By Thomas A. Parmalee
The man who’ll be remembered for playing a large part in how funeral homes present merchandise and who was recently named the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association’s Educational Foundation’s Lasting Impact Award Winner is a certified public accountant and not a licensed funeral director or a cemeterian?
Doug Gober, a partner at The Foresight Companies, played at the ceremonies of two of the previous award winners with the band the Cryptones. He’s attended the ceremony of every single winner since the award was introduced in 2014.
He never thought he had a chance to win the honor himself … but he has done exactly that.
“I don’t think I have ever gotten a call of a business nature that took me so much by surprise as this did,” said Gober, who answered this writer’s spur-of-the moment call from an unknown number on a Friday evening.
The person calling him, Jim Price, chairman of the ICCFA Educational Foundation and the senior vice president of industry relations at Park Lawn Corp., told him the news. “I was totally dumbfounded,” Gober said. “Finding me speechless is uncommon. This is strictly the highest honor bestowed on me in this business. This is exactly the opposite of being convicted by a jury of your peers … it is very humbling for me.”
In a news release announcing Gober as the winner of the award, Price said, “The remarkable connection across all of Doug’s career is his commitment of time and passion to education in our profession.” He added, “His ideas, perspective, and innovations aren’t reserved for customers or paying clients, but freely shared with anyone who is interested in making our profession better. We are honored to have the opportunity to recognize Doug’s remarkable contribution to death care with this prestigious award.”
Dan Isard, founder of The Foresight Companies, said he considers it an honor to call Gober a colleague, friend and partner. “Had God not created Doug, Walt Disney would have,” he said. “He is a joy-filled character, who has loved every moment of his interaction with anyone in this profession. His jokes are timeless. I say that because he’s been telling them now for 40 years. His energy is absolutely unstoppable.”
Isard continued, “The beauty of what Doug has brought into this profession, is he’s brought a common-sense approach that doesn’t have his listeners feel stupid for not seeing it themselves. On top of everything else, he’s never looked for accolades. He appreciates applause or handshakes after his speech, but his ego has never driven him.”
Chris Cruger, CEO of The Foresight Companies, noted he’s known Gober for more than 25 years. “In that time, I don’t think I have met another person who cares more deeply for this noble profession than Doug,” he said. “Besides his family and Alabama football, funeral service is his passion and his calling. He wakes up each and every day trying to make the profession just a little bit better. It is wonderful to see him recognized with this honor that is so richly deserved. As his partner, I am incredibly blessed to be along for the ride.”
It’s special to be recognized for his work as a supplier, Gober said. “I’m not a licensed funeral director or licensed cemeterian, if there is such a thing,” he said. “I’ve been on the outside looking in my entire career but have managed to become one of them. I am a CPA who came into this business having no knowledge of the business, and I have learned from some of the best over the years. I’m blessed to have spent 44 years learning what makes it work – and what doesn’t work.”
During those 44 years, Gober has worked hard, traveling to every single state and 14 foreign countries. “I’ve been all over creation,” he said. “I’ve tried to do the right thing. I’ve always tried to be fair in all of my business dealings.”
Getting into Death Care
Gober got his start at Batesville, which recently entered a new chapter when it was acquired by LongRange Capital.
In January 1979, he took over a territory, a month after going through employee training. He was in the field from 1979 to 1995 in Mississippi and Arkansas.
He ultimately left Batesville to work on outside projects with the late Alton Doody, who he met while working at Batesville. “(Alton’s) summer home was next to John Hillenbrand’s summer home in Michigan,” Gober said. “We were out on Alton’s float boat discussing the work he did merchandising, and John Hillenbrand stands up and says he thinks that would work in the casket business.”
Six weeks later, Doody was at Batesville headquarters in Indiana. “He was a Doctor of Marketing and on the staff at Ohio State, and everyone thought that since the CEO of the company was sending him down to have a discussion and he was a ‘doctor’ that he was a psychologist and he was coming down to psychoanalyze the staff,” Gober recalled.
But Doody had something else on his mind: transforming how Batesville’s customers presented merchandise to consumers. Doody began going out in the field with sales representatives, including Gober, starting in December 1987.
“He rode with me for three days through my territory while I made calls on funeral homes,” Gober said. The two became fast friends, and Gober began spending an increasing amount of time working on “outside projects” for Batesville, including outside of his own territory.
“For many of the initial attempts to reconfigure casket selection rooms, we used my territory as a live lab,” Gober said. “So, rather than attempting the things with a prototype or exclusively by doing consumer research and building a prototype, we offered the idea to real consumers in real loss situations. We just had funeral directors willing to try some of these new ideas and we would install this stuff in my territory, at this time in Arkansas.”
