The Gaffney Group owns and operates in and around Pierce County, Washington. It all started in 1883 as C. L. Hoska Undertakers in Tacoma, Washington. Conrad Hoska was the founding member and the first coroner for the growing city of Tacoma. Mr. Hoska moved from Minnesota to Washington State, eventually settling in what would become Tacoma. Buckley and King were two understudies of Conrad, and they purchased the firm when Mr. Hoska suddenly died of a stroke at the age of 52. At that time, they renamed the firm Buckley-King to carry on its status as the premier funeral home in Tacoma, Washington. Corey’s parents, Larry and Ellen Gaffney acquired Buckley-King in 1987.
Lawrence Michael Gaffney started out in New York before moving to Arizona while working in the industry. After a short time, he moved to San Jose, California and started a firm there in 1884. But during a visit to Washington State he fell in love with the Northwest, and upon selling his home in San Jose, he moved to Tacoma, Washington. He started Gaffney Mortuary in 1905.
The modern-day Gaffney Group consists of 4 funeral homes: Gaffney Funeral Home, Powers Funeral Home, Price-Helton Funeral Home, and Sumner Voiles Funeral Chapel. In addition, the lineup includes the Cremation Society of Washington, and Woodlawn Abbey Mausoleum, a 10,000 square foot facility with all indoor crypts and niches, with 2 crematories located inside.
Corey Gaffney is President and CEO and his wife Jennifer Gaffney is Vice President and CFO of the Gaffney Group. We recently visited with Corey to discuss his business, how the Gaffney Group came about, and what he feels about the future of the funeral industry.
Corey is a fourth-generation funeral director and is the great grandson of the founder, Lawrence Michael Gaffney. Corey got his start in funeral service approximately 19 years ago after he decided his chosen career in the IT field was not as satisfying as he had hoped. In 2004, he began the course work on his funeral directors license and completed it in 2007. It was during that time that he noticed that cremation rates were rising in his market and he looked at his parents’ funeral home and saw nothing but opportunity. He started off as General Manager of the business, but as time as passed, he expanded his role to what it is today. Corey’s wife Jennifer Gaffney, is also a licensed funeral director. Together, as Corey says, “We make a great team and play off each other’s strengths.”
The current Gaffney Group we see today came about when they acquired 5 funeral homes from an SCI divesture deal in 2017. Just recently in the summer of 2020, the Group sold off 2 of the funeral homes that were in Central Washington, thus cementing the current lineup as it is today.
“All our businesses are now located in a 20-mile radius of our home office,” commented Corey. He continues, “The clustering of the businesses in proximity was very important to us and the operation of the group. It allows us to share staff and pool resources, something the profession learned from Bob Waltrip, founder of SCI. It has been a key driver in the ability to increase profitability for the Group.” Corey goes on to quip, “Having all the businesses close has eliminated the one to two hour drive it required to reach the other homes. And anyone who is familiar with the winters in Washington know that inclement weather can make that drive exceedingly difficult.”
During the process of purchasing the additional properties from SCI, the Gaffney Group received the assistance they needed from SCI. A grateful Corey stated, “SCI was a pleasure to work with and made it easy. We were given a liaison for 12 months to assist us in the divesture. At the end of the day, it worked out great!”
The sale of the two SCI homes that were acquired in the divesture was also made easy with the assistance of Dan Bywater of Ready Capital. “The 2 firms were sold to our location manager of those funeral homes and it turned out to be a win-win for both of us. I am incredibly pleased with the way it all unfolded,” says Corey.
Today, the Gaffney Group performs about 1,100 cases per year. “We feel blessed to have the market share that we have, because in our market cremation is the tip of the spear,” states Corey. He continues, “Cremation rates in our market are 83% and growing each year, but we continue to overcome that challenge. The bottom line is families still need to be taken care of, they still need someone to walk them through their options and we feel we have the right team to be able to help families with their nee¬ds.”
When discussing his team, it was easy to feel Corey’s pride. “During the purchase from SCI, we dipped into our local pool of talent,” Corey says proudly. “My wife and I are immensely proud of the team we have assembled. We have phenomenal people helping us run the business and they work extremely hard. They care deeply for the families they serve, and those families respond very well to them. The feedback we constantly receive due to our terrific staff is fuel in the tank for us. We wouldn’t trade them for the world.”
