Brian Snowdon was a newly minted accountant when he got the call in 1988 that a controller job had opened up at a major company. The pay was great, the commute was short and the company traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange (a plus for the finance enthusiast). The job seemed to tick all his boxes, but there was just one thing:
“The company is in the death care industry,” the headhunter told him.
Snowdon thought that was a bit weird. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would work in death care,” he said. But he took the job at Arbor Memorial Services anyway—and stayed there for the next 29 years, rising up the ranks from vice-president and chief financial officer to CEO.
Arbor Memorial was founded in 1947 by Dan Scanlan in London, Ont. In its modest beginnings, the company only handled cemetery services, providing plots, stone markers and burials. If families wanted a funeral service, they had to go elsewhere. Scanlan, who died in 2014, thought this was flawed—like selling coffee but not offering cream or sugar. So the company shifted its strategy to provide the entire suite of end-of-life services. It acquired existing funeral homes and built new ones from scratch, some of which are located at its graveyards to eliminate the need for a procession. Arbor also rolled out pre- and post-need services so families could make funeral arrangements before they need them and seek grief counselling services when the time eventually comes.
One of Arbor’s strengths lies in its vertical integration. By holding their customers’ hands every step of the way in the sombre practicalities of laying the dead to rest, Arbor has grown to become one of the largest funeral services providers in Canada, with 92 funeral homes, 41 cemeteries and 28 crematoria spread across eight provinces.
The company returned to its private roots in 2012; at the time, it was valued at $375 million. With less regulatory red tape to deal with, management had more free time to concentrate on its customers. In 2017, Arbor served a record number of families with more than 25,000 funeral services and 19,000 burials.
But even with the high growth, Snowdon is not complacent. He is aware that customs around death are changing. Cremations, for one thing, have become the norm, with the rate running at about 70% in Canada. Cremations aren’t as profitable as traditional burials since an urn of ashes rarely requires land. Still, Snowdon doesn’t see this trend as a bad thing; the bereaved still need to commemorate their loved ones somehow. So Arbor organizes visitations, chapel services, receptions and even nature walks. “Every life deserves to have a unique service, whether they’re buried or cremated,” he says. “We can’t make the mistake of assuming people only want the cremation.”
The company has also had to adapt to the multicultural ways in which Canadians grieve. One location features a ceremonial garden with a twin dragon statue to cater to Chinese and Vietnamese families, while other facilities include bathing rooms to accommodate certain faiths and customs.
Lastly, customization is more in demand than ever. Customers are rejecting boilerplate funerals for ones that are more personal and celebratory. Arbor paid attention and began offering customers “Time to Remember” packages so they could plan a more meaningful goodbye. One send-off incorporated the deceased’s favourite hobbies: it took place during Monday Night Football, and featured five of his favourite beers and a heated patio so attendants could smoke cigars. “We’re comfortable talking about death, but most people aren’t,” says Snowdon. “They don’t know what the process is like or what options are available. We make sure they know what can be done.”