To mark the launch our 2021 awards, we spoke to Helen Wathall, Midlands Family Director of the Year 2020, about the importance of family values and the challenges of running a funeral business during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Funeral director Wathall’s was established in 1858 in Derby and is headed by Helen Wathall MBE, the fifth generation of her family to run the business and one of the few women to lead a funeral directors in the UK.
Helen joined in 1995 and the firm now has five offices in the Midlands. Under Helen’s leadership, Wathall’s now offers not only funeral arranging but future funeral planning, later life planning, bereavement support and the design and manufacture of memorial stones, graveside ornaments and pet memorials.
Wathall’s is committed to making a positive contribution to the communities that it serves - from work to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour as part of St Peters Quarter Business Improvement District (BID) to supporting a wide range of charities by donating 10% of its profits to local good causes.
Helen is also a non-executive director of Golden Charter, one of the UK’s leading funeral plan providers, and director and board chair of St Peters Quarter BID.
Helen says: “We entered the Family Director of the Year category as that is very much our strength. We are a sixth-generation family business – with both my girls following me into the business and a wider business family that includes six married couples, as well as mothers and sons and sisters. Our longest standing employee has been on our team for 40 years.
“The win came as a complete surprise. This job is a vocation. We help people through the worst times in their lives and it is rewarding and a privilege to be able to do that. We are delighted to have our services recognised, which is very much an endorsement of the wider team – without my team around me, I couldn’t do what I do.
“World events meant everything changed for funerals in 2020. Initially during the first lockdown, the services we could offer were severely restricted but we had the same overheads throughout, so it’s been a challenge. Something closer to normal service subsequently resumed and we can offer most services, whether that be a horse-drawn carriage or an increasingly popular direct, no fuss funeral.
“We are especially pleased to offer proper bereavement support again through our Dandelion Bereavement Support initiative. After its success, we have plans in place for further bespoke programmes that will help businesses and organisations support their employees and other stakeholders to cope with bereavement. Partnerships with voluntary sector organisations and the community include work with The Salvation Army and the launch of A Wathall’s Wish which supported 12 charities in 2020 with financial, pro bono and volunteering support. Following a successful partnership with Derby County Football Club, we are seeking out partnerships with other sports clubs and venues.
“The main ongoing change to funeral services caused by the pandemic is the continuing restriction on attendees and the inability to host a post-service reception – the very things that bring most comfort to grieving families.
“Our staff coped wonderfully given the added difficulties and pain caused by Covid-19. We are committed to home-grown talent and CPD. As a member of the IoD, I regularly attend training seminars to keep up to date on management issues and legislation. All staff have an individual training plan, as well as regular dementia training and specialist autism training to provide a better service to families.
“Ours is a 24-hour business with someone always on call. You don’t just walk away at the end of the day. Our response has been to add additional support behind the scenes to ensure the mental well-being of our team. We have set up an official buddy system and have regular calls to members of staff who are working from home. We put security measures in place to ensure everyone feels safe at work and encouraged staff to take holidays or to work shorter weeks.
“The secret of our success as a business is our agility – the ability to adapt and meet the changing needs of our local community. Through innovation and a commercial drive underlined with a strong sense of social responsibility and family values, we continue to grow the business for future generations.
“Looking to future trends, we have found that families like the intimacy of a smaller funeral and it may be that these continue when restrictions are lifted. The immediacy of Covid-19 forced people to think about their own funerals and we have seen an uptake in pre-paid funeral plans. These are likely to remain popular and we may also see more private, invitation only funerals but, of course, people may choose to do the exact opposite and add services to make the event feel extra-special. My father always used to say ‘We can do anything you want, as long as it’s legal!’ and that remains true today.”
For more information on the IoD Midlands Director of the Year Awards 2021 please contact East Midlands Branch Manager, firstname.lastname@example.org.