What else makes the Gaffney team successful? Another undeniable factor of the team’s success lies within the experience level of each member. Corey boasts that each member of the licensed staff has an average of 23 years in the busines. This experience gives the group a decided advantage over the local competition and continues to help the Gaffney Group grow.
The Gaffney Group believes in a basic philosophy of being able to ‘serve all’ in the community. In Washington State, only about 25% of the funeral homes have the ‘back end’ to do all the work. At Gaffney Group, they are a full-service firm that can do anything and everything a family may need. They have their own embalming rooms, their own crematory, and their own fleet of hearses. They infrequently have a need to use a trade service for any portion of their business, which is a rarity in the market.
In additional to being able to service anyone, Corey believes that an important differentiator for the Group is the top-notch facilities and equipment they provide. “I pride myself on having the best of everything,” Corey emphatically says. “We use the best late model hearses, the best service utility vans, all the way down to the best in basic equipment that allows us to perform our job safely and to be efficient for our client families.”
But when it comes down to discussing what he feels is the easiest way to explain their success, Corey cites two things.
1. Stay on top of the industry with regular communication. “I keep a line of communication open with my colleagues in other parts of the country,” he says. “Funeral Service is going through a transitional period and I enjoy discussing it with senior people in the industry with more experience than I have. I like to ask them about their struggles and challenges, and what they have done to overcome them. This has been invaluable to me.”
2. Know what you are worth. Corey discusses how they offer a premium service and are not shy about charging a premium because they feel like they are the best in class. “Three of our funeral homes are the highest priced in the market,” he comments. “We are unabashed about charging what we are worth and actually proud of that. We think that people still get what they pay for and that people appreciate this fact.”
Besides the premium service Gaffney offers, the have a brand that serves those in the middle. For those families that want to have an in-person funeral experience but do not need the best of everything – and their cremation society is the low-cost, high volume portion of their business.
As a fourth-generation funeral director the various brands have taken getting used to, but instrumental in their success. Corey explains, “Just like Infinity and Nissan or Toyota and Lexus, we felt the need to give our families what they need. We have bifurcated our brands so that we can serve more families.”
Their cremation brand is an example of the variety in their service offerings. Located near Seattle, Corey jokes that they like to say they are the Amazon of cremation. “We do business with a lot of employees of Amazon and they have commented our process is like Amazon,” jokes Corey. “Our website for cremation is very robust. An individual can make arrangement online in 5 minutes. After the purchase, our website automatically sends out the legal documentation through DocuSign®. So, you can arrange a cremation and never have to meet with anyone.”
The Gaffney Groups’ focus on a multi-level brand approach is paying off. They have seen a substantial increase of working with families that have become dissatisfied with their competitors. “The national average is that an individual will have the need to use a funeral home once every 7 years,” Corey commented. “We are starting to serve families that were previously using another funeral home but are now reaching out to us because they are not satisfied with their current experience and are not having their expectations met.”
Their focus on investing in their business to make it the best and the desire to keep making these investments is paying dividends. As Corey stated, “That is the fuel that feeds the fire. It makes me smile when I see our efforts of positioning our brands and the results that we are now seeing.”
With all the success the Gaffney Group has experienced, nothing quite prepared them for what they would face with COVID-19. “When COVID-19 hit, we knew the business would change dramatically,” says Corey. “Besides becoming a new line item on our income statement, we knew many changes needed to be made. But we saw it as an opportunity. Today, we provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to all our employees to keep them safe. We also provide masks to all visitors who do not have a mask of their own. And we placed inside the door each of our homes a touchless station where they can sanitize their hands.”
But the challenge of COVID-19 has only emboldened Gaffney to continue to focus on client needs. As Corey states, “Even with COVID-19, the touch points of our profession have not changed.” He continues, “People will always have to deal with a death of a loved one. And they will need that individual to be taken care of by however they personally define that. People will always need a business that is staffed by quality individuals, who are caring, compassionate, and conscientious. They want someone who can bring all their wishes to fruition. And that excites me about the future, and it is what that gets me out of bed each morning and keeps me going.”
The future is moving forward, and so is the Gaffney Group. FBA