By Thomas A. Parmalee
Bill Forsberg, owner and president of ADDvantage Casket Co., was a 9-year-old kid growing up in Canada when his father died.
“Interestingly, for a 9-year-old boy who was so enamored with the funeral directors’ classy suits, impeccable manners and their big, fancy cars, it wasn’t any of those things that I remembered,” he said. “It was their kindness to my mother and the rest of our family.”
The staff at the funeral home really seemed to care about his family – and they wanted to help. “I instinctively knew then and announced to my mother and anyone else that would listen that I was going to be an undertaker when I grew up!” he said.
He went on to accomplish that dream, owning his own funeral home before serving as an executive with other firms, including Arbor Memorial Services and the Lane Family of Companies. He’s also served in leadership roles at some of the profession’s top suppliers, including Batesville and Wilbert Funeral Services – and even did a stint as the executive director of the North Carolina Funeral Directors Association.
FuneralVision.com recently caught up with Forsberg to find out what it’s like running a casket company, how ADDvantage Casket Co. can help funeral homes, and some of leadership lessons he’s learned as he’s sought to help others. Edited excerpts follow.
Tell us a little bit about how you became a funeral home owner.
Growing up, one of my favorite radio broadcasters was Earl Nightingale. He believed that a person could do anything and have anything they wished in life if they followed a proven plan for success.
Earl coined the term, “We become what we think about,” which went worldwide and prompted a new way of achieving what a person wanted in life.
I was introduced to the man and his term by Bill Bates, a trainer for funeral directors in the USA and Canada, who was 20 years ahead of his time in our profession with a service personalization process. That exposure to this process changed my life. Earl’s book, “The Strangest Secret,” became the foundation for a new way of living and seeing the world. I’m sorry to say that this wonderful instruction guidebook has been out of print for several decades.
I wanted to have my own company and help people. It sounded like owning a funeral business would give me a leg up for both goals, so I went for it using Earl Nightingale’s process. Within two years, I purchased a 219 annual death call business and added branch locations over the next five years, so that we were over 400 calls when I sold it to the Loewen Group, which was just starting out acquiring funeral businesses.
You stayed in the “business” for a long time as a funeral director and funeral home executive, working at Arbor Memorial Services and Lane Family of Companies before going in a different direction. Do you still maintain your license – and why did you decide to get out of the day-to-day running of a funeral home?
After 35 years of actively working on the “floor,” I decided not to renew my funeral director and embalming licenses. Things were rapidly changing in the technical side of the business, and if I wanted to be good at something, I had to devote a large amount of time to it – something I didn’t have back then, so I chose the business and admin side to place 100% of my efforts.
You’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most well-known suppliers in the business, including Batesville, Wilbert, and Legacy Management and Accounting Services. What were some of the lasting lessons you took away while working outside the funeral home?
I was extremely fortunate to have mentors in each of those companies – people who took an interest in me, particularly in my career development. The successful folks I learned the most from all had the same four words for me when it came to achieving success … “It’s all about relationships.” It worked for them on their way up, and it has worked for me.
You also were the executive director of the North Carolina Funeral Directors Association. What was it like running a state association … would you do it again?
It was one of the most challenging positions that I have had in my career. The state convention business model has been the driver of financial support for each association in our profession, but I’m not sure how long it will be feasible in the future. Also, the state of North Carolina had been hit with inside financial malfeasance, so trust by the membership had been badly eroded. The lack of solid cash flow to maintain basic operational functions and trying to come up with new ideas that didn’t require substantial funding was a task of major proportion. I emphasize with the executive directors of the state associations; they are a quality group with an enormous job to do.
For almost the past five years, you’ve been the president of ADDvantage Casket Co. Do you own the company, and if so, are you the sole owner? How did the opportunity come about?
I purchased 100% of the company in 2018 as an LLC, of which I am the single stockholder/member. Vickie Zimmerman founded the firm in 2010 and decided she wanted to sell the firm and semi-retire. Her daughter, Holly, wasn’t interested in taking over the business, and so the decision was made to sell it. Interestingly, neither of my children are interested in the business. My daughter is with an architect firm in Durham and my son is a director with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
Recall earlier that I said that relationships are everything, especially in business. That was true in this case as well. Vickie Zimmerman, the former owner, is one of the smartest women in business that I know, and we are so fortunate to have her still working with us at the firm. She blends her business acumen with a positive attitude about everything. She and her adviser, Tony Colson, made the company sale and the turnover process to me completely seamless.
Tell us a little bit about the history of ADDvantage Casket Co., including what products you offer funeral homes, which states you serve, etc.
We have 12 highly motivated people on our company team who cover North Carolina, South Carolina, and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Our product selection includes over 75 models of high-quality hardwood and metal caskets as well as 35 styles of cremation urns.
I have to ask … what’s with the spelling of “ADDvantage” – is there a story there?
Well, discerning folklore from fiction, I’m told that it was an oversight by a paralegal when Vickie was originally setting up the company. It would have been expensive to change the company name registration after the fact, so she left it and still jokes that she had the odd day of Attention Deficit Disorder, so she was just pre-warning the customer!
Why should funeral homes consider doing business with your company?
Because all business owners need a baseline of comparison. Everything from the cleanliness of delivery trucks to the attitude and appearance of the ADDvantage person making the delivery.
Comparing suppliers can’t be based on price alone. We are not the least expensive vendor, and we know that – we have moderate price points to ensure that we will be around next year to serve your needs.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges funeral homes face today … and do you have any suggestions for how they may seek to overcome them?
We could debate this point for hours as there are so many. One of the old-time consultants in this business used to say when it comes to change in our profession, we make snails look frisky!
Listening and responding to the consumer and their changing preferences. That’s been the No. 1 requirement for stability and growth for decades in this and any other business that serves the public and those that aren’t around any longer either didn’t believe it or were incapable of doing it.
Do you want to highlight any new offerings or changes at your company?
While I can’t divulge our growth strategy, I can say that we plan to be around for a long time and have some exciting things in the pipeline.
Our 1-800- Caskett phone number has been a fun thing and applauded as the easiest-to-remember number in the business. That’s great. I just want folks to remember to use two letter Ts in the word casket (it’s like the two letter Ds in our company name!)
What has surprised you the most about operating your own casket company?
The lower profit margins were my No. 1 surprise, Despite what some people think, the rate of ROI is much lower than other businesses with similar revenues. That revelation is followed closely by product transportation costs. Trucks, fuel and maintenance – labor is also higher due to outside businesses (i.e Amazon) competing for the same drivers.
Who have been some of your biggest mentors in the profession? What did you learn from them?
John Earle, Bob Horn, Alan Creedy and Curt Zamec all were anxious to see me do well in this profession and were great to seek counsel from when I was making important decisions.
What is a recent book you’ve read that you would recommend to funeral directors – and why?
Two books I would recommend are:
“Atomic Habits” by James Clear
Turning bad habits into helpful, good habits
“Much Wants More” by Bill Forsberg
How a kid from a small town in Canada got to have breakfast at the White House with the president of the United States. This book was selected to be in the Library of Congress.
I know it’s shameless self-promotion, Tom, but any profits from the sale of a book go to a program of finding homes for people on the street.
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