The Partnership Podcast

Business and acquisitions with Ross Hickton

May 19, 2021 Golden Charter Season 1 Episode 24
The Partnership Podcast
Business and acquisitions with Ross Hickton
Show Notes Transcript

Funeral director Ross Hickton talks about running and expanding an independent family business, including through acquiring additional branches.

Malcolm Flanders [00:00:04] Welcome to the Partnership Podcast. As independent funeral directors, you often have two roles, families see the support you give them and your work in the community, while at the same time you have all the pressures of business owners. So this time we're speaking to one independent about managing the business side of his work. Ross Hickton is from Hickton Family Funeral Directors in the West Midlands, and he's grown his family business over the years according to defined business goals. Now that growth has included acquiring other businesses, and today we'll be talking about that strategy, and how he approaches the unique challenges of an independent funeral director business. So, Ross, good to see you this morning. How are you?

Ross Hickton [00:00:51] Very well, looking forward to getting in the pub at the weekend.

Malcolm Flanders [00:00:55] Well, yeah, I'm good, thanks. I think you guys are slightly ahead of us on pubs opening, ours don't actually start till Monday, but enjoy your weekend. I'm sure the weather will hold for you. Look, we're conscious you've been quite busy over the last few months, and so really interested to hear about how you're running your business at the moment. I mean, if you think of it as a family business, that we know is existed for over a century now, can you tell us a little about its history and who's involved now?

Ross Hickton [00:01:25] Yeah, of course. The business was first started by my great grandfather, Joe Hickton, in 1909. As most funeral directors, undertakers, were back then, he was a carpenter and builder. He was also a local councillor and one point the local mayor as well. In 1909 he started a dedicated funeral business in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands, where we're still based today. In 1921, he moved the business to the premises where we are right now. Funnily enough, his wife, so my late, great grandmother, was also the local midwife. So the local saying back then, which some families actually still say to us now, is that she brought them into the world and he took them out. So, quite funny, and it's nice history that people still remember that, they still say that saying to us.

Ross Hickton [00:02:19] So their son, my grandfather William, known as Bill Hickton, joined the family business in 1937, and that's when the business started to expand, as did the town. So then my dad Trevor came into the business in 1971. I then came into the business in 2006, pretty much straight from school. My brother Greg joined the business in 2010 and then my sister came into the business in 2015. So at the moment there's me, my brother, and my sister, and my dad still comes in for a few hours each day just to sort of oversee the office. Doesn't go out on funerals anymore. He'll go and attend but he won't conduct.

Malcolm Flanders [00:03:01] Wow. That's a great story. So tell me, does your dad make any decisions anymore, or is he happy to leave that to you and the family?

Ross Hickton [00:03:11] Yeah. I mean he leaves it me, my brother and sister, really, to be honest. I mean, when he had the business, like I said, we had the one office, and then a small office in the town up the road.  Now we have got seven funeral branches and a completely standalone stonemasonry business. So the business has evolved and grown quite a lot. I've overseen a lot of that growth, so I know the ins and outs and how the business runs.

Malcolm Flanders [00:03:36] OK, so looking ahead, what's your vision and ambition for the business and how do you embed that into a funeral director with such a long history?

Ross Hickton [00:03:47] Yes, I mean, obviously the funeral profession has changed a lot. Not over the just the last 100 years since we've been in business, but pretty much over the last ten years. Before Covid, families were looking online more, they demanded and expected more from their funeral director. I think the days of dark and dingy funeral homes behind a net curtain, you know, the funeral director tells you what you're having more so than you tell the funeral director what you want, those days are completely and utterly gone now.

Ross Hickton [00:04:17] So I would say, to be as open and honest as possible with our families. I'd put our success down to our caring nature. I feel we go the extra mile, we're very flexible. We're a large business now, but we're still flexible. Families can contact us whenever they want. Me, my brother or my sister, we're still around funerals daily. We're very hands on, and we try to communicate with families as much or as little as they want, really.

Ross Hickton [00:04:43] We open and acquire businesses in the Birmingham, Wolverhampton areas. We saw such a big market for a modern, fresh and new Independent, really. Many of the known family funeral directors are sadly now in the corporates’ hands. A lot of families don't know that. They see the names and think it's still the family.

Malcolm Flanders [00:05:04] And one thing I am interested in actually, just reflecting on you leading that business with your brother and sister, you left school, came straight into the business. Where have you gained your business knowledge and acumen from, do you think?

