By Thomas A. Parmalee

If you’ve been in funeral service for a few years, you’ve probably tried getting your hands on those socks everyone seems to be wearing.

Yes, those ones: Sepio socks.

And that’s just fine by Chris Johnson, the co-founder and CEO of Sepio Guard, which is not a sock company at all but offers “away-from-home assurance,” a membership product that families can buy at the time of prearrangement to ensure a loved one makes it back to the funeral home of their choice if they die more than 75 miles away from home.

How a company that is intimately involved with preneed became so associated with socks is an interesting story: One of Sepio’s team members has a connection to an apparel company that makes high-quality socks – and everything just came together.

“We said, ‘Let’s make some socks and put our logo on them,’” Johnson said. “And these are not just giveaway socks. They are really good, expensive socks. We tried it at our second International, Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association convention, and it was just very well received – and we kind of had fun with it.”

He added, “Our whole mantra was, ‘What do socks have to do with Sepio Guard?’ Nothing. And that is why it is so great.”

At the recent National Funeral Directors Association convention in Las Vegas, Sepio Guard toted along about 1,500 pairs of socks, which was a substantial investment. At the end of the show, only a few dozen pairs were left, Johnson said.

“Every time we say we have to scale back on these socks because we are not a sock company … the socks give us more business,” he said. “It drives people in. People take their guard down because they like the socks, and then we tell them what we do … I don’t think the socks are stopping anytime soon.”

Johnson and his team “pretty much give them to anyone,” he said of the socks. “We had sock mannequins at our table at our booth,” he said. “We had socks on them – we had them all lined up. When people came to our booth, we had four or five different options they could grab.”

In fact, the whole sock thing really may be just beginning, as Sepio Guard has started to launch a number of sock collaborations with various companies in death care.

“People would come to our booth and say, ‘What about this color?’” Johnson said. “And we would say, ‘That is exclusive to that company over there.’ So, it promoted a lot of cross branding.” He added, “But we do kind of talk among ourselves … ‘Isn’t it weird we give out socks?’”

After the convention, an attendee from Scotland reached out to Sepio Guard and was ready to pay any price to get a pair of socks, Johnson said. Being the nice guy he is, however, he sent her a pair at no charge. “That spend yields a return much higher than anything else we spend money on,” he said.

On top of them being just great socks, the alliteration of “Sepio socks” probably doesn’t hurt either. And that raises the question, what does “Sepio” even mean?

“It means ‘protect’ in Latin,” Johnson said. “I wish I had a better story … but we wanted something unique, and it was the very first thing we looked up.”

Sepio socks on display.
The Birth of Sepio Guard

Sepio Guard would never have started if Johnson had not taken a job at Precoa, a preneed marketing company, about 14 years ago as an account representative. Once there, he quickly marched up the ranks, becoming an area director before being named a regional director.

“Probably not unlike many others, I never thought I would get into the funeral profession,” he said. “But one of my best friends from college, Eric Battles, worked at Precoa. He just kept that idea alive that I should check out this preneed marketing company in the funeral profession.”

Johnson, however, was working as a marketing executive in the health care field and “really liking it.” But as time went on – and being married with four kids – he began to think about work-life balance. “I just kind of worried about the life I was headed down with my schedule,” he said.

So, when Battles and his wife were in town visiting, the conversation about Precoa came up again – but this time, it was Johnson who brought it up.

Battles surprised him by saying, “How quick can you get to Portland?”

Johnson ended up visiting Precoa headquarters, not so much as part of a job interview but just to learn more.

“I went to Precoa and fell in love with the people and the whole purpose of helping people … it was hard not to fall in love with that,” he said.

The timing was just right: Precoa had recently signed on Forest Lawn, a large privately owned and operated funeral home and cemetery in Glendale, California. “I was placed into that situation as a sales counselor, but I was employed by Precoa to learn the whole system and to eventually be able to lead others to do the same,” Johnson said.

Johnson worked tirelessly at Precoa, meeting a steady stream of families.  “It was easy for me to believe in what we were doing,” he said.

It wasn’t long before he managed Precoa’s relationship with Forest Lawn and all of Southern California. “We grew like crazy,” he said, noting that when he began, his territory was bringing in about $15 million in preneed revenue, but in 2018, it had ballooned to $55 million.

But when Precoa rolled out a travel protection product to his territory of more than 200 sales agents, it was a bit of a disappointment, Johnson said.

