue to build and launch new customer-facing solutions.
Do you have anything else to add?
We have almost 1,000 people on Team Aurora, and they work every day to help customers grow their businesses. We appreciate everything our team does every day. We also appreciate our more than 5,000 customers, and we welcome the opportunity to serve them and to serve more of them.