This Embalmer Has Juice

July 28, 2009
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In burying the dead, Howard Hill has injected new life into a moribund business model ? and launched a broader effort to revive the black community.This Saturday Howard K. Hill celebrates his fifth anniversary running a funeral parlor on Dwight Street with a community cook-out and family party. The 41 year-old entrepreneur will be celebrating a remarkable rise. In those five years he has emerged as a leading, if not the leading, black funeral home in town. He did it with a combination of risk-taking and commercial innovation.His story reads partly like a chapter out of an old-fashioned capitalism handbook. It reads partly like a chapter out of a 21st century Funeral Homes 2.0 manual for an art as old as civilization itself.

Along the way he has poured $400,000 into restoring a 132-year-old brick Victorian landmark, his funeral home headquarters on Chapel Street between Dwight Street and Elsie Cofield Way.

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And he has landed slots on the boards of two established local institutions, theHannah Gray Home and theCommunity Foundation for Greater New Haven. He has embarked on a mission to promote wise money management, entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency among black New Haveners.?I want to get the African-American community up to speed. We?re behind a lot,? he said. ?I want to change the mindset to be more of a go-getter. I want [people] to go and get it rather than sit back and wait for someone to get it for them.?

The way he did.

Ancient Art, New Twists

?Funeral directors as a whole are in-the-box thinkers,? Hill reflected, sitting in his high-backed leather swivel chair in his second-floor office this week. Describing his approach, he speaks with the insistence and consistent force of a train engine, punctuated by sudden jokes and by bursts of laughter.

?You have to train yourself to think outside the box,? he said. ?That?s what I?ve done.?

He thought outside the box to produce the larger-than-life picture beside him in the photo at the top of this story, for instance.

The memorial picture hanging beside Hill isn?t of one of Hill?s relatives. It?s of a man he buried, named Richard T. Adams.

?Bring me a nice photograph,? Hill tells his customers, pointing at that memorial picture. ?I can have one done for you.? He has the photos enlarged printed on a screen, framed, and illustrated with memorial words.

That wasn?t done when he bought the Chapel Street funeral home five years ago.

He had worked for the previous 10 years at what used to be the main funeral home serving the local black community, Keyes. He?d learned the business working his uncle?s Brooklyn funeral parlor; he moved up here for his future wife, who hails from Hamden.

At Keyes, Hill was the embalmer and the director. He prepared bodies for burial. He worked with families. He overs

aw services and arrangements. He got to know families at emotional moments in their lives. He earned their trust.

But he didn?t own the business. He?d hoped to when it came up for sale. That didn?t work out.

He convinced the out-of-town owners of a Bell Funeral Home, a sleepy parlor inhabiting the neglected Victorian treasure at 1287 Chapel, to give him a chance. The home handled 20-25 burials a year. Hill had no money to buy the business. Bell?s owners agreed to let him occupy the building on a two-year lease with an option to buy and try to launch a new funeral parlor there in his name, starting in July of 2004.

Hill risked all he had on the venture.

?I think I had $3,000 to my name. I had to give it to Mr. Bell as my first lease payment,? he recalled.

All he had left were a computer; aCadillac 2000 DTS (?If you want to play to role, you?ve got to do it,? he explained); ?knowledge? and contacts.

Oh yeah. He had a family to feed, too.

He needed customers quick.

They trickled in at first. At first, he borrowed a hearse. He needed at least one call a month to pay the rent and basic costs of running the home. But he was thinking bigger than paying the basic bills.

In September Hill obtained a $30,000 small business loan. He poured it all into cable TV advertising. No other New Haven funeral parlors advertised on TV then.

The gamble worked. The word got out. Hill started hearing from families who knew him from Keyes. In January the calls started cascading. By the end of his first year he?d handled 85 funerals, more than enough to pay the bills.

But he didn?t pocket the money. He kept investing it. His idea: Don?t just bury people and conduct services. Arrange all services in-house if people want it: Flowers. Grief counseling. Catering. Prepare printed programs. Sell the headstones. The ?full service? approach.

He hired a staff. Rather than viewing them as employees, Hill approached them as potential entrepreneurs like himself.

