By Ray Penner
A rancher had recently passed away, leaving his wife and two brothers to plan his funeral. They turned to Saskatoon Funeral Home and Bill Edwards, president and CEO, for the arrangements. The family met with Bill at the funeral home, where the ceremony was to be held. As they discussed the deceased and what would be a fitting tribute, they kept mentioning Chester and how close the rancher had been to him. “Then I think we should invite Chester to the funeral,” said Bill. The room went silent.
“Really? You can do that?” asked one of the brothers.
“We can try,” replied Bill.
Chester was the rancher’s favourite horse.
The day before the funeral, the brothers took Chester to the funeral home and walked the docile animal around the chapel to familiarize him with the strange surroundings. The rehearsal went well. The next day, as the service was about to conclude, the brothers donned their cowboy hats, stepped out of the chapel’s side entrance, and returned a few minutes later with Chester. The horse performed perfectly as one of the brothers led him once around the casket, then led him out at the head of the procession from the chapel.
We always try to find ways to make the memorial unique, more personal.
“We always try to find ways to make the memorial unique, more personal,” explains Bill. Sometimes it’s the small touches, such as the funeral attendants all wearing a pink pocket puff and using pink in the memorial cards for the funeral of a 16-year-old girl whose favourite colour was pink. Sometimes it’s not so subtle, such as when a flatbed semitrailer served as the hearse for a long-time trucker. Then there’s the smallest legal cemetery in Saskatchewan, measuring just six feet by six feet, created with the help of Saskatoon Funeral Home as the final resting place of hockey legend Gordie Howe and his wife, Colleen Howe, outside the SaskTel Centre.
Many more remarkable stories could be recounted from the 110-year history of Saskatoon Funeral Home, which was founded by Bill’s grandfather, W.A. Edwards, and has remained family-owned to this day – it’s the only locally owned funeral and cremation service in the city. Family businesses are becoming a rarity in the industry. In the mid-eighties, the Edwards family began receiving buyout offers from national and international conglomerates, who were starting a North American consolidation race. “Sometimes it was relentless,” says Bill. “They would tell us that the days of the family-run funeral home were over, so we should get out when we had the chance.”
If I had gone straight into the family business after my commerce degree, I think I might have regretted it and always wondered what else was out there.
A changing community with changing needs
Instead, Bill and the Edwards family focused on ensuring that Saskatoon Funeral Home remained in their control and relevant to the community it served, while maintaining the business’s original principles of fairness, honesty, integrity, trust, and compassion. In 1970, Bill’s parents, Arnold and Evelyn, established the first cremation facility in the province. At that time, cremation represented only 0.5% of the funeral business in Saskatchewan, but the trend toward cremation was growing rapidly.
They reached out to the many different faiths in Saskatoon as the population became more diversified. There were also increasing requests for non-religious memorials that followed no prescribed format. “Some people don’t even like to use the word ‘funeral’,” says Bill. “They prefer to use terms like ‘memorial reception’ or ‘life celebration’.” Whereas in Bill’s grandfather’s day, virtually all funerals were conducted in a church, services now are being held in places like back yards, the Saskatoon Club and Prairieland Park events centre. In an extraordinary show of commitment to the community, the family built the Edwards Family Centre, which serves as an educational centre, reception facility, and meeting place for a variety of non-profit groups dedicated to services such as bereavement counselling. The Centre earned an international industry award for innovation in 1995.
In 2011, Saskatoon Funeral Home received another prestigious honour: the national Family Enterprise of the Year award from the Canadian Association of Family Enterprises. Longevity was one of the factors. Just 10% of family businesses survive into the third generation. With Bill’s son Morgan now on board, Saskatoon Funeral Home was in the early stages of being handed over to the fourth generation – a feat accomplished by only 4% of all family businesses.
For both Bill and Morgan, though, succession was never expected or predetermined. Rather than automatically following in the footsteps of his father, Arnold Edwards, Bill chose to study architecture, earning his Master’s degree. His brother is also an architect, and the two founded their own business in Saskatoon, but also sat on the Saskatoon Funeral Home board along with their sister. As Arnold grew older, Bill stepped in to help him and began to assume more duties of the funeral business, including financial management. It finally reached the point where it was decided to have Bill’s brother assumer leadership of the architecture business and have Bill take over as president and CEO of Saskatoon Funeral Home.
As for Morgan, after earning a general business degree, he took a position with the Saskatchewan Abilities Council. It wasn’t until seven years later, in 2008, that he joined Saskatoon Funeral Home. “At the Abilities Council at that time, I was being offered a promotion into a management position, but in fairness to them I didn’t want to accept it unless I first had a serious talk with Dad about the funeral business. I knew my parents were waiting to hear what my ultimate career plans would be, and the time had come.”
The benefit of external experience
Morgan doesn’t regret his time working outside the family business. Quite the opposite. “If I had gone from university straight into the funeral business, I might very well have been viewed by the staff as a liability on the company, occupying a position that was created just for me. As it turned out, when I did join, it was when some of the staff were retiring. I was needed. Plus, I had already proven my skills, so I think I was respected more. But I didn’t start as a vice-president or anything like that. I started as a crematorium technician while earning my embalming licence and funeral director licence. After five years, our manager retired, so I was able to comfortably and confidently step into that position. If I had gone straight into the family business after my commerce degree, I think I might have regretted it and always wondered what else was out there. This way, I proved myself without the safety net of being the boss’s son.”
Bill, too, would recommend a few years of outside experience for any son or daughter who wants to eventually take over a family business. “You want your kids to be happy, first and foremost. But even if they do want to go straight into your business after finishing their education, it’s important that they go out in the world and earn their stripes elsewhere. The risk for you is that they find a career they really like, and they like the money, and they don’t come back. But that’s a risk you have to take.”
The transition had another aspect as well. The funeral business demands a specific personality type. For Morgan, it took a while to adjust to a career that involved daily interaction with death and mourning. Morgan remembers, “I found myself at first preoccupied with what the family must be going through, or what the spouse must be going through, and when you think about that too hard, it does become draining. It took about a year before I started focusing on our purpose, and the helping side of it. Then the days weren’t sad anymore. You leave work feeling like you’ve accomplished something. I’m sure my experience happens in other professions, too, particularly healthcare.”
We always have followed the same compass. We’ve always headed in the same direction.
Bill refers to their work as a calling, noting that “We’ve had some staff who burned right out because they got too far into the grief of the families, and when you do that, you’re really not much help to them. You have to be able to solve the issues. Every family’s grief is unique, as is every life being celebrated. It’s very rewarding working with a family to find out what made their loved one special to them, to create a memorable and fitting tribute to that individual.”
Rising to every challenge
Never has that challenge been greater than under the strict provincial regulations during the spring of the covid-19 pandemic. In one case – the death of an 18-month-old child – many people wanted to console the parents, but a typical funeral was out of the question. Instead, the funeral home arranged for the family to gather behind the large windows of the chapel, and have those who wished to pay their respects drive up to the window and talk briefly with the family on their cell phones. In another case, the eulogy was delivered by a friend of the family in Calgary, using the funeral home’s latest innovation, a robot that the person could remotely control.
Constant adaptation to changing times and changing needs underpins the success of Saskatoon Funeral Home and the Edwards family. At the same time, the family has remained unified in its commitment to the values set forth by W.A. Edwards in 1910. For each succeeding generation, those values were instilled in childhood. The family values are the business values. “We always have followed the same compass,” says Morgan. “We’ve always headed in the same direction.”
First published in the September 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.