Ross Hickton [00:05:19] To be honest, a lot of it, I've just thought of myself. I mean, obviously, my dad taught me how to arrange, conduct a funeral, how to do the mortuary work, how to line trim a coffin. You know, you pick all that up on the day, as you're being a funeral director. But the business side of it, I will admit, I just sort of muddled along. I mean, we changed accountants, not long after I came into the business. I had that transition of learning and understanding what they wanted from us. I learnt a lot of them. I work closely with our bank manager, at Lloyds Bank, she taught me a lot.

Ross Hickton [00:05:55] But a lot of it I've literally just learnt by reading articles, reading autobiographies. And obviously the times have changed and everything's online these days. Everything's digital based. And I am quite into computers and the digital world. So I've kept up that and introduced it into the business, and been able to put the systems in place, how to run a business modernly and efficiently.

Malcolm Flanders [00:06:18] OK, that's interesting. And as an ex banker myself, I can relate to that. I think if you have a good accountant and a good bank manager who's supportive, that's a good start for any small business owner.

Ross Hickton [00:06:29] They give you the leads of what you need to look at, and then I went and picked it up and learnt what I needed to do. So I've seen that shift over time, where I've relied on the accounts and the back manager to help and assist me, now or just sort of do it myself, because I've got the experience and I know what I'm looking for and what I'm doing more so.

Malcolm Flanders [00:06:46] Got you. OK, thanks. Now I talk to my introduction about how you've grown your business by acquisition. Can you talk a little about that process? So in other words, how you identify what you want to acquire and then make it actually happen?

Ross Hickton [00:07:00] Yeah. So we've been pretty lucky, to be honest, over the years, where we've gone after businesses which have not necessarily been that large, that have been in locations. So one of the first acquisitions we made was in Birmingham. They had four branches, all in good locations, but they weren't doing the numbers. They didn't really have the capital to invest, to advertise and market the business. Now saddly, one of the directors of that business passed away quite tragically, and his partner was left to sort of pick the business up and sort it out, really. He decided to sell it.  We just heard on the grapevine it was for sale. We wanted to expand. We felt that the areas we were already in, there wasn't much more expansion to be done, because there's a lot of family funeral directors around here. So, literally 10, 15 minutes into the big city, a lot of funeral directors, a lot corporate directors as I said.

Ross Hickton [00:08:00] So this business we identified, they had four branches, but all in really good areas. To me, that is an area where you haven't got a family funeral directors, you just got corporate funeral directors.

Malcolm Flanders [00:08:10] Understand.

Ross Hickton [00:08:11] We viewed the business, we thought it's worth the punt, you know, we can afford the additional overheads. Yes, they weren't doing the massive numbers, but I could see the growth was there. So we took the business on. We did close down two of the sites straight away, because they just weren't making any headway. And we focussed on two branches, which we felt were good areas. One didn't have any competition at all, there was no local funeral director there.

Ross Hickton [00:08:37] So we spent a good few years marketing the branches, branding it Hickton's, and that really took off, three or four years later, down the line. And now they are completely standalone branches, with their own mortuaries. The deceased are kept there, there's a couple of staff at each office and they are good branches for us. So that was a good business to buy, to be honest. Again, because we saw and identified the area, there was a need for a new independent funeral director.

Malcolm Flanders [00:09:07] Got you. That's interesting. Thanks. And are there any particular challenges for you personally, either in terms of the stress, trying to cope with that extra workload as well as being a funeral director or the financing of it? I mean, do you enjoy that that kind of process?

Ross Hickton [00:09:24] Yeah, I mean, I do sort of thrive on stress a bit. I do enjoy the high pressure sort of work. I mean, the biggest risk completely is the capital outlay. I mean, you buying a business, you're taking a risk and a gamble. You're potentially taking on additional new staff, new overheads, and  new risks. How is that going to integrate with your current staff? How will the new staff work and arrange funerals the way we do our funerals? But eventually the benefits, if it all works, outstrips the initial worry. It's an exciting time, to be honest. And when you see from what it was to, where it is now, you can only be proud, really.

Malcolm Flanders [00:10:00] No, sounds it, good stuff. And look, for those funeral directors who are listening to this podcast, can you recommend anywhere a funeral director can go for advice or guidance if they want to consider their own acquisitions?