Some of the results were “immediate and obvious,” Gober said.
“The main work that came out of it was how to approach the consumer with product,” Gober said. “We tried several different iterations of this idea through a period of about 15 years, really starting about 1987 all the way through when we did the fractional displays in 1995.”
Their work led to many funeral homes featuring Batesville caskets in full-sized selection rooms. But Gober’s work went far beyond caskets.
“We consistently worked with merchandising, trying to improve the consumer experience as it relates not only to merchandise but how to communicate the entire process to consumers – not just merchandise but every aspect,” he said. That included communicating to consumers in the arrangement office before ever being exposed to the merchandise offer, he said.
Much of Gober’s career has been laser-focused on improving that interaction between the funeral home and consumers – one funeral home at a time, he said.
Gober became a force to be reckoned with at Batesville.
“I took over a larger territory in Arkansas, and it became one of the top 10 territories in the country – in Arkansas!” he said. “You would think it would be Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth or a big metropolis. But I had one of the top territories with 110 accounts in Arkansas. I got plenty of wonderful recognition from Batesville and others. ”
He also continued his groundbreaking work with Doody, rolling up his sleeves and grinding away on those outside projects from 1987 to 1995 as a Batesville employee. They even built a funeral home in Gober’s territory designed and created by The Doody Group.
“Without Batesville Casket, none of this ever happens for Doug Gober,” he said. “Through their willingness to allow me to work on outside projects, which were very successful for Batesville as well as me, it exposed me to ideas that I would have never known. After all, I was an accountant. What does an accountant know about store design and physical space and merchandising? I was fortunate enough to be able to learn from the top people in the country.”
When Gober left Batesville, it was to partner with Doody on a project in Europe, with Service Corporation International as the client. While he did not know it at that time, the connections he was about to make would prove to be life changing.
Jerald Pullins was the point person on the project for SCI, and he told Doody and Gober when they arrived, “You guys think merchandising is backward in the United States? Wait until you see what I got over here!” according to Gober.
The SCI executive, they learned, was right – it was a mishmash of offers over in France and the United Kingdom. “It was bad here, but it was awful there,” Gober said.
While in Europe, they developed their fractional display idea, installing them in almost 1,500 funeral homes in France and the United Kingdom over six months in 1996. “It was very successful, and I was an employee and partner with Alton Doody,” Gober said.
The duo brought the idea to the United States, with the York Group leaping on the innovation and buying The Doody Group in a bid to capture the U.S. market, Gober said. There had to be tweaks in presentation, of course, as the coffins of Europe were shaped differently than the caskets prevalent in the United States, he said.
When Matthews International bought York (which by then included The Doody Group), a new chapter began for Gober – having spent about 16 years at Batesville, from 1979 to 1995, he would now spend 16 years with its rival.
“Basically, I was doing the same work all along,” Gober said. “I am still working on all these ideas and how they impact consumers.”
The ideas, of course, have changed over time, with Gober urging funeral homes to consider tweaking the process.
“It is like the merchandise is sequestered behind a closed door,” Gober said. “What kind of store do you go into like that? And it is still done that way all over the country today. These arrangement offices are like the decision rooms in a car dealership. You take people in this little decision room and try to separate them from the merchandise.”
He can understand the thought behind the idea, as there are separate decisions to make – some involving service and others involving merchandise to support those service decisions. “Obviously, if you are going to select cremation, you don’t need to go into a giant casket room, but you could go into a nice room with urns and other merchandise,” he said. “And there is no reason to not expose a consumer to the entire offer … and with the fractional displays we created something that is not as overwhelming to the consumer.”
Jay Dodds and Rick Sattler Come Knocking
Toward the end of 2010, Jay Dodds and Rick Sattler, who were then both executives at Carriage Services, came knocking on Gober’s door.
Would he like to work for them?
“They recruited me away,” Gober said. “They felt like they had a place for me, and they absolutely did. My experience with Carriage, Jay and the team was nothing but positive.”
Gober signed on as the company’s director of development and marketing, but less than five months after starting, someone else came knocking: Live Oak Bank.
At first, Gober was hesitant to consider leaving, as his career at that point had mainly consisted of two long tenures at two companies – Batesville and Matthews, with his work with The Doody Group and York serving as a bridge in between. Now, someone wanted him to leave a job that he’d been at less than a year?
The interest came as a result of Jerald Pullins mentioning to Live Oak that Gober could help them break into the funeral business – the same Jerald Pullins that Gober had worked with all those years ago in Europe when Pullins was with SCI.
