By Thomas A. Parmalee

Mark Davis, 66, grew up in New Jersey, but it wasn’t until he moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida a couple of weeks before his sixteenth birthday that he found himself thinking about funeral service.

At Piper High School in Sunrise, Florida in the mid-1970s, he and some fellow classmates took a field trip to a local family-owned funeral home in Southeast Florida as part of a health services class.

“On the second floor was the casket selection room,” he said. “I was 17 or 18 years old, and I see the price tag on top of the casket. And I had never been in a funeral home before and had no idea what a casket or funeral cost.”

It was the days before itemized pricing, so the price on the casket – over $10,000 – included services.

“I said, ‘Oh My God, that is a lot of money,” he said.

After graduating from high school, he attended the University of South Florida in Tampa. When his parents went on vacation, he kept an eye on their shoe store, which is where he struck up a conversation with his father’s car insurance agent, who asked him a lot of pointed questions about what he was going to do with his life.

“And I said I really don’t know,” he said,

“This gentleman was Jewish and knows my father is Jewish and he said to me, ‘Have you ever thought about the funeral business?’ And I said, ‘Not really.’ But when he said that, it took a minute, but I thought about the casket with the price,” Davis said.

A Passion for Business

While it took some time, in the late 1970s, Davis eventually reconnected with his father’s insurance agent, who introduced him to the executive vice president of Riverside Memorial Chapel in Miami Beach, which was looking for good people to work with him in the business. The firm is owned by Service Corporation International.

“I met with Al Golden, the executive vice president, and he explained to me about the funeral business,” Davis said. “I was hired on the spot.”

The Riverside business was by far the largest-volume funeral home in the Miami area back then, serving more than 3,000 families per year, Davis said. “Everything was centralized out of one location,” he said.

Davis earned his associate degree at Miami Dade College while serving as an apprentice at Riverside, doing “everything you could think of at a funeral home,” he said.

“I was working my ass off 50 or 60 hours a week,” he said. “I remember going to work at Riverside at Sunday night at 6 p.m. and then working through the night and going to an 8 a.m. class in the morning at Miami Dade and doing a full day of school. My days and nights were running into each other, and it was crazy.”

While he foresaw a career for himself in the profession, he did not want to own or operate a traditional funeral home.

“At the end of the day, I am kind of a PR and marketing guy who happens to be in the funeral industry,” he said.

Still, after college, he managed a few funeral homes, starting a few operations for firms in the North looking to expand into Florida.

Along the way, he met his wife of more than 34 years, Valerie, while working at a firm owned by Gibraltar Corp., where he was a preneed sales manager, and she was an executive assistant. They met in 1987. While not a licensed funeral director, she has helped him with all of his businesses, mainly in a marketing capacity.

Eventually, the couple moved to Sanibel Island on the west coast of Florida, where they started The Cemetery Exchange, which enabled people to buy, sell and trade cemetery property.

“We were the only cemetery lot brokers in the state of Florida at the time,” he said. “People wanted to sell cemetery property, but there was no other resource other than the classifieds section of newspapers, and who was really looking at classifieds to buy cemetery property?” he said. “So, we developed listings and worked with several family-owned funeral homes in the Miami area that were reselling graves and crypts.”

He did “extremely well” with the business for a few years before ultimately selling it, he said. “And then, I was kind of looking for something to do,” he said.

That is when the couple found themselves on a drive on Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers, where they passed Fort Myers Memorial Gardens and Funeral Home & Cemetery, which is owned by SCI.

“There was a freestanding building sitting directly next to the cemetery, and the only thing separating them was a chain link fence,” he said. “At the time, it was a daycare center, but it originally was a single-family home. And I said, ‘If that building ever become available, it would make a great little funeral home.’ And a month later, there was a For Rent sign in front of the building.”

Davis rented the building and opened Horizon Funeral Home and Cremation Center in 1998.

“And across the street was another funeral home that was and is still owned by Carriage Services, Harvey-Englehart Metz,” he said. “So, you could stand in the parking lot and throw a rock and hit three different funeral homes.”

When he set up a competing business, Davis was intent on offering families a more affordable option – especially with cremation. “Within three years, we owned about 36% of the market,” he said. After 10 years, he sold the business to two former SCI employees, who eventually sold it to Foundation Partners Group.

“And after FPG bought Horizon, in short order, they changed the name to Baldwin Brothers, which was a chain they had bought in Florida a few years earlier,” he said.

At the end of the day, Davis pulls no punches about why he entered funeral service.

