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A pet project

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Cemetery executive John Williams says he and his staff will do anything to accommodate a client — given it's legal, ethical and moral.

A place to honor deceased pets, from cats to dogs to rabbits, met those requirements. So last year Williams, vice president at Venice Memorial Gardens, an affiliate of Venice-based Farley Funeral Homes and Crematory, launched one of the more unique secondary revenue sources on the Gulf Coast: a full-service pet cemetery and funeral home.

The operation, on an acre of the 65-acre Venice Memorial Gardens, cost more than $200,000, including specialized landscaping and a crematory machine that cost around $60,000. “There are some people who will look at this and say 'you have to be kidding me,'” says Williams. “But there are people who have pets, and then there are pet-lovers. This is a big deal for some people.”

The Venice Memorial Gardens Pet Cemetery and Funeral Home, which includes burial or cremation options, opened last year. It follows a market study Farley Funeral Homes commissioned. “We were starting to see more and more people ask us about pets,” says Williams. “We saw there was a market for people who wanted more than having their pet cremated in the vet's office.”

That includes one new client who brought his bulldog to the cemetery to show the canine his future burial plot. Another client recently held memorial services there for several family pet rabbits.

The pet cemetery also touches two needs for the business. One, it's a way to penetrate a younger subset of clients, namely families with pets. Not surprisingly, most clients the funeral home works with on the human side are seniors.

The second need: It's a boost for the cemetery, which, says Williams, took a hit when the Sarasota National Cemetery opened in 2009 with free burials for honorably discharged veterans and some relatives. Combined revenues for the Farley funeral homes and Venice Memorial Gardens cemetery operations, with 35 employees, have grown around 15% a year for each of the past few years, says Williams. He declines to release specific sales figures, only to say the entire operation works with about 900 families a year for non-pet services and the average family spends anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000.

But growth on the cemetery side, says Williams, had been flat for a few years, until the pet side came into place. The average pet owner, says Williams, spends around $200 to $1,500, depending on the arrangement and whether they use cremation.

Even with the early success, several challenges linger.

Foremost, admits Williams, is a pet cemetery has a certain image of horror and ghoul, thanks to the 1983 Stephen King novel “Pet Sematary.” The famous book was made into a movie in 1989. “This is a nice place,” promises Williams, a CPA who has been in funeral and cemetery business since 1997, when he joined his wife, Michelle Farley Williams, a fourth-generation funeral home director. “It's not what you saw in the movies.”

One step to differentiate the operation, both from any ghastly image issues and potential competitors, is an endowment fund. The fund, says Williams, consists of 10% from each fee a customer pays. Endowment funds for human cemeteries are a state law in Florida, so a facility can survive ownership changes. The fund for the human side at Venice Memorial Gardens, for example, is more than $2 million.

But there are no endowment fund regulations for pet cemeteries. Williams says the company will have one regardless, to protect future generations and the industry's image. Says Williams: “I'm not aware of any other pet cemetery that has done that.”

Another big-picture challenge is the marketing of the pet cemetery itself. Williams has studied content marketing, and wants to build a blogging and social media presence. He plans to hire a marketing firm to help speed along that effort.

“We are at a place now where we need to try to get the word out,” says Williams. “I think a lot of the chapters here have yet to be written.”

Industry in Flux
Some executives and entrepreneurs cite keeping up with technology when it comes to everyday obstacles.

John Williams, a vice president at Venice Memorial Gardens, a 65-acre cemetery in south Sarasota County, isn't so much worried about technology. Instead, Williams says the big task he faces is to stay on top of the changes in what was once a stable, if not staid, industry. He's been in the funeral and cemetery business for nearly 20 years, but he says the past few years have seen the most rapid transformations in how people approach funerals. “The past is important in this business, but if you don't have an eye on the future you're creamed,” Williams says. “Funerals are evolving into real personal events.”

Many events Williams speaks of are called life celebrations. It's a shift Williams projects has staying power. To wit: Venice Memorial Gardens recently sent three employees to a seminar to become certified celebrants. Says Williams: “It's a unique training.”


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