March 10, 2017

Like father, like daughters: It’s all in the family at Perth funeral business

Having his four daughters join the Perth funeral business he founded 26 years ago was initially something Steve Erceg resisted but today believes their involvement has been key in Seasons Funerals’ evolution and success.

Innovative Perth business Seasons Funerals is a family affair with founder Steve Erceg working alongside his four daughters. We speak to Steve and daughter Kate about the pros, and potential cons, of building a successful family business.

When Steve Erceg began his Perth funeral business 26 years ago he didn’t plan for it to become a family company. He was aware of the challenges of working alongside loved ones and the potential for conflict, and was wary.

His four daughters, however, had other ideas. Today the business, Seasons Funerals, is very much a family affair that prides itself on its ‘familyness’ with siblings Erin, Kim, Kate and Anna working alongside their dad in an operation that’s grown to encompass five branches and organises more than 1200 funerals annually.

“I’m glad it did work out this way – it’s been a great thing for the business,” says Steve. “It certainly helped it continue to evolve and innovate and is a big part of its success and growth.

“But I did have some reluctance about becoming a family business. My belief was that everyone should follow their own dream and make their own mark. I’d seen that in family businesses there could be conflict down the track and I didn’t want that for my family. But then Erin joined and eventually the others too. Nature took its course.”

Funeral planner and head of training, Kate, who joined the business nine years ago, after working part-time while completing a psychology degree, says she had little involvement in the business growing up. But once she started working there, she felt its pull.

“We’re lucky, we all get on very well, and it’s really a great feeling working together, coming up with ideas and putting them into action,” says Kate.

“We’re always looking for innovative ideas and ways to better serve our customers. If you come up with an idea Dad’s on to it – he wants to implement it straight away.”

Business turning point

Steve says it was at a crossroads in the business when he was under mounting pressure that the idea of his daughters formally becoming a bigger part of it was cemented.

He had started the business in 1990 with a business partner, a fellow orderly in a hospital where their duties included taking the deceased to the mortuary and releasing them to the funeral director

Seeing a gap in the market in the Perth suburb Armadale where they lived, the colleagues had the “crazy idea” to get into the funeral business. “There was no funeral director there so we went to a small funeral director in another area and asked to use his mortuary facilities and vehicles,” says Steve. “That got us started and away we went.”

But by 2000, having bought out his partner, Steve was “starting to burn out” from the workload. “It was getting too big to handle,” he says. “So I enrolled in a 12-month business development course at Curtin University and invited Erin and Kim to do it with me.

“It was inspirational and eye-opening. It highlighted a lot of shortcomings of the business but also revealed some real passion for business in my girls and I realised the potential. We learned how to be business people and about the systems and structure we needed to put in place. From that time the girls effectively started taking over more of the business.”

Family benefits

Working with family comes with its own benefits but also challenges, say Steve and Kate. The family has been careful to build a structure to ensure it runs successfully and avoids some of the potential pitfalls of a family business.

Kate says the rewards of being part of a family business are many – both personally and for the business.

“I think it gives the business a nice feeling for our customers,” says Kate. “Our family looking after their family – it’s something that appeals to people.”

“For me the biggest pro is the support. The work can sometimes be emotionally draining but, because most of the family can completely understand, then if I’ve had a bad day at work they know what my bad day looks like.”

Steve says key a key to sidestepping potential pitfalls is the business’ policy of having a non-family general manager and an advisory board with an independent chairman and experienced external business people, including Steve Samson, the chairman of Family Businesses Australia.

“Having an independent GM is very important – having that person between me and my family,” says Steve. “None of my kids are answerable to me. If Kate wants a day off she speaks to our GM.”

Says Kate: “You don’t want the risk of staff thinking there’s favouritism. We follow the same rules as everyone. I apply for leave and have my annual review in the same way.”

Avoiding another potential problem area, each of the family have gravitated to different parts of the business where they have particular interests and abilities, from customer service and marketing to funeral planning and accounting, says Kate.

“It’s just happened that way. We didn’t have to face the possible problem of two of us wanting the same job. We’re very lucky.”

One of the biggest hurdles to navigate in the future, and one that the family is now addressing, is succession planning. “It is quite a challenging one,” Steve says.

Says Kate: “It’s an ongoing and open discussion we’re having around succession planning and what the business will look like in the future. It’s going to be an interesting five to ten years ahead to manage but we’re on our way