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Independent success down to continual learning and adaptability

Continual learning, assessment and adjusting to the times – these are the keys to being a successful independent funeral operator, according to Julian Walker, managing director of Reading family funeral firm AB Walker & Son and web-based memorial charity donation site Memory Giving.

“Continual learning and bringing in ideas from outside the industry – from other service industries and management perspectives – this is crucial in an environment that is changing,” he says. “AB Walker & Son has built a reputation for conducting funerals of a high standard over 180 years, but in today’s world that’s not enough. We need to look outside to ensure we don’t lose the benefits of all that hard work by our forebears.”

AB Walker & Son was established as coach masters in 1826 by the Marlow-based Walker family, who moved to Reading in the 1870s. Its six offices and  40 members of staff now serve Berkshire, South Oxfordshire and the surrounding areas. Julian joined nearly 20 year ago after studying Biomedical Science and serving with the British Army. He and brother Matthew, who is finance director, and Matthew’s wife Melissa – finance manager – form the fifth generation of the Walker family to work in the business.

About two years ago, the company extended its Memory Giving site, originally set up in-house to ensure charities and donors got the full benefit of donations given in memory, to a wider audience. Now hundreds of funeral directors and thousands of charities – ranging from the largest to the smallest local ones set up in memory of one specific person – are registered nationwide. The site can collect for any charity and can be set up within 12 hours.

Over £80m is donated to charity each year by family and friends in the UK in memoriam, but only a tiny fraction of Gift Aid is ever claimed. The site streamlines the process by offering a single point, and can claim Gift Aid for all donations. This is particularly helpful for small, local charities who often don’t have the capacity to do this for themselves.

“Most enquiries come from people who want to donate – anonymously or publicly – but aren’t proficient online; we understand the mindset of the funeral donor who wants to remember the person,” says Julian. “We’re paid a commission on the donation, which covers the maintenance and development of the site and the costs of dealing with enquiries. We do not make a profit. The expectation is to grow the number of funeral directors registering and the number of pages and gradually to reduce the commissions until it becomes a self-financing entity.”

But Julian says this is only one of the ways in which the funeral industry is changing: “We want to retain tradition and values of heritage, but there are significant changes in what clients want today,” he explains.

“There’s a move towards a more secular kind of funeral service and a celebration of a life, with sharing of memories, both digitally and through pictures and music. There has also been a significant shift in the age that people being introduced to pre-paid funeral plans and planning for later life. Funeral directors are becoming later-life planning specialists. We’re now looking at such services as will writing, Power of Attorney, pre-paid probate, estate trusts, tax planning. It’s all about looking at future finances and the relationship these have with organising a funeral. We see ourselves beginning to contribute to advice for such things as elderly care and stages of later-life planning.”

This also includes issues such as bereavement care. AB Walker has been running six-week bereavement support courses for two years, in partnership with Thames Valley Cruse. Thanks to a recent building programme, the firm can host these and about 20 of the team are now trained as facilitators. It has been extremely successful, resulting in a spin off social group, and a local GP network now refers people directly to the course.

It is an aspect of the business Julian is proud of – but it’s one of many. He and Matthew are also continually updating their own skills and looking to centres of excellence for inspiration. He has completed further management training at Henley Business School and Matthew looks to the Institute of Directors, where best practice across industries is discussed and applied. Both brothers also seek inspiration from other service industries and to further the training and development of all their staff.

Julian also believes that one of the reasons his company is thriving is the two brothers’ complementary abilities. “We are very different,” he says. “And we have different skills. But we are lucky that our values and expectations are aligned, enabling us to advance our family business in the same direction.”

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