“We were really excited to offer the product … but within a couple of weeks of doing so, my colleague and now business partner – Bryce Beach (Sepio’s co-founder and chief operating officer) – noticed some problems that were going on with this product,” Johnson said. “We knew there was a better way to do it,” he said.

Sitting back idly was not in their DNA.

“We were stuck in traffic in L.A., and Bryce was in the front seat sharing the complaints he was receiving about the new product,” Johnson said. “I knew when he brought it up, it was a big deal.”

He continued, “I turned to him and said, ‘This is crazy. We should do something about this.’ And we kind of laughed about it. But when that came out of my mouth, we both realized … there might be something to this. And a few seconds later, we looked at each other and I said, ‘I think we are serious here … we should do something about this.’ The ideas turned into action, and we started this company.”

They launched the company to solve a problem for their employer, and to Precoa’s credit, it became Sepio Guard’s first – and still largest – client.

“We were committed to not starting the company until we were very transparent with Precoa,” Johnson said.  That conversation took place after several months of planning, when they sat down with one of the founders of Precoa and said, “We see this issue, and we are doing this,” Johnson said.

The next thing they said, of course, was they wanted to fix the problem. “Let us test this within your organization,” Johnson asked, making sure to add they he and Beach would find replacements for their territory and ensure a smooth transition.

The success came hard and fast, with Sepio Guard launching at the end of 2019. It was tested out with some clients that had existing relationships with Precoa.

“The testing went very well – and then COVID happened,” Johnson said. “Even during COVID, we grew. It was a fantastic success story. It proved to us we were onto something really good.”

Johnson is grateful that Precoa believed in him and Beach enough to test out their solution once it was ready. “We have a substantial amount of Precoa’s business nationwide now,” he said, noting that Sepio Guard will work with everyone in the marketplace. He added, “I feel incredibly lucky to have worked at such a great company that helped us gain such a firm foundation in preneed and that was so understanding of us launching a company to improve everyone’s experience.”

Today, in addition to Precoa, clients include Funeral Directors Life Insurance Co., Carriage Services, Foundation Partners Group, Envision Strategic Partners and many others. “We have been very fortunate,” Johnson said.

He attributes much of that success to focusing on the actual preneed agent.

“Clearly, the client family is also super important,” he said. “But we pride ourselves on putting the sales agent, the sales organization or the funeral home as our first priority. We feel if they are having a good experience, everyone else will have a good experience. It is easy to focus only on the client family, but if the sales agent is not having a great experience, everyone loses.”

Left to right: Chris Johnson and Bryce Beach, the co-founders of Sepio Guard.
Focusing on Service

When you visit Sepio Guard’s website or start trolling Johnson’s social media pages, there is one word you will not see – even though it may stand out quite prominently if you investigate his competitors.

And that word is travel.

That’s because Johnson is not in the business of providing travel protection – and that’s a message he preaches to anyone offering his away-from-home assurance product.

“There is a reason why we don’t call it ‘travel,’” he said, noticeably grimacing upon saying the word. “People associate that word with things that they don’t do very often. So, we’ve eliminated that word. We kind of say it is a bad word.”

Most people, he elaborated, associate the word “travel” with vacation, which is a rare occurrence for most families. As a result, they don’t see the value of a product that offers “travel” protection.

But “away from home?” People are away from home all the time – doing their jobs, conducting business or carrying out their responsibilities as sons, daughters, parents and loyal friends.

“We want to focus on the concept of being ‘away from home’ because that makes sense for everyone,” Johnson said. “What we provide is not just for wealthy individuals planning out these extravagant funerals.”

The company is very straightforward with the idea that it is a membership that families are buying – and that Sepio Guard will provide a white-glove service in getting a loved one home if they die more than 75 miles away from their residence, Johnson said. Anyone whose primary address is in the United States can buy the membership, he said.

“As soon as we get notified, we do the heavy lifting –and the family is not required to pay anything up front other than the membership cost,” he said. “And we hold their hand throughout the process.”

One of the problems with the former product that Precoa was offering is that its core business was outside the funeral profession, Johnson said.

“They focused more on other things … and for us, this is all we focus on – this product. To this day, that is kind of what makes us unique. This is all we do,” he said.

Technically, the “away from home assurance” the company offers – and take note that it’s not insurance but assurance – is an add on to a preneed contract, Johnson said. “But the way it is presented, it needs to feel like it’s part of someone’s preneed arrangements,” he said.

