By Thomas A. Parmalee

There are about 4,000 cremators in the United States and Facultatieve Technologies has captured about 5% of the market, which says one thing to Mike Miller – the company has a tremendous growth opportunity.

Better known in Europe where two of its plants are based – one in Leeds, England and the other in the Netherlands, the company is seeking to turbocharge growth in North America. Rebranded last year as FT the Americas, it operates a third plant in, Medina, Ohio, which employs about 30 people and has been operating for more than 15 years.

And the company thinks it has found the right man to get the job done in Miller, who came out of semiretirement to take on the role of chief operating officer for North America for the company.

Miller is a name well known to the profession, having started in the business more than 35 years ago at Stewart Enterprises, where he rubbed elbows with seasoned executives and learned life lessons from Frank B. Stewart Jr., who was its chairman and controlling shareholder before it was acquired by Service Corporation International.

“Frank was a lot of fun to work with,” Miller said. “He was very focused on being successful, and that is what you got from Frank – a real focus on being successful for yourself and the company.”

While Stewart was very driven in business, he also brought a lot of focus to helping the members of his team be better people, Miller said. “He always said being a better person makes you a better operator – and therefore the business will succeed,” he said.

As to how Miller made his initial foray into funeral service, he recalled that he was fresh out of high school and “kind of debating college.” He had grown up sitting behind the local funeral director and his family in church, who offered him a job at Laurel Land Funeral Home and Cemetery in Dallas while he attended the University of Texas at Arlington.

“I was kind of working part time, doing general apprenticeship work,” he said, noting that the family had recently sold their business to Stewart Enterprises. “I had no idea what that was,” he said.

One day, he was asked to come wearing a suit, so he could drive a family to a funeral. From there, his duties grew, and he started working at the funeral home more and more and going to college less and less.

He never did finish his bachelor’s degree, but he did enroll at Dallas Institute of Funeral Service, earning his license to practice mortuary science in 1992. For the next 25 years, he would work at Stewart Enterprises, taking on numerous roles with increasingly larger responsibilities as the company grew.

“I had the opportunity through them to move out West,” said Miller, who lives in San Diego. “I took on leadership roles while the company was growing and buying businesses in California. I learned a lot about keeping businesses in compliance. I was known as a fixer.”

Stewart kept growing its footprint out West and sent Miller from southern California to northern California and then on to Oregon and Washington state where he kept right on fixing. He was good – so good that he became senior vice president of sales and operations for all of Stewart’s operations west of the Mississippi River in 2010. He stayed on in that role until the company was bought by SCI in 2013.

“We went from 0 locations to 14 locations in three or four months when I was in northern California,” he recalled, noting that one of his primary duties was helping firms assimilate to what it was like being part of the fabric of Stewart Enterprises once they were acquired.

In addition to Frank Stewart, he singles out Randy Stricklin, one of the company’s divisional presidents, as being a mentor. “The guys in Dallas taught me the funeral business, and Randy taught me the business side of how the books work, how you maintain profitability and how you watch your margins,” he said.

After SCI acquired Stewart, it extended a very nice offer to Miller to stay on with the company. But Miller had been buying Stewart Enterprises stock for more than a decade, and he was in the enviable position of being able to try something new.

“I had an offer from InvoCare Limited,” he said, referring to the Australian public company that mainly operates in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. At the time, it was looking to expand into the United States.

“I appreciated the offer from SCI – I just decided to do something different,” he said of his decision to join InvoCare as president and chief operating officer of its USA division.

He also had the chance to do some traveling, spending quite a bit of time in Australia at the company’s headquarters, where he met the former CEO of InvoCare, Martin Earp, who is “still a great friend to this day,” he said.

InvoCare USA was among the pioneers of business practices that are common today, including online arrangements. With Miller at the helm, the company grew to serve about 1,500 families annually throughout Southern California. The company also owned and operated Macera Crematory in Los Angeles, which carried out about 4,000 cremations per year.

The company’s foray into North America, however, ended up being rather short lived, as it decided to refocus on its core operations instead of trying to grow in new ones.

Asked about InvoCare’s shift in strategy and why it wound down its U.S. operations, Miller noted that he was hired by its former CEO Andrew Smith. “He was what I call an acquirer – he grew InvoCare by growing the business – and he wanted to plant a flag in other countries and keep growing the company,” he said. “So, that is what we started to do here.”

Just a few months after Miller was hired, however, Earp came in as the new CEO, and he saw things differently. “He was more of an internal growth CEO,” Miller said. “Let’s look at our properties in our main markets – Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. He thought we should be spending money and making those businesses better instead of acquiring in other countries.”

It was his decision to sell off its U.S. business, which was sold to The Journey Group in 2019. “Ultimately, I think he made the right decision,” Miller said. After the sale, Miller was retained by the Journey Group.

