We all know about the maxim that nothing in this world is more guaranteed than life, death, and taxes. We are born. We die. And we pay our taxes.
The funeral industry is a unique business. I know first-hand; my mother worked at a funeral parlour for over thirty years. At that time, we joked about the never-ending supply of clients. It’s true. There is no shortage of clients and in a pure business sense, that’s a really attractive proposition. But it’s also true that the people who run such businesses are the most caring and dedicated business owners, who have the opportunity to make a huge difference to those who are in their hour of need. Those in the industry who are dedicated, have empathy and understand their clients’ needs, thrive. They certainly realise only too well, that one size certainly doesn’t fit all. Many of them run hugely successful businesses simply because they care, and they know that when people are at their most vulnerable, caring is what matters most.
Enter William Cole Funerals, in business in Canberra for nearly thirty years. That is some record and I was keen to hear their story. I knew that they must be very knowledgeable about this industry after such a long time. So, I trotted over to their Belconnen premises to check them out.
It is a family business, run by William and Christine Cole, and their daughter has joined them too. It’s a true “mum and dad” business. It turns out that this is not their first foray into the world of business, either. They’ve had successful businesses before. Not only is their business acumen impressive, but they also have a flourishing partnership and marriage, after getting together at school, at the tender ages of 14 and 16! That’s some record!
Their first business (when they moved from Wollongong to Canberra), was a milk-run, which they ran together late at night after their other jobs. In fact, for a while there, they each were working on jobs and had three between them. Bill worked for the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Christine was vacuuming in a car wash in Braddon. After work, they would go to the Milk Run, and then, incredibly, after that they worked at yet another job at the Molonglo Sewerage Works late at night, making sandwiches for the employees there for the next morning. Talk about work ethic! That’s how you get ahead. Bill said the milk-run was earning more money part-time than he was getting paid full-time in the public service. After two years with the milk run, they sold it at a profit (as Christine was pregnant with her first child) and so, they needed to move on and their next business adventure began soon afterwards.
From 1978 – 1984 they ran a Smallgoods Business in Fyshwick, selling, ham, sausages, frankfurts, etc. to Woolworths, Coles and all of the Shoprite stores. The factory was in Homebush and they had an office, cold rooms and trucks here in Canberra. The partner they worked with initially was like a dad to him. He taught him much about running a profitable business, but in 1981 he retired to the coast and when they took on another partner. It didn’t work out unfortunately, so they sold their shares to that partner and got out of the business altogether.
Bill then worked for Tobin Brothers for three years, where he learned all about the funeral business and he is still grateful to this day for the training he got there. Subsequently, in July 1990 the couple set up their own funeral business in Mitchell.
Fast track to 12th May 1997 – and having bought land in Belconnen the year before, they had a purpose-built building to house William Cole Funerals. It was the most exciting time for them. It was still just the two of them, too. But today their grown daughter works with them in Belconnen, and she became a highly skilled embalmer and loves working in her family’s business.
Asked about the funerals that stand out in their memories, they say there are many. But one they talked about was the funeral of Bryce Courtenay, who is buried at Hall but had the service in an Anglican church (by invitation only), at Darling Point in Sydney. Bryce had arranged his own funeral and in true Courtney style, it was stunningly beautiful and moving. The Prime Minister attended, as did Kamahl, along with many other celebrities. There was a wheelbarrow with vegetables and sunflowers at the entrance to the church (as Bryce had loved his garden), and in particular, sunflowers. He had recorded a speech he gave and used his humour to tell everyone that if they were ever driving out in the countryside and saw sunflowers, they could tell themselves, “so that was where the old bastard was buried”.
When self-government came in they conducted a number of state funerals, such as the then Attorney-General, and other high profile funerals followed at St Christopher’s, and in other churches around Canberra that have all been humbling experiences.
“But the non-famous funerals matter just as much,” they hasten to tell me, and we look through photo albums of extraordinary funerals; of the first cardboard coffins, incredibly elaborate and personalised ceremonies, and even a sea burial off the coast at Nowra. What hits me as we talk, is the incredible passion and empathy this couple still have for their business after all of these years.
In 2015 they celebrated their 25th Anniversary dinner and they estimated they had conducted close to 14,000 funerals at that time so far, and they are still going strong.
This is a business that is bucking the trends – there is no doubt about it! They have not been “lucky” as often people say of successful businesses, but rather they have worked their way to the top and deserve every accolade in my book.
The funeral business is a tricky and sensitive business, not pleasant to think about when we lose loved ones, or we ourselves leave this mortal coil, but it’s worth thinking about it and planning for it too, as this will save a lot of heartache for those we leave behind. My mother taught me that – and now Bill and Christine Cole have reinforced that idea.
What are your wishes when you die? Will you want to be cremated or buried? Have you any special wishes?