“It’s a business, and when you are in business, you are in it to make money,” he said. “Your number one obligation for yourself and your family is to make money. Money is a great motivator.” He added, “I’m not a person who got into the funeral business as a calling – it’s not who I am. I didn’t get in it because my great-granddad or dad were in it. I got into it because I saw an opportunity to make a living, but in addition to that, I saw it as an opportunity to do something different.”

He also realized early on that he was not a corporate guy and was not going to move up the ranks at SCI. “I said, ‘I need to do my own thing,’” he said. “And shortly after that, I was able to do that and have been self-employed for more than 30 years.”

Mark Davis says he has always been deeply in love with his wife, Valerie, who has helped him with his numerous business ventures.
Launching ValMark Memorial Group

Davis could have counted his winnings after selling Horizon and called it a day, but that’s not the man he is.

“I am a guy who has to be doing stuff,” he said. “But I was looking for something to do that was less stressful than operating a funeral home, so I started ValMark Memorial Group in 2009.”

He developed various brands that funeral homes throughout the country could join as affiliates, starting with Veterans and Family Memorial Care.

“We worked with independently owned funeral homes across the country, doing some really great community engagement programs and public relations work. We set our funeral home providers apart from the competition – holding them up as experts in working with veterans and families when it comes to benefits, burial in national cemeteries and other things,” he said. “The funeral homes that participated had tremendous results.:

Affiliates paid an annual membership fee for the services that ValMark provided, which included a Veterans and Family Memorial Care website that appeared on page one of Google search results.

“Our idea was to provide funeral homes with more exposure on Google than they could get organically through their own website,” Davis said. “So, when someone in the area googles ‘veteran’ or ‘cremation’ and ‘funeral home’ in their area, they would show up because the special pages for veterans and their family members were delivering a differentiated message. This way, they were the experts working with the families of veterans.”

As time went on, Davis added additional affiliations: America’s Best Funeral Homes and Cremation with Care.

“All three brands are designed to help independently owned funeral homes gain that independent advantage,” he said, noting that the American Marketing Association observed years ago that the number one way for a business to differentiate itself from competitors is through brand affiliation.

“So, why not the funeral industry? Why not death care?” he asked.

In addition to distinct webpages, ValMark provided tips on holding a variety of community engagement programs as well as Facebook posts. “A lot of the posts were geared around preplanning, as Facebook is predominantly best for preneed,” he said.

Eventually, however, ValMark hit a plateau and while he continued operating it, he decided to launch his own cremation-oriented funeral home “because I saw an opening there,” he said.

He put his head down and got to work.

A Cascade of Surprising Events

Davis found the perfect place to open his new business, and he already had the perfect name: He leveraged the Cremation with Care brand he’d started as part of the ValMark network and turned it into his very own Florida funeral home.

He located the perfect building two doors from his first funeral home, Horizon – an area that still housed three funeral homes within a stone’s throw of each other.

“So, now it would be four instead of three,” he said.

He chose the location because of its exposure on the street and its proximity to other funeral homes in the area, he said. “I was getting ready to sign a lease and the landlord had agreed to make some fixes and update the building, because it was not in a condition for us to move into. He agreed to spend over $60,000 to get the building up to snuff.”

Right around the same time, however, COVID-19 started to really take hold.

“We were about a week from signing the lease … and I got a phone call from the owner saying he was not going to put a dime into the business. He was a foot doctor, and his business had slowed down.”

Davis, of course, thought he was getting a raw deal.

“I said, ‘We have all this money invested in starting this business and utilizing this business.’ But what are we going to do? We continued down our course, and we kept looking for a location and an office to rent, but everywhere we looked, it was more money than we wanted to pay for a lot less exposure and visibility.”

Eventually, he went back to the landlord and cut a deal, agreeing to rent the building with some minimal improvements that would allow a certificate of occupancy to be granted.

“So, I signed a lease and we applied for the funeral home license,” he said. “We are not a direct disposal service – we are a licensed funeral home.”

When a state inspector came, all he saw was a desk and chair. “There is nothing in the rules or regulations that says you must have furniture in the funeral home,” Davis pointed out.

The license was approved, and with the building serving as what he needed to get up and running, he began operating out of his home office on Sanibel Island for an entire year before “even setting foot into that building.”

Right after actually starting to use the office, however, Hurricane Ian hit Florida, triggering a mandatory evacuation of Sanibel Island in September 2022.

“Business was going well, and we were in 18 Florida counties, all out of one location,” Davis said.

