What brought you into the funeral industry? Was this a space you had always pictured yourself in?
Like many funeral professionals out there, I was born into the industry. My father was a funeral home owner for 57 years. When I was just three days old, I entered the funeral home for the first time. I grew up working in the funeral home in the summer and helping my dad when times were busy. In the summer in between my junior and senior year of high school, I went on a call with my dad and it ended up being a call for a friend of mine. At that moment, I realized I didn’t quite have the emotional stability that I needed to have to be in the funeral business. When I went off to Baylor for college the next year, I got my degree in accounting because numbers don’t cry, and I liked that. I have so much respect for the job that funeral directors do each day. It’s not easy and they do it with such grace.
In 1985, when I was finishing up my senior year in college, my father called me and asked me if I could help with a small life insurance company he and a handful of other West Texas funeral directors bought into. They had been working to sell preneed funerals through it and needed help getting it organized and working properly. They had successfully gone through what I call a Capital Reduction Program and lost half of their capital. I told him I would help out temporarily and offered up my accounting skills. 35 years later, I am proud to still be a part of Funeral Directors Life.
Several years ago, you had a life-changing experience in your faith journey, how did that affect the culture of the company as a whole?
In life, sometimes you reach a point where you have to decide what your next move is going to be, and you have to choose what path to take. I was working with some men from my church, and we decided to take a retreat to the mountains and spend time contemplating life and finding out who we really were. Prior to that, the person I was at work was different from the person I was at home, different from who I was at church, and different from who I was in my civic responsibilities and social life. I found myself always playing the part of who I felt pressured to be, but it reached a point where it was exhausting to be so many different things.
Through the help of my friends and my faith in Jesus Christ, I decided that I needed to put more energy into maintaining my Christian values – which I know isn’t for everyone, but people respect principles, and for me, it was a good fit. Upon returning from my trip, I made some big changes in the way I lived my life and by keeping my Christian values at the root of everything, I was able to find who I truly was – one version of myself, the best version. Staying rooted in these values helped me prioritize what was truly important in my life. Number one being my wife, number two my children, number three was running this business, and four was my civic and social life. For me, my relationship with God didn’t need to be a separate priority but sprinkled into each and every part of my life.
I took what I had learned about myself and brought that into the business. It was a difficult process because not everyone has the same values and we don’t all think the same way, but at the core, it was something everyone could relate to in one way or another.
Up until I decided to make these changes to myself and my principles, I had operated under a philosophy where I refused to trust anyone until they proved they could be trusted. I had to change and allow myself to trust everyone until they gave me a reason not to trust them. I brought this way of thinking into the business. Whoever I was around or with I began to always approach my relationships from the standpoint of love. This was a new way of thinking for me, and I had to learn a really valuable lesson that I needed to apply my Christian values to my work life and personal life in order to be the most fulfilled. I was spending too much time on boards and on work and not enough on myself and my family – I was stretching myself too thin and making it impossible to grow as a person.
It took a few years to fully instill my values into the business, but I am so glad we did because once we stayed true to our values, the company really took off.
In 2010, you developed a sabbatical program for your employees where every 7 years, employees are offered 30 days of additional paid time off for service projects, mission trips, and relationship repair. How did this program get started and why is it important to you?
During and after the 2008 financial crisis, a lot of insurance companies were affected by this and many in the preneed sector were not immune to this economic disaster. However, our company was unaffected. I felt as if I was being guided through such a tricky time by God, and I was thankful we had made such conservative financial decisions prior to 2008. I never invested into anything I didn’t understand fully, and I never invested in anything I had a bad feeling about.
I had this overwhelming feeling that I should give back to God for the guidance he had given me, and I wanted to give my employees time off to give back and work on improving themselves. I wanted to give them a month of sabbatical in addition to the week of vacation they had to use for other things. Even though I knew people would think I was crazy, I pitched it to my friends and my executives, and to my surprise, they all thought it was a great idea and pushed me to make it happen. I brought my idea to the board thinking they would shoot me down and talk me out of it, but they loved the idea as well.
So, in 2010, we presented the opportunity to all of our employees. No matter how long they had been with us, they would be able to take a sabbatical, and it was received well. The program is optional, and some employees do opt out, but most partake. The rules are simple. You cannot have contact with the home office, you have to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night, you have to complete an hour of meditation during the day, at some point in your sabbatical you have to get involved with a service project or take a mission trip, if you have a relationship that needed repairing you have to put effort into improving that, you need to read for pleasure, and keep a journal with at least four entries outlining your experience. All sabbatical plans have to be presented to me and approved before they are granted, and I’ve been proud of all the cool ideas people have come up with.
It’s an incredible program and the stories that our people tell about their experiences are unbelievable. The stories and emotions are incredible, and we have continued to encourage each and every person who works here to take their sabbatical every seven years.
Sharing of knowledge is something that you truly value, which ultimately led to the creation of The Leadership Development Academy. How did this program get started and why is it important to you?
In 2012, I had a young man come into my office who I had once coached in youth sports. He had just graduated from Texas A&M University, and he came to me and told me he wanted to work for me because he saw the way I coached his team and the way I lived my life, and he wanted to be a part of that. He told me he would do anything I wanted him to do. However, at the time, I didn’t have anything available, but I decided to take a chance and told him that if he helped me develop a leadership program, I had been thinking about starting, then he had a job. He told me he was all in and we got started developing a 14-18 month paid internship program for young college graduates.
When someone goes through the program, they start by shadowing me. They go to every meeting, every employee issue, every client visit, and so on. They observe me and my leadership style. After me, they spend time with our Director of Maintenance and understand how to take care of the building and learning his leadership style. Next up is Sales & Marketing, followed by Operations, and then IT. By spending time with the leaders of all these departments and learning all the different leadership styles, we encourage them to develop their own unique style and way of leading. I love this program because it helps us ensure that we can continue the FDLIC legacy for years to come. It’s a great way for us to pass our knowledge and wisdom down to the younger generations and almost always results in them joining our team after they finish the program.
In addition to the internship program, we also offer an 8-week paid summer apprenticeship program for college students looking to further develop their major as well as a mentorship program for existing employees.
Looking forward to the future, what are you most excited about?
I am most excited about the fact that there is opportunity in our industry. I think there are a lot of funeral home owners and funeral directors that don’t necessarily see that. The funeral industry has changed, but all I see is opportunity. Opportunity to help shape the way our society sees funeral service. We have a very honorable profession, and right now society isn’t viewing funeral service as positively as they could, and it’s our job to change that. As leaders in our community, we need to be very proactive about the quality and value of the information we put out about funeral service. I’m looking forward to working towards shifting the public perspective of funeral service together. FBA