“Live Oak Bank was looking for another area to explore, and they thought the funeral business would be a good area,” Gober said. “At that point, they served pharmacists, dentists and veterinarians – and that was it.”
The bank interviewed Pullins as part of its research, and he told them that he thought the funeral business would work as a new vertical for the bank, which focuses on SBA lending. And Pullins, who would become a director at Live Oak, wanted to bring Gober into the fold.
“Live Oak approached me with Jerald Pullins’ recommendation,” Gober explained. “We had a lot of conversations.”
Eventually, Gober joined the bank, becoming one of its 66 original shareholders, which would be a life-changing event for him financially. He spent three years with the bank as its executive marketing director of death-care management.
“I am very, very proud of that work we did getting the Live Oak lending opportunity off the ground,” he said. “We were able to start something from scratch.”
He praised Chip Mahan, the company’s CEO; Kay Anderson, who remains an executive at the company, having worked there more than 13 years; and David Lucht, the company’s chief risk officer, for being among the key people who helped him succeed.
“In our second full year, we did over $100 million in funeral home loans,” Gober said.
Over time, however, Gober found himself being contacted by funeral home owners that had questions he was not supposed to answer.
“If you are a W2 employee for an FDIC lender, you are not really supposed to be giving advice on business valuations and what pricing should be,” Gober said. “I was supposed to evaluate transactions and whether or not we would finance them.”
But Gober had deep personal relationships with funeral home owners – these were not just his trusted colleagues – in many cases, they were his friends. He could not simply turn them away and say “sorry” when he had opinions and answers. That was not Doug Gober.
“We determined that I would be worth as much to Live Oak as an independent contractor,” Gober said. “That enabled me to be involved in the transaction further than just supporting financing. I knew so many people and kept getting calls that didn’t really fit financing … these were people still looking for a buyer.”
That was how Gober Strategic Capital was formed, which ultimately merged with The Foresight Companies, with Gober becoming a full partner with Isard, a legend of the profession in his own right.
While Gober and Isard often found themselves at odds on certain things, the two men have tremendous respect for each other and had gotten to know each other well on the speaker circuit. Foresight had an entire staff of business analysts and support staff, which would allow Gober to focus on strategy and what he loved best – not just crunching numbers and entering them into a spreadsheet. The combination just made sense, he said.
After the two joined forces, they began to look for someone else who could join them and take Foresight to an even higher level, while helping them transition the company so it could continue to carry on its important work after they retired.
That was when Chris Cruger’s name came up, who Gober had met in 1995 in France while doing work for SCI as a partner with The Doody Group.
“Certain things you can say are just a coincidence, but you can’t ignore the possibility that someone bigger than us had a plan if you are open to that possibility,” Gober said. “Chris Cruger was a kid at that point. He was so far above the skill level of other people his age at SCI and all the people at SCI recognized that – and he was actively involved in the European project for SCI.”
After several months of talking, Cruger joined The Foresight Companies as a partner in early 2019. He eventually bought out Isard’s share of the business and is now the controlling partner, serving as Foresight’s CEO with Gober as a minority partner. Isard remains a cheerleader and an ally of the business he founded and built.
“People have said to me – and I have said it myself – that I am the luckiest guy they ever met in funeral service,” Gober said. “And they’d be right … but I also believe ‘luck’ is how you describe the success of people you don’t like. I would say I’m lucky because I’m not lazy.”
But make no mistake about it — Gober knows he has been lucky, but mostly as the result of the people and companies that have believed in him along the way, including Batesville, Doody, Pullins, Mahan, Anderson and Lucht – as well as David DeCarlo at Matthews International – one of those “unique people who knows everybody,” Gober said.
Paul Seyler, who worked as a consultant for The Doody Group, and alongside Gober when he was at Matthews; Calvin Toler, who worked at The Doody Group and just retired as a strategic account manager at Aurora Casket; the Pontone family; Isard, Cruger, and many others are also on that important list of supporters, Gober said.
“It really is kind of amazing how this has worked for me,” Gober said. “And unless something like the Lasting Impact Award comes along, you don’t really stop to reflect on it and ask, ‘How in the world did this happen?’”
Despite receiving the award, Gober, who will turn 68 this summer, vowed that he’s “not slowing down at all.”
In fact, mention “slowing down,” and Gober seems almost offended. “I can still read a financial statement as good as anyone can,” he said. “I have had that going for me my whole career.”
The ICCFA Educational Foundation will present its Lasting Impact Award to Gober during the 2023 ICCFA Annual Convention & Exposition in Kansas City, Missouri. Get information on the reception and the Annual Convention & Exposition.
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