While it is “clearly separate,” the notion of it being a key component of the preneed arrangements makes perfect sense to client families if it is presented to them correctly, Johnson said.

“In case they die away from home, we will get them back,” he said. “People are meeting with the preneed counselor that represents the funeral home – and they fully intend to use that funeral home. They are planning out this experience that their loved one will have when they are gone, and they envision that happening in a certain way. We say, ‘We guarantee no matter where you die, you will have that experience and get you back.’ When it is presented like that, it makes perfect sense to everyone. It is hard to say no to something like that.”

The message to client families needs to be kept that simple, he said. “We don’t try to get into a bunch of outlier situations that may or may not happen,” he said. “They could be anywhere in the world. We really want to keep it simple and in line with the experience they’ve prearranged at the funeral home. We want to ensure that no matter where they die, they will get back to the care of the funeral home, so the family can have that experience.”

The Sepio Guard team at a tradeshow.
A Game Changer for Families and Sales Agents

Typically, the cost for the away-from-home assurance is about $500 to $550, Johnson said. Most of the time, families pay that in full at the time of prearrangement. For those families that select a payment plan, Sepio Guard will still honor the contract even if they or their loved one dies before paying the balance – as long as they are current on their payments, Johnson said.

All the funds flow to Sepio Guard, which in turn pays out commissions at the agreed upon rates to the sales agents, preneed marketing company and/or funeral home, Johnson said. “Over 92% of our business is submitted through our mobile app, which is easy to use,” Johnson said. “The funds flow to us first – the client family knows exactly who they are paying.”

The commissions that sales agents and others are earning from offering Sepio Guard to families can be a game changer, Johnson said.

“It can be a good revenue stream if you do it right,” Johnson said. “One of the greatest selling points for us is that this is a good retention tool to keep good preneed agents around. As cremation is on the rise, and as people are not always opting to prearrange large funerals, that means in the preneed world, commission totals can go down.”

For a hard-charging sales agent who is getting discouraged seeing their take-home pay erode over time, Sepio Guard can make all the difference in the world, Johnson said.

“We are that extra boost to the sales agent,” he said. “We teach how to incorporate this into their everyday preneed presentation. This is a difference maker between someone sticking around and staying in preneed as opposed to looking for another job.”

As to how those commissions work, Sepio Guard recommends a range, but ultimately it is up to the distribution channels – usually the funeral home or preneed marketing company – as to what the level ends up being, Johnson said. “They are the ones who bring the sales agents to us, and they have the discretion to pay out the commission,” Johnson explained. “It’s up to them what they do.”

With that said, Sepio Guard never wants to lose a client because of the commission payout, Johnson said.

“We offer a very competitive commission structure,” he said.

The Right Partners

A big part of Sepio Guard’s success is that it has an exclusive partnership with National Mortuary Shipping and Cremation, Johnson said.

“That is one of the selling points of our product,” he said. “We have NMS on the back end to do the work.”

It’s the perfect marriage because all NMS does is at-need shipping and all Sepio Guard does is away-from-home plans, Johnson said.

Johnson was impressed with NMS from the very start, noting that when he started “cold calling” companies in the shipping space, there was a profound difference between how quickly the executives at NMS answered the phone – and also how they spoke to him.

“We just started asking questions,” he said, noting that at first, NMS was not so interested in teaming up with him. “They said, ‘No, we don’t want to mess in that space,’” he said.

But Johnson was persistent, and he eventually arranged to meet with the NMS team, even after they signaled that they would say no to whatever he was proposing.

“Kudos to them, because they did not want to get distracted,” he said. “I really respected that because we wanted to do this for them. That is why it is the perfect relationship. They knew what they were best at, and they didn’t want to get distracted and wear both hats.”

He added, “They work with reputable funeral homes, and there is a big vetting process. So, we kind of pay a premium to work with them, and we are happy to do that.”

The future for Sepio Guard is bright, Johnson said, noting that if another company in the space is growing as fast as his company is, he’d be quite surprised.

Already, that growth has been impressive: Sepio Guard has 10 full-time employees and several part-timers with different areas of expertise. It also has more than 3,000 independent sales agents selling its membership product.

“We are more than doubling every year, and we work with the vast majority of preneed marketing companies and some of the consolidators out there as well,” he said. “We believe we have the best partners in the profession.”

Learn more about Sepio Guard.


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