John A. Gentleman Mortuaries

An Interview with Tom Belford, Owner of John A. Gentleman Mortuaries
By Mark Holmberg and Nayef Al-Juraid, Creighton University MBA students

Mr. Tom Belford was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, but he later moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he attended Creighton Prep, a Jesuit high school. He then attended Regis College and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. After graduating, Mr. Belford took a job as a mortgage banker until 1980. He then decided to join his family’s business: John A. Gentleman Mortuaries. As the current owner and director of this funeral home business, Mr. Belford works hard to maintain the good reputation that his family’s business has gained over the years, and he prides himself on the uncompromising honesty and community service that he and John A. Gentleman Mortuaries offer the City of Omaha.

Tell us about your background in the funeral business and how ethics are involved.

“The funeral business is an interesting business. There is a lot of tradition. In the United States, you will find that John Gentleman is the fellow who started us in 1906, and a lot of the genealogies he initially served we are still serving, so years later we are still serving the same families and, because of that, we’ve got a lot of positive reputation. We also have a lot of responsibility to do things right for those people because they have trusted us for generations rather than just one time. We take a lot of pride in protecting the John A. Gentleman name, and the Belford family is sort of synonymous with it now. So, it’s a neat job and we meet a lot of different people, and over a three or four day period, we get to know these families pretty well. When we are done, they treat us like a close friend, and that’s really the benefit of the funeral business; the friendships you develop over the years. So much so that, since I’ve been doing this in 1980, it’s difficult to go out to dinner and not run into somebody that I know. That is sort of a fun thing to do for me because I like meeting people, and if you like people, you are going to enjoy the funeral business. Part of that is treating people right, and you can’t treat them right if you aren’t ethical.”

How do you feel that your family business is different from a corporation, and how might the ethics of the two entities be different?

“Oh, ethically, I think we are one hundred percent different than corporate funeral homes. When I was in college, I worked for a mortgage banking company, and I was one of the youngest mortgage bankers from the fifth largest mortgage banking company in the United States. I enjoyed it but, in the corporate world, somebody in Minneapolis was pulling my strings. One day, they told me to get a new car. I passed this along to the accounting office, and they said it was fine, so I got a car. A month later, one of the execs came through from Minneapolis, and he saw the car and said, ‘Well, this is too nice for him, so we’re not going to give him a raise this year.’ That’s one event that helped turn me against the corporations. The operation we had here in Omaha was great. We did well, and we were a good, profitable organization, but somebody from someplace else pulled the strings, and it affected me personally, and I didn’t think that was right or fair.

“The other thing that they would do was offer me jobs in other cities, which I pretty much always took, but then there was always something that came up, and it didn’t happen. I found out later they were testing me to see if I was going to go into the funeral business with my dad because of our last name. That sort of bothered me, too— that they were playing me a little bit.

“I eventually decided to try the funeral business to get out of that corporate world. When it comes to funeral homes, the corporate people have one priority. If you are a stock company, your sole priority is to maximize shareholder profits. Period. When you come to a locally-owned company, they are there to make you happy because they believe that if they make you happy, you’ll come back to see them again. Our goal is to work with families for generations, versus maximizing profits, and not working with someone only once. I think that, overall, we are a better company than the corporate funeral homes because we really address the needs of the people ahead of our own needs. They have to charge a lot more and do things that are not right, in my mind. For example, I get a few guys a year that come in to me from other companies, and they want a job with me because we have a good reputation, the employees like it here, and it’s a fun place to work. They tell me a guy working for a corporate funeral home cannot get a raise this year unless his average sales went up, and here, it doesn’t matter what the employees sell. They can sell a $1,000 service or a $10,000 service, and it will not affect their income, and that’s one of the things I think is important. We don’t have people selling things, we have people presenting a product and letting families make their own decisions. To me, that’s the right thing to do in the funeral business because we are dealing with people at bad times in their lives. It’s easy to sell things to people and make them feel like they should buy this or that because it will supposedly make them feel better, but we want people to leave here with a good experience and not have to feel used when it comes to paying the bill. Nobody works on commission here. All of the funeral directors are paid on a salary and, at the end of the year, if we have a nice year, they get a little bit of a bonus. Since corporations are totally profit based, they’ll do some things differently.”

What does “ethics” mean to you?

“Ethics means doing the right thing when nobody else is looking. It’s just the right way of doing business. I say, ‘when nobody’s looking’ because you have to be able to look at yourself. Also, Omaha is a big-small town. You run into people you know, and I wouldn’t want to get into a situation in which I run into someone I know I wronged. So, you have to treat people right, you have to treat them fairly, and you have to price your goods at a fair price, which we do. Most other funeral homes do too, except the corporate ones that play games. Sort of like buying a used car. You go in and get it for a little less than the price on the window, but you always think ‘I could have gotten it for a little less.’”

