Live Oak Bank: The Bank of Choice for Deathcare

Finance Funeral Industry News January 17, 2024

Live Oak Bank: The Bank of Choice for Deathcare

Ask Tim Bridgers what question he most often fields about Live Oak Bank, and more than likely he’ll reply, “A lot of people wonder, ‘Are you really a bank?’” It may seem like a crazy question — especially since the word “bank” is literally in their name. Truthfully, though, it’s fair. Live Oak doesn’t operate exactly like your neighborhood branch … But, as many folks in the deathcare community have discovered, that’s a very good thing. What makes Live Oak Bank different is exactly what makes them the bank of choice for funeral homes, crematories, and cemeteries.

Tim Bridgers talks with Ryan Thogmartin about why Live Oak Bank is deathcare’s bank of choice.

No branches, no problem

As Senior Vice President of Funeral Home Lending for Live Oak Bank, Bridgers is a member of an elite team dedicated to helping deathcare owners achieve their goals. Since establishing the deathcare division in 2011, Bridgers and his team have helped hundreds of funeral homes with more than $800 million in funding — all without drive-thru lanes or ATM.

“Live Oak has proven that there’s a better way and a more profitable way to build a bank,” explains Bridgers — and that’s the branchless model. “There’s upkeep related to having branches. We can take that profitability and return it to the customer by giving them better options and a more customized experience.”

That’s been the aim of Live Oak since 2008 when CEO Chip Mahan established the bank, which is headquartered in Wilmington, North Carolina. Its vertical structure meant that Live Oak specialized in selected industries and allowed its lenders to really focus on serving customers.

“Chip Mahan had a vision to really get to know the customers’ needs,” Bridgers says. “And in order to get to know their needs and understand their language, we really needed to dedicate ourselves to their industry.”

Learning the language

Bridgers has definitely taken that edict to heart. He’s become fluent in the language of deathcare, thanks to immersing himself in the lives and operations of his customers. Live Oak’s customer-first approach allows Bridgers and his team to go above and beyond. They visit properties, participate in association meetings, and, of course, attend conventions — all to help them serve you better.

“Unfortunately, many small business owners have said that they don’t hear from their bank until there’s something wrong,” Bridgers says. “We actually take the opposite approach and build a relationship with the customer. We proactively do things for them throughout the year, such as reviewing their track record and communicating trends. We celebrate the good things and support them when things aren’t great. This approach has created an environment where our mantra ‘treat every customer like the only customer’ has come to life..”

SBA experts

Another thing that’s worked out really well for Live Oak Bank and its customers is the bank’s standing as the largest SBA lender in the country for the last six years. Although the Small Business Administration’s lending program offers incredible opportunities for small business owners, many lenders simply aren’t willing to tackle the often-overwhelming application process. That’s never been a problem for Bridgers or Live Oak’s other lenders.

“It was really tough for banks that didn’t start out verticalized” like Live Oak, says Bridgers. “When you’re structured geographically, it’s hard to focus on and truly understand one industry. But we have the support and the resources to focus purely on providing really good loans to customers and supporting them through the life of that loan.”

For most deathcare companies, SBA loans are the perfect product to support acquisitions, expansions, purchases, and more. And the SBA loves lending to deathcare organizations, which have one of the lowest default rates of all industries. For Live Oak, SBA and deathcare are the perfect pairing.

“Funeral home owners tend to hang on to their businesses a little longer than your average business owner,” Bridgers explains, which is one of the more unique qualities of deathcare companies. “Particularly in acquisitions, you typically have a component of real estate and a component of goodwill in the transaction, which is unique. That’s what makes the SBA product so well-suited to finance these loans.”

A different bank for a different industry

When it comes to lending, another differentiator for deathcare versus other industries is a funeral directors’ unusual work schedule. That’s something Bridgers truly understands.

“These funeral directors are in the ditches,” he says. “They’re taking calls and going to a family’s house at two in the morning. They’re meeting with a family — or sometimes two. They’re at a service. Think about planning a major event in two to three days around the clock all the time – that’s a pretty big difference from other business types. This requires a loan team that is  sensitive to their schedule but can also keep their loan moving. Your typical bank will never understand that.”

Bridgers not only understands the traditional deathcare workday. He’s also becoming well-versed in the upcoming and unusual niches of the industry, so he and Live Oak will be prepared to serve them. He’s been involved in requests for green burial spaces, natural organic reduction facilities, and cemeteries — which have their own quirky characteristics when it comes to lending.

“Like funeral homes, cemeteries are so different,” Bridgers explains. “That’s why the SBA continues to be a solution for this industry. Because cemeteries have deeded land, perpetual trusts, and, of course, remains, that adds a lot of complexity.”

Bridgers is also keenly aware of the evolving nature of cemeteries. In addition to traditional plots, cemeteries are now incorporating mausoleums, glass-front niches, and creative memorial gardens, adding greatly to the diversity of assets. Bridgers has spent years visiting cemeteries, meeting owners and operators, and reviewing the numbers to thoroughly understand them.

You’ve got a friend

Although Live Oak Bank was built on lending, they’re actually a full-service financial institution, offering operating accounts and high-yield savings accounts in addition to loans and lines of credit. They also offer the technology that allows customers to bank with Live Oak from anywhere, anytime — almost as if they’re right around the corner.

“We’ve been told by a lot of customers that we feel more local than their local bank,” Bridgers says. “And in terms of presence, our technology allows us to work remotely on the go, so we’re able to visit our customers when they need us. We take their success seriously. We don’t even mind saying ‘no’ sometimes when it is what is best for them, because we care so much about their long-term success. That’s why we’re not commission-based.”

So, yes, Live Oak Bank is a real bank. A branchless, non-incentivized, deathcare-dedicated bank. And Tim Bridgers is a real, live person who’s ready and more than willing to help you and your organization exceed your goals — and he’ll even answer his cell phone (910-233-5865) when you call.