Bryan and Catherine Powell, founders of Pure Cremation
The way we approach the business of death, and mourning, is changing. Mike Hughes meets Bryan and Catherine Powell, founders of Pure Cremation, a disruptor in one of the most sensitive sectors of all.
When venture capitalists are looking for a new investment opportunity, they want some hope of a decent return, in the short-term or long-term. A key factor in whether that is likely will be the longevity of the target. Is this an overnight sensation (short-term potential if the timing is perfect) or a business that will grow, in a reliably active market.
As far as that reliability is concerned, there can’t be many to match the funerals sector. People will live and die – that’s it. And, as long as families look for help in processing their loss, there will be a need for experienced funeral directors.
But, even in such a sensitive sector – where any new approach will always be balanced against how it will be perceived by grieving parents, sons and daughters – change is happening. The accepted formality of the gathering for a funeral service is being questioned, and people like Bryan and Catherine Powell are the ones providing the answer.
Their Newbury business, Pure Cremation, is only a couple of years old but is already the UK’s leading specialist in direct cremations, where the body is collected and a cremation is carried out, usually with no-one present, and the ashes are handed over to the family within a couple of weeks, with no ceremony or service. It is then up to the family to arrange their own personal farewell away from the spotlight of a full service. Those farewells can take many forms, from a kite scattering the ashes to a memorial cricket match or the raising of a glass at a favourite pub.
From doing about 100 direct cremations a year, the Powells now look after nearer 1,000 at £1,195 a time – about a third of the full funeral cost – and the sector is growing so much that Bryan is becoming the go-to expert for those venture capitalists looking for inside knowledge of growth patterns and potential mergers or takeovers.
So, at 47, he finds himself a disruptor in an industry in which he has been working since he was 17. “It all started in 2015 with a simple request from a client to look after his mother – but he didn’t think he needed the coffin there to celebrate a life,” Bryan told me.
“And I thought ‘fair enough’ because the part of a funeral people enjoy is the wake after when the personal stories are told and family members and friends are reunited and there is a shared experience of the deceased involving unique memories.
That is now often the most important part of a funeral because attitudes are changing and where perhaps 20 or 30 years ago nan would go to church on Sunday and have a group of friends there, but now she may be just as likely to go shopping on a Sunday. That sort of intimate community often isn’t there anymore.
“So, we started with this one request and then found ourselves doing more and more until we decided to stop doing traditional funerals and concentrate on this type of service because there was clearly a need.”
This rebel within his industry has not gone down well with all his contemporaries. Fleets of hearses and piano-black cars are expensive, and plenty of staff are needed to run a full-blown service and burial, and now there is an alternative that is much cheaper, but with the same love and respect any family would expect. Bryan diplomatically describes it as “as a service the industry would rather you didn’t know about”.
His company is now not a member of any UK trade organisations, but has stayed with international and United States associations, saying that in the UK there is still a lack of understanding about the change that is happening – and also he feels the membership fees are just too high for their income.
“They are there for the trade, not for the consumer,” he says. “So, we put in a lot of effort instead into asking people for verified reviews of what we offer, which has led to a lot of our business coming from referrals.”
The lesson is that no business should think for a moment that its market is here to stay. As BQ entrepreneurs have shown on so many occasions, innovation is always happening in products, processes and services. But, for the funerals sector, it is said that the last big breakthrough was the change from horses to cars around a century ago. The time is right to shake things up.
But this is a business that Bryan loves. As a schoolboy in Bath during a boomtime, he had planned to become a stockbroker, but for a reason still unknown to him, when he was choosing three work experience options, he blurted out “funeral director” for his last one and an unplanned career was born.
“I think a lot of things appealed,” he tells me. “There was the formality, and a bit of looking after people in their time of need and definitely a bit of driving big cars.”
So, making a radical change to the sector was not a step he took lightly. But like any business, when your customers are more free-thinking than you, sometimes you have to stop and listen, even when you are already the founding chairman of the Independent Funeral Directors’ College, as well as serving for a number of years on the national executive of the Society of Allied & Independent Funeral Directors.
“Our strapline is ‘The freedom to choose’ and we very much stand behind this,” he says. “By separating the cremation from the celebration of a life, we are giving people the freedom to choose to do what they want, where they want it and when they want to do it.
“Traditionally, a funeral would be Monday to Friday, between 10am and 3pm, and you would be told what time to be at the crematorium, having waited for the one in front of you to come out, and then see the next one coming in as you leave. It’s been a bit of a production line at times,” he admits.
“But now I think people say goodbye over quite a long time period, certainly when a person passes away and then they do something personal with the ashes, like taking them to a favourite spot or even keeping them on the mantle-piece. That is the moment they are getting closure rather than seeing any value in the ceremony part of it where someone comes to the house a couple of evenings before to learn the life story and then regurgitates it on the day of the funeral. It doesn’t have any great value to the people we look after.
“I tell them that the most important thing is to hold on to the memories – the unique moments you spend with the people you have just lost. The memories will always remain with you, so the people will remain with you as well.”
The debate about funeral attitudes was opened up on a global scale by the death of David Bowie in January last year. The deeply-private music icon was cremated in New York, avoiding the headline-grabbing full funeral, and the fact it all happened so quickly underlined to millions the arrival of this new service and why it might be an acceptable alternative.
So acceptable, in fact, that investors are keen to corner the market. “I have helped advise VC companies over the past ten years or so,” says Bryan. “Because it is a relatively small industry, there aren’t that many investments to make, so when they do find one they are keen to make a move. Investors see a stability in the marketplace and something that is always going to be there in one form or another. They will also know of very good investments that have been made already, so it is seen as a good bet for them.
“With my knowledge of the market, I might be able to advise on a particular region or a company that might be looking to expand. Historically, funeral businesses are often acquired by larger groups and from that some staff may move out and start their own, so it is a sector that has a start-up element within it.
“But I happen to think there are too many funeral businesses around these days. When I started out a good-sized firm might be doing 400-500 funerals each year, but now the average is 120.”
Pure Cremation’s Newbury base serves the whole of England, from Newcastle to Truro, with his team using a range of crematoria and delivering the ashes home personally each time in a complex logistics operation. With more than £1m coming into the business, there are already talks going on to finance its own expansion, possibly including the company’s own crematorium, and other centres in addition to Hambridge Lane.
The company gives out a free e-book called “How to save £2,500 on a funeral” and the team photo on the company’s website shows them all smartly arranged in front of eight vehicles, with some open-neck shirts on view. Both would be unimaginable a few years ago, but then this is the business that is changing our view of what is really important when a life ends.