Ultimately, Miller decided to enjoy life a little bit and retired.  However, he’d still get phone calls from operators from throughout the profession seeking his help, so he set up a consulting company for tax purposes. “It was a nice way to kind of stay busy,” he said.

An example of FT equipment.

Joining Facultatieve

There are not many opportunities that would have pulled Miller out of semiretirement, but when Patrick De Meyer, one of the principals at Facultatieve Technologies reached out to him toward the end of 2022, he knew he had something worth considering.

“At Stewart, we started buying Facultatieve machines probably 15 years ago when we were making a big push to improve cremation machines and building cremation gardens,” he said.

He joked that people would always ask, “How do you spell it?” and “How do you say it?” which is a big part of the reason that many in the profession have simply referred to the company as “FT” even before its formal rebranding of FT the Americas about a year ago, he said.

“What I figured out is that these are really quality machines that are engineered better than anything else on the market,” he said. “When cremation operators would tell me this is the best machine they ever worked with, I knew it was a good product.”

While Facultatieve has had a presence n the United States for about 20 years, it realizes the opportunity is ripe to grow, Miller said.

“The industry is finally taking cremation seriously,” he said. “We are getting the crematory out of the back barn or cemetery and making it part of our facilities and buildings, providing families with a very positive experience.”

The opportunity to manage that growth and work with some of the leaders of the industry is what made the opportunity attractive to Miller.

“These are beautiful projects when they are done,” he said. “We can customize their machines and work with their design teams and build these projects that they need. The future is bright, and there is a large amount of growth ahead. When they asked me if I could step in and manage that growth in the United States, it was an easy yes.”

He added that the reputation of the company is “amazing” and that it has built that reputation by focusing on three things: performance, efficiency and safety. “That is not just a slogan – the people here live it,” he said.

The company stands out for features like its automatic loading table “to make sure the operator is safe, which should be very important to anyone,” Miller said.

Miller gives a lot of credit to Ernie Kassoff, sales manager at Facultatieve, for helping grow the company’s presence in the United States. Kassoff has worked at the company for more than 12 years “and he has helped build it to what it is today,” Miller said.

Derek Wilce, a commissioning engineer with Facultatieve, is also an invaluable asset to the company, Miller said. “We like to call him our resident genius,” he said, noting that many times he can troubleshoot things right over the phone.

“It’s a good team, and everyone works well together,” Miller said, adding that at Stewart, much of his role was focused on fixing things that were wrong. “But this team doesn’t have anything broken,” he said. “This is an opportunity to manage the growth.”

Part of that growth, he hopes, will encompass the sale of pet cremators, which no one in the United States has just yet, he said.

“We do make pet machines,” he said. “Generally, they are volume machines, and we are hoping to grow those sales in the United States. We haven’t really marketed those machines here, but we have a couple on the drawing board to be placed in the United States by a couple of our customers. We are hopeful that we can grow that part of the business in the U.S. as well.”

In addition to the quality of the machines, another reason why Miller is bullish about the company’s future in the United States is that the majority of its units are scattered throughout Europe in about 12 countries, and they’ve been built to adhere to tougher environmental standards.

“So, as we look more at how our emissions are handled … this is something to think about,” he said. “What will your machine do for you when the standards change – will your provider give you something that is going to keep your business going?”

As for the cost of a cremator, Miller admits that it is not the cheapest on the market. But the company can work with firms seeking a variety of price points, he added.

“We have machines for our lower-volume clients that can be around $150,000 to $200,000,” he said. “And we also have our full system – the FT3, which is our volume machine and the most efficient and safest machine we create and build.” Depending on customization, that machine can cost around $350,000, he said.

“Each project is an individually priced product, and we customize it to a person’s vision,” he said. “Is it going to connect to a witness room? Will it be near a visitation room where sound is an issue — and the blower needs to be set on the outside? While we are not the cheapest for sure, I think we offer the best return on investment – and I say that as someone who operated FT machines for 15 years.”

FT machines also allow operators to cremate more cases in a shorter amount of time, primarily because of its loading table, which allows for the insertion of additional cases without a cool-down period.

“Also, our machines are computer operated, with the gas and air intake driven by a computer as opposed to an operator – and all of that is much more efficient,” Miller said. “My experience is you can cremate most cases in a little more than an hour, whereas other machines would take two to three hours.”

Miller, who is 53, noted that although he’s in a position where he no longer has to work, he’s “too young to call it quits.” So, he is happy he’s found his way back into the profession full time.

“I just enjoy the camaraderie of people I know and meet,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t be back working again for anyone but FT – it was the one call where I could say, ‘I’m interested in that.’ I know it is a quality product, and it is a great time to be part of a company that builds cremation equipment.”

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