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A Resurrection

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  • | 6:00 p.m. September 23, 2005
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A Resurrection

By Sean Roth

Real Estate Editor

With sweaty palms, Michael Uselton told his boss he wanted out. He knew it was the right move. He had reached as high as he wanted within the Service Corp. International, but his exit was far from a simple resignation. Uselton had different plans.

That Charlotte, N.C., meeting occurred a year ago, and today Uselton is executing the plans he articulated that day to his former boss. Uselton and his financial backers purchased two Kays-Ponger Funeral and Cremation Service funeral homes in Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, two Lemon Bay Funeral Homes in Venice and Englewood, Southeastern Crematory in Punta Gorda and Gulf Pines Memorial Park Cemetery in Englewood from Service Corp. International, the world's largest funeral and cemetery company.

Thus began Remembrance Services of Florida.

In addition to the businesses' assets, Uselton also purchased the real estate for the Lemon Bay Funeral Home in Venice, Gulf Pines Memorial Park Cemetery and Southeastern Crematory. He declined to disclose the purchase price for the businesses.

So after supervising 4,100 employees in 25 states as one of six managing directors for the North American operations for SCI, Uselton finds himself back on the front lines operating a business and managing a staff of 32 employees.

"I had progressed pretty high with (SCI), and they have been very good to me and my family," Uselton says. "But I feel like I'm at a crucial point with my kids. I was on the road every day. I would leave on a plane either late Sunday or by 6 a.m. Monday, and I wasn't back in town until Thursday or Friday."

Family wasn't the sole reason for Uselton's deciding to become an entrepreneur. The business opportunity had great appeal. All six of the properties are currently profitable, but Uselton says they are underutilized.

"The growth potential here is substantial," Uselton says. "They haven't been very proactive in marketing. They also haven't had a professional sales program for pre-arrangements at either location for quite a while."

Grew up in the business

Uselton knows the market and his two funeral-home companies well. He grew up in Punta Gorda and started his funeral-home career there. Uselton's family grew up next to the Ponger Funeral Home, and his mother, Diane, worked in the funeral home office.

But two events in 1975 set Uselton's course, albeit unknowingly at the time. Uselton's father and grandmother died within two weeks of each other.

"I think that has always stuck with me," he says. "Being right next to the funeral homes and growing up there and then having the impact of both of their funerals, I think it has always stuck with me the care and that side of the business. I also think that's part of the reason I gravitated back to purchasing it."

Later his mother became a partner in a crematory business, and Uselton helped operate it for her. At the same time, while in high school, Uselton worked on the maintenance crew digging graves for the Royal Palm Cemetery in Punta Gorda.

Uselton tried leaving the mortuary business for a time, studying civil engineering at the University of South Florida. But in his third year, he says, he started talking to civil engineers and quickly determined he didn't want that job. Instead he enrolled at the Miami-Dade Mortuary College, and in 1983 he earned his funeral director and embalmer's license.

His first job after that was at a funeral home in Fort Myers and later for the F.T. Blount Co.'s funeral homes in Tampa.

In 1988, Uselton joined Gibraltar Mausoleum Co., a national multi-property, family-owned, funeral-home company based in Indianapolis. Then in 1995, SCI purchased Gibraltar Mausoleum, and Uselton became an SCI vice president.

As Uselton progressed with the company, he continued to oversee the development of the Southwest Florida properties, including the Kays-Ponger Funeral and Cremation Service funeral homes and the Lemon Bay Funeral Homes.

"As I grew in the company, I was having less and less direct impact on making the individual locations successful," Uselton says. "I kept growing more and more distant from the front line. I was expected to focus on the big business things, and I really missed out on the interaction you have with the families and the front-line employees, the personal contact."

Now, with his own company, Uselton is re-emphasizing a connection to the founders of his funeral-home companies. Uselton employs Steve Annecone, one of the founding partners of Lemon Bay Funeral Homes, and Ed Ponger, a founder of the Kays-Ponger Funeral Home, and Mark Kays.

As part of the sales agreement, Remembrance Services of Florida, will stay on as a member of Dignity Memorial, SCI's national affiliate program for funeral homes. The program allows its members to offer complete transferability of prearranged services throughout 2,000 North American funeral-home providers.

"This is really the best of both worlds," Uselton says.

Loyal employees

Thanks to SCI's practice of retaining most of the staffs of the funeral homes it acquired, Uselton had the advantage of buying a business whose local roots were deep.

"This place hardly ever changed even under the big brother corporation," he says. "Even in (SCI), if you make your numbers they tend to leave you alone. Steve (Annecone) and the other employees here live and breathe (their communities). This is our biggest strength. Now we just to need to renew our focus on community relations, sponsoring events and being more deeply involved."

Uselton has a three-pronged business plan to increase the revenue for his properties. First, he plans to renovate the cemetery. Second he is reinstating a sales department principally for customers wanting pre-need services. Uselton also plans to increase the businesses' marketing through community sponsorships and more traditional media advertising.

"The only community event SCI sponsored was Memorial Day and that was because I asked them we if could continue it for the local veterans," Uselton says. "The last 10 years we have really fallen behind in our efforts locally. The employees remained active in various organizations, but there was very little money provided by the company for promotions. SCI had a different line of focus. It wasn't necessarily a Wall Street focus, but they have a certain commitment to their shareholders."

Uselton says his company plans to assist non-profits, such Hospice and veterans' groups, and to sponsor memorial events and youth sports. The company is already sponsoring a Little League team.

"We are looking into the groups that the employees and their families are already participating in," Uselton says. "If we can help them to do something they are already enjoying it's a win-win. And not all of these require us to invest money. We plan to let the local high schools use a hearse in their mock accidents for drunk-driving awareness."

Uselton says the company will likely spend more than $100,000 on advertising and sponsorships annually.

"I haven't committed to any specific dollar amount," he says. "We are still trying to identify where we should advertise, whether it's in church calendars, the radio or the paper. It is really going to vary by location. Each market is really different from one another."

24-7 job

Before marketing his company, however, Uselton has invested in upgrading his properties' physical plants, repairing irrigation systems and a wall by the lawn crypts.

"One day I was out there working on the irrigation," Uselton says. "An older woman asked to talk to the owner, and she came up to me. She stuck a finger in my chest, and my heart just sunk, knowing a complaint was coming. She said, 'Do you know this is the first time I've ever seen those spigots working?' We have a great opportunity to reestablish this as one of the premier parks in the area."

As for future growth, Uselton says Remembrance Services is going to do whatever it takes to provide services for families from Charlotte County to Englewood and Venice. Asked if he has plans for additional funeral homes and other mortuary properties, Uselton says yes.

So how has the transition from corporate executive to chief executive worked out so far? Does he have more time with his family?

"I'm (at the funeral homes) very early in the morning and late at night," he says. "If I kept track of my hours, my wife would probably be mad at me. This is a 24-7 job. We're open 365 days a year - deaths do occur on holidays. But I also get to make time for my kids. I get to coach my son's Little League team. And getting to go home every night has been incredible."

Still, Uselton adds, "I have never worked as hard and enjoyed it as much." That's entrepreneurism.


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