'It was a struggle at first separating my emotions from the tragic side of what we do'

This funeral director nearly left the family business after battling to switch off from work.

By Jonathan Stafford Managing Director, Staffords Funeral Homes

I BECAME MANAGING director of the family business – Staffords Funeral Homes – in 2002, and I’ll be the first to admit that initially I found it very challenging.

It was a struggle at first, to be able to separate my emotions from the very obvious tragic side of what we do, and I thought long and hard about whether it was something I would be able to sustain.

Staffords Funeral Homes was founded by my grandfather, Tom Stafford, in 1953 and since then our family-run business has been serving Dublin communities. My father John Stafford took over the day-to-day running of the business in the mid-60s until he passed the baton onto me in 2002.

In hindsight, I would say I always knew one day I would take over the running of the company. But while it is our business, in truth, it’s more of a family vocation.

Our name has been synonymous with funerals for over 70 years, and I was really proud at the time to be continuing to keep that good name going.

I think I’ve always had the personality because in this business you have to be sensitive to people’s feelings. That means you can’t be too aggressive, but you also can’t be the kind of guy who could get walked over.

Source: Staffords Funeral Homes

I studied accountancy and business, and shortly before I graduated from college, my granddad was diagnosed with cancer. Sadly he passed away very quickly from the disease. It was my first personal encounter with death and was sadly not to be my last.

I was 21 at the time and it was then that my father asked me to become more involved in the running of the business.

Growing up, I had always helped out when needed and felt honored to be able to help people during what is the most tragic, difficult and stressful periods of their lives. I guess it was then that I knew it was what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

Stepping back

At the beginning, I did have trouble stepping away from work, which caused its own problems. It can take its toll mentally and I found myself getting more and more tired.

I was conscious of this and adamant that I would not let it affect the business – there is no room for mistakes in this industry, and you have to make yourself available no matter what.

I have learned now to keep to one eye on my tendency to ‘always be on’. I make sure I find the right balance of being there for the families, providing empathy, sympathy and advice, but also at the same time making sure I leave it at work and try not to bring it home.

Funerals are such sad situations that have so much raw grief and emotion, you have to set it aside, go home and try not think about it. Which is often easier said than done.

When I was in my 20s, I was constantly told, “It’s not your fault that somebody has passed away”. The wisdom of age has made me understand that a bit more.

Changing habits

I have learned to take time for myself. That’s probably advice any entrepreneur should live by, because even though you might think working 70- or 80-hour weeks is going to make you super, it won’t.

I come across people who don’t take the time off and get too involved in their business. It always goes one way – they burn out.

There was one stage early in my career where I was working a week on call followed by a week off. But even then, on my week off, I was going into work everyday. I was simply never taking a break.

It was important for me to take some time out, and in 1998 I travelled to Australia where I spent the year exploring the country and giving my head some space.

Not long after I returned, my mother died suddenly. She was only 53 years old, and we had no idea she was sick. One day she was simply no longer there.

It really made me focus on life and living. I mean we all strive to do the best we can, but there is no point doing it just to drive yourself into the ground.

They say personal experience makes you better at what you do – and sadly for me this is the case. In the end, it has made me a better funeral director, but I also make sure I spend as much time with my family as I can.

When I walk out the door of the office I close it and it’s over – I’m not always on call.

Source: Staffords Funeral Homes

Modernising the business

Part of the reason I can take time for myself is that I am surrounded by a great team of professionals. This business is more than just the Staffords name, it’s the team that we have built over the years that is now the future of our business.

Staffords is an old, established company, but when I came on board I realised quickly that we needed to modernise the business in order to remain competitive, all while still providing the highest standard of service.

I honestly love what I do. That may sound odd, but it’s in my blood and I am always honoured to be able to do what I can to help people in their times of need.

The next generation of Staffords that could possibly take over the business are still very young, so it will be a good few more years before we put that kind of plan in place.

Naturally, given that we are a family business, it does come up, and I of course do wonder sometimes will he or she take over the business. But we’ll cross the bridge when we come to it.

Plans for 2017

Next year is my real focus, and 2017 will be a big year for Staffords. We have a funeral home planned to open in Ballyfermot in the summer in an old HSE building that we are in the process of converting.

We have been listening to what people want, and we know that many would like to take the civil-ceremony approach to saying goodbye to their loved ones. Our new funeral home in Ballyfermot will be equipped to do just that.

We also have plans to build one of the largest funeral complexes in Ireland in the old Tayto factory on the Malahide Road in Coolock over the next few years. It will become our centre of operations and will allow us adequate space to house our fleet of hearses and vehicles.

When I first joined the business we had two funeral homes and we have doubled that in the last number of years. I’ve seen how people’s needs and requirements have changed over the past 20 years. They want a more personal service now.

Source: Staffords Funeral Homes

The Catholic Church used to be very dominant, and you were told what was going to happen, which way and how. Nowadays, people come in and tell us how they want their service to proceed and we welcome that.

The main thing we do is we give as much personal choice to families as possible. You’re not just picking everything that happens off a menu, you’re not being told what you can and can’t have.

I’m extremely proud of what we have built. We have invested significantly in making sure our spaces offer some sense of comfort to people. In times of such sorrow, the smallest comfort we can bring to people is really what keeps us going.

Jonathan Stafford is the ‎managing director of Stafford’s Funeral Homes. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on business mistakes and what can be learned from them.

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