Davis moved his home office into a hotel in Aventura, Florida, not knowing at the time that he’d never live in his home again.

“Southwest Florida was devastated,” he said. “There was no internet or power at the funeral home, but we were continuing to get calls. The phone was still ringing.”

Somehow, he continued operating, even though the hurricane caused a massive upheaval on a professional and personal level. “We still had to get permits, dispatch and transport,” he said. “It became increasingly difficult.”

His home office at his Sanibel Island home was “wiped out,” and he took three or four different trips there by boat to oversee the remediation of mold damage. “To make a long story short we never were able to return, he said. “We got it into good enough shape where we were able to sell it.”

He found himself jumping between vacation rentals on an almost-monthly basis, so he could have a base from which to operate. Finally, he scored a two-year lease on a condominium in Naples.

“But adversity makes you stronger,” Davis said. “We continued to plow ahead with the business and do what we do best. In just over three years, we have come out on top in a way I never expected with Cremation with Care.”

This year, he expects to serve more than 2,000 families out of his single location in Fort Myers, which serves 18 counties. The business only does direct cremation. The price is $1,190 and $995 for hospice deaths.

“We are growing at such a phenomenal rate,” he said.

Cremation with Care does not own its own crematory.

“There is no reason for us to own a crematory when there are cremation services and crematories that provide these services to other funeral homes,” Davis said. “Right now, we work with regional crematories. So, for example in the Central Florida area, we serve four or five counties serving the Orlando area, so we use one transport service and one crematory that serves that Central Florida area. And we have one crematory and transport service for Southwest Florida. And so on, for the East Coast of Florida and north of us in the Sarasota area.” He added, “I don’t see a reason to go through the expense and to incur the liability and have to provide training to own my own crematory – as well as the maintenance and all of the things that go along with owning one if it is not necessary to do.”

The members of his team, however, inspect the crematories they use multiple times per week because they are always going there to pick up cremated remains. “Our people know what to look for,” he said.

When Cremation with Care gets a death call, it relies on transport partners.

“They hold that body until we provide them with the cremation authorization and burial transit permit approved by the county medical staff,” he said. “We email or fax the paperwork to the crematory, and they schedule the cremation and let us know when it is completed.”

Once that is done, Davis and his team coordinates the hand delivery of the cremated remains to the family.

“That is a big job,” he said, observing that it must do that for about 150 families per month across 18 counties in Florida.

“So, we have individuals that work for us in these different regions who go to the crematory and pick up the cremated remains whether in a temporary box or urn, and they physically deliver the cremated remains to the family,” he said. “It is all part and parcel of our service charge.”

Mark Davis and his wife, Valerie.
Putting the Care in Cremation

No other funeral home that he knows of hand delivers cremated remains, Davis said.

The reason he began doing so stems from his experiences running Horizon, he said.

“Back then, families would come to us and make the arrangements, not like now when it is over the phone and such,” he said. “They signed the papers, and when the cremation was completed, we called them, and they came to the funeral home to pick up their loved one’s cremated remains. They would come into the building, and we would do the handoff. And they would walk out, and we would watch from the window.”

And what Davis and his team members saw was telling.

“We would watch these people walk to their car in tears,” he said. “And they would just stand there for a minute … they didn’t know whether to put it in the front seat or in the backset, to put a seatbelt on it or in the trunk. They had no idea what to do. And this was something that was repeated over and over again.”

So, toward the end when he was operating Horizon, he began to have the cremated remains hand delivered, which has continued over with Cremation with Care.

“The idea that a human is coming to their door with their loved one leads to a lot of hugs, relief and tears,” he said. “They invite us in, and they want to talk … the communication and the personal touch and the humanity … that is what we are selling.”

The hand delivery of cremated remains has become one of Cremation with Care’s calling cards responsible for its success, he said. “At the end of the day, every single funeral home or cremation service does the exact same thing. Why would a family choose ABC funeral home over XYZ funeral home if the mechanics of what we do is exactly the same?”

Another differentiator is that Cremation with Care has someone answering the phone – someone who actually works for the company – 24 hours a day, Davis said.

“They give us the credit card info over the phone, not online,” he said. “They love what we do and talking to a human being that is providing them with kindness, compassion and sensitivity at the most difficult time of their life.”

You have to provide families with a comforting message, and you also must answer the phone, Davis said.

“How many times have myself, Valerie or any of my people answered the phone only to hear, ‘Oh my God, I’m actually talking to a person,’” he said.