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Sandra Watts was one of those people.Watts, a Pentecostal minister, was working part-time as a chaplain at Yale-New Haven and Gaylord hospitals at the time Hill opened his business. She remembered him from Keyes. He?d buried her mother. She remembered what Howard said after preparing her mother?s corpse. He noted how much attention her mother had obviously paid to her nails and to her hair. It ?touched my heart,? Watts recalled, because ?my mother took such pride in her hair and nails.?

At first Watts volunteered at the funeral home. The she joined the staff. She counseled families after their relatives? burial.

One day Hill asked her, ?What is your dream??

?To open a flower business in memory of my mother,? Watts replied.

?Your dream and my dream may work together,? Hill replied.

Watts started working with florists who came into the home to prepare displays. She attended a floral class at Hamden High School.

Meanwhile, Hill was growing concerned about a couple who?d run a florist shop in Newhallville, Belton?s, for decades. The husband had taken ill. The wife needed help. She decided she wanted to sell.

Hill introduced her to Watts. He promised Watts he would refer clients to the shop to guarantee her a revenue stream.

So Watts took the leap and bought the business. Today the shop at 334 Shelton Ave., renamed Remember the Lillies, is thriving, she said. She?s pictured in the shop beside a triptych portrait she commissioned of her mother at three stages in her life. Remember the Lillies, Watts said, represents the completion of her mother?s life journey and legacy.

?I don?t want to have to pay someone? to work at the funeral home, Howard Hill said. ?I want my people toinvoice me. Now you?re controlling your own destiny.?

The Web

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In his second year, Hill?s home handled 168 funerals. In the third, 190. He continued plowing profits into new investments, new ideas.

He spent $400,000 restoring the 1877 building. New roof, chimneys, gutters. All new windows. New driveway. Scrubbed brick. Underground drainage repaired. Floors stripped. Walking through it today, you almost have to pinch yourself to remember that you haven?t already crossed the threshold to a higher plane.

Meanwhile, Hill became the first home in the area to prepare scored DVD presentations to show at funerals out of photographs of the deceased. While some funeral owners were still trying to figure out how to work email, Hill had awebsite built in 2005.

And not just a conventional, static website. It has testimonial video. A virtual tour. It features music, including a Howard K. Hilltheme jingle based on the slogan, ?We?re Honored To Serve You.? Staff musician Martin Parker wrote it.

Hill bucked convention by listing all his prices right on the site.He included links to related businesses and to advice for families arranging burials and funerals. Then he set about developing a way for people to arrange the whole funeral online at Howard K. Hill if they can?t or prefer not to come in person.

And he thought of what else he could do with people?s photographs. Thus sprang the memorial rugs. Hill?s administrative manager, Rev. Orsella R. Cooper, is pictured above displaying one.

The Community

In his fourth year, Hill?s home topped 200 burials. It did the same this year.

Like many other prospering local businesspeople, Hill looked at how to share some of his success with the community. He donated to scholarships and other charities. If you go to an event organized by a local sorority, he said, ?you?re going to always see my ad? on the program?s back page.

Informally, he began visiting people?s homes to offer advice to small groups such as ?girls? nights in? on planning long in advance for death ? buying insurance, for instance.

?We?re all going to die. There?s nothing we can do about it. Is that right?? Hill asked, breaking into a laugh and a lit-up grin. ?If you know that, there?s no reason fear it.?

Last year one of the black community?s elder power brokers, Bishop Theodore Brooks, recommended that his fellow board members at the Community Foundation add Hill to the group. ?He?s a great guy in the city doing a great job reaching out to help a lot of people,? Brooks said in a conversation Thursday. (Brooks also recommended the other top black funeral director in town, Curvin K. Council, though Council wasn?t nominated.)

Since joining the board, Hill has spoken with the foundation about the lack of financial planning he encounters in the black community. He?s in the process of helping to establish a fund at the foundation to help families pay for burials and funerals.

?That?s the carrot,? Hill said. His larger goal to fund more ?financial literacy? events, more formal versions of what does at people?s homes. They would focus on how to invest wisely not just for funerals, but for health care and life insurance. He?d like to teach more people about preparing living wills.

When he does community service, Hill said, ?I do it on my dime. I do it my way. I don?t want any red tape.? Take a look at how he built up his funeral business of the future. He did that in the same fashion.

Source: New Haven Independent

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