Ross Hickton [00:10:12] Well, I mean, if you look online, there's a few agents that sell businesses. I wouldn't recommend that avenue. They're generally overpriced and the statistics and the accounts are ballooned, really. But I would say make sure you've got a good accountant. They can advise you and point in the right direction. Funeral businesses are pretty unique, so you can't compare them to other business sales. So what I've done in the past is, I've spoke to other large funeral directors, who have acquired and bought businesses over the years. Not necessarily in my local area, and I've asked for their opinion and advice, but make sure they aren't direct competition.

Ross Hickton [00:10:52] And I'd also say, if you are looking to expand your business and you do have a funeral business in mind you think would suit you, approached them, ask them. We recently bought a stonemasonry business. We never dealt with them. They've been long established near our head office since 1881. But I just heard on the grapevine that they wanted to retire. The owner's in their late 50s. I literally just knocked on the door and said, "do you want to retire? I have heard on the grapevine you do. If you ever do want to sell, give me a call." And yeah, it was a bit cheeky and maybe a bit 'not what you should do' but six months later, they rung me back, yeah we're ready to retire now, make us an offer.

Malcolm Flanders [00:11:31] Wow, good stuff. And tell me, say in the last year or two, with the way you've grown your business, how have you approached the people side in terms of communication, taking them with you, so they understand why you're doing it? How did you involve them, so they didn't feel threatened in terms of what you were doing?

Ross Hickton [00:11:51] So obviously when you're on board in any new stuff, you've got a big risk and worry they're not going to integrate. So what we've always done is we've took along our long standing employees, who've worked for the family for many years, and let them integrate with the new staff. So it's not just the family, the directors coming down talking to you, it's the staff who have work with us for 10, 20 years, going round to tell them their stories and give them that peace of mind that everything will be OK. And what we find is because there's four family members in the business and we're all fairly young, forward thinking and modern, a lot of the business we bought they needed modernising. So they actually appreciated it.

Malcolm Flanders [00:12:32] Excellent. So how do you view the future? If we take a five, 10, 15 year horizon, we've got regulation obviously is imminent, changing customer preferences, we're kind of working our way through a pandemic. How positive or negative are you as a leader of that business for the next 10, 15 years?

Ross Hickton [00:12:52] I'm very positive, to be honest. We need regulation. Obviously we've got the pre-paid regulation coming in next year. Hopefully we'll have the full funeral regulation as well coming in. But I welcome it. It's far and long overdue. Don't get me wrong, it's going to be a headache and a challenge to implement, but it's definitely needed. Sadly, we've seen far too many examples of poor funeral director practice in the media over the past few years and sadly, families being ripped off by unscrupulous funeral providers.

Ross Hickton [00:13:21] We as funeral directors need to be more open. We need to be more transparent. I'd recommend to everybody to have a good website, to give your clients as much information as possible, so they can make an informed decision. Funerals will always be a distressed purchase. Gone are the days where families will just go to their local undertaker. They have the Internet now, they will do their research and read reviews. People like information, so being able to give your perspective and your clients details on every bit of the service, not only helps them make a decision, but it also helps you as the funeral arranger, as now they know they know exactly what they want, so it gives you more time to focus on the client's needs and really giving them the service and deliver what they require.

Malcolm Flanders [00:14:06] Excellent final question. Do you enjoy it?

Ross Hickton [00:14:08] Yeah I do. I like the challenge. Like I said before, I like to see where the business was and where it is now. We sort of went from doing 200 funerals a year when I came into the business to pushing, sort of, eight or nine hundred nine. Business terms, it has grown massively, but we still had a comfortable stage where we still can look after the families. Me and my brother still try to conduct as many funerals as possible in the business. And we all pushed at times, but if the family are using Hickton's, in our point of view, it should be a Hickton on the day of the funeral, either arranging the funeral or conducting it on the day and the families like that, they want to see it through.

Malcolm Flanders [00:14:54] Excellent, and that's the essence of it. And I like the way we ended there, which is it is a family business, Hickton family business, and therefore know having a Hickton run your funeral is highly appropriate. That's great, Ross, thank you ever so much. That's quite a story. That's a lot of growth in a short space of time and wish you luck in the few years ahead and have a good weekend. Alright.

Ross Hickton [00:15:16] Thank you, Malcolm. Thank you very much.

Malcolm Flanders [00:15:23] Thanks for listening to Golden Charter's Partnership Podcast. You can find all of our episodes online at Or on a wide range of podcast apps. We produce these episodes for the independent funeral director community, so if you want to hear about a topic or get involved yourself, you can contact me at Thanks again and I'll talk to you next time on the Partnership Podcast.