When he worked at Horizon, he’d often get calls from price shoppers who told him they opted to use his business simply because he answered the phone, he said.

“If you are going to be in business, be in business,” he advised. “People have questions, and they want answers. They don’t want to wait 30 minutes for someone to call them back or to get a voicemail … answering the phone is key. Answer your telephone and you will win more business that way than any other way – it’s not all about price.”

While some may classify Cremation with Care as an online cremation company, Davis balks at that suggestion.

“There is no such thing,” he said. “You cannot cremate a body online. You can’t pick up a body online. The only thing you can do online is fill out forms, and people have been filling out forms online for years. There is nothing new and innovative about that.”

Davis admits that he’s unconventional.

“People thought I was crazy when I opened Horizon, and people thought I was crazier for opening up Cremation with Care in the most price sensitive and competitive market in the country,” he said. “I just dove in. Why? Because I understand the consumer. I understand the marketplace.”

Reactivating ValMark as ValMark+ Memorial Group

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Davis hit pause on everything related to the ValMark network. He stopped charging renewal fees to members in January 2021 but is gearing up to reactivate the network under a slightly different name: ValMark+ Memorial Group – the + signifies the more robust services he’ll be offering members.

“We could no longer do community engagement, which was a big factor in our brand affiliated strategy … so we had to shut that down,” he said of the difficult decision to pause everything about two-and-a-half years ago when the pandemic erupted.

As a result, he did not ask about 500 rooftops around the country (consisting of a few hundred firms) to pay their annual renewal fees, even though their ValMark pages continued to rank on page one of Google, he said.

So, how does it all work?

ValMark affiliates get an exclusive designated territory to align their funeral home with the Veterans and Family Memorial Care, America’s Best and the Cremation with Care brands.

Before he paused the network, territories were exclusive by county but moving forward, it will be exclusive by city, Davis said.

Existing members will have the first right of refusal to renew their memberships before Davis reaches out to their competitors, he said. It will cost $1,995 to reactivate the membership, and the annual renewal from that point on will be $1,495, Davis said.

That is a bit of an increase from the $1,200 members paid previously, but everyone who reactivated their membership or joins for the first time will also be eligible to send one staff member take an online program that will certify them as a remembrance planner, he said. Additional funeral directors and arrangers can become certified for an additional $395, he said. “I strongly believe that this certification is long overdue,” Davis said.

“It will be an online training” he said. “We will provide them with a training manual or handbook, and they will then be able to take the training online and become certified.”

He continued, “What we would like be able to do is market Cremation with Care on the state or even a national level.” He explained that members would not be obligated to charge the same price for cremation as many funeral homes simply do not want to be locked down on price.

“If I were to provide you with an at-need case for $1,500 and we asked you to pay a marketing fee of $500, would you do that?” he asked. The answer should be ‘yes’ – because this is business you would never have had, and your competition is already at that level. Even if you made $10 in profit after paying us a fee, isn’t it worthwhile to get the case in your door? Those cases represent opportunity.”

Aligning with Cremation with Care does not have to be about direct cremation, even though that is the model in Florida, Davis said.

“In other parts of country, it will be more about the gathering,” he said. “And we have a program that we have put out to our funeral home affiliates to help them convert the families coming in saying they just want a direct cremation into some type of remembrance or gathering” he said. “At the end of the day, when a direct cremation family leaves the funeral home, they are planning to do something to honor their loved ones – they are just not telling the funeral home what it is.”

Even though the ValMark network has been on a hiatus for some time, Davis has no doubt that it will be a tremendous success as it gears up to become a force once again when it relaunches as ValMark+ on Aug. 1.

“When someone joins or renews, they are not going to pick from Column A or Column B – when you are part of ValMark+, you’ll be part of all three brands,” he said.

In the future, even more benefits will be offered to members, including a hospice collaboration program that’s under development, he said.

“Every funeral home in the country has sent someone out to local hospices to make an introduction and hand out a brochure,” he said. “Often, they get tossed in the wastebasket or put in a drawer, and everyone moves on with their day. But what we’ve been able to do is work with hospice organizations from the top-down, meaning leadership opens up doors for us at the local level.”

The members of ValMark+ will find out how Davis and his team have done it, step by step, he promised.

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Comments (1)

  • I love the personal touch of hand delivering each person’s remains to their family. It is gestures like this that set Mr. Davis apart and will make a lasting impression on those that he serves! Well done! Great article!

    Terri Chaplin | June 28, 2024 at 9:47 pm

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