It’s clear that ethics are an important part of your business. How do you hire ethical employees? “Well, I give everybody the benefit of the doubt that they are a good person. The only person who can prove me wrong is that person. Given that, what I do is I try to find the best person for the job: somebody who has a nice, caring attitude and will work with people. Sometimes it’s hard to find people who will stand in the lobby area to say hello and goodbye to people. A lot of people don’t like doing that, but that is something we need to do in this business. We have to welcome people in because we are providing a facility for a family to have an event here. You have to welcome people so the family and their guests feel comfortable. So, I try to find someone who has a nice smile, a nice attitude, and is someone who can speak well. You never really know. Someone may come in here and give you four or five names of people to call for references, but no one intelligent would ever give you the name of a bad reference. Ultimately, you have to make a judgment call with people.”

What kind of ethical culture have you established here? Do you have a written code of conduct for employees to follow?

 “No, we teach by example. We have many unwritten rules. For example, if you have a family you are taking care of and they have a service that night or a service the next day, you attend that service, even if it’s your day off. We like to have an individual that is with the family at each service we offer. That is one of our standards. It is not written down, but it’s just the way it is. I do it, and everyone else does it. Another example is that I wear a dark blue suit or a dark gray suit, and you will not see anyone wearing anything other than that here. It’s not a written rule. It’s just the way it is. I think if I do things properly, if I do things right, then others follow my example. The other thing is, we don’t have a written rule, but everyone has the option to give away a funeral. People come in here, and for one reason or another they can’t afford a funeral. Maybe they have a $1,000 and not the $5,000 it takes, but everyone here can give one away without asking. If the family has a true need, we’re here to help them. An employee can give away a casket, a part of a service, or a whole funeral—whatever he feels is right at the time. We gave away probably 26 of them last year, and that’s one thing you’ll never find in a corporation.”

How do you work with a family that has financial problems? Do you have a payment plan? When do the aims of helping people and running a business for a profit become mutually exclusive?

“We’ve never had to draw the line. You can have a family come in and, after awhile, you’ll sense it. If people don’t have any money, why charge them? You are never going to collect it. It’s better to take care of them. Also, sometimes we’ll see someone who was in a car accident, for example, and it was through no fault of their own, and the spouse is relying on insurance for the payment. Well, we just take care of them and

wait on the insurance and, sometimes, the wait can be as long as a year and a half. If I was going to maximize our profits, I could do that easily, but it wouldn’t be as much fun. Everybody would be tense. If you are always trying to get that last penny out of everybody, it’s not a fun job. If you’re here taking care of people, then it becomes a fun job.”

Can you describe an ethical situation in your business that was very difficult and how you resolved it?

“Well, not really, because if you have taken an ethical stance and you have a problem, there is only one way to solve it, and that is to do the right thing. For example, we have a lot of people who give us money for prepaid funerals. A lot of times, because the interest rates are now low and not growing, when people

prepay and put the money in a trust account and inflation is outpacing interest rates, the value of the money falls over time, and we’ve had to eat the difference. It would be very easy for me to take these people who prepaid for say, a light blue medium steel casket, and give them a light blue light steel casket, but that is not what they ordered, and that’s not what they paid us for. If you take that example and start cheating, where is it going to stop? A lot of times we have losses of $400-$600 per funeral on these prepaid funerals, so we have to take the hit on some of these.

“Another thing that happens is people will come in and ask: ‘How much is a funeral?’ We will actually give a price that is higher than what our prices actually are, but there are some items, like the newspaper notice, that cost us a set amount, and we charge that set amount to the customer. You can put a notice into the newspaper for $100, but sometimes you can’t put in the notice the customer wants for $100. The average newspaper notice is about $300, and some of them are up to $500. We then tell customers that the paper notice is $300-$500, and when they go to the other funeral home across the street, they’ll estimate only $100 for their deal, but really you can’t get a decent newspaper notice for $100. There’s a great example where integrity can be put to question in my mind. Estimating a price at the low end like that, in my book, is not ethical because you aren’t giving people a choice they should have. If you don’t give people choices, you aren’t serving them right, you are giving them the minimum.”

Have you made any ethical mistakes in business that you wish you could change, and what would you have done differently?

“I remember when I was a mortgage banker, a guy I worked for had me call all of the insurance companies that we worked with to get a quote on a loan. I didn’t realize he was using it to undercut a loan rate for another entity. That was part of the reason I got out of that business. I didn’t like it, I didn’t feel comfortable with it but, at the time, I had to do it because he was my boss. I think that might have been the last straw that made me decide to try the funeral business.”

You mention community involvement numerous times on your website. How is community involvement related to business ethics?

“Well, I think you have to give back to your community, and so we do it in a couple of ways. Number one, we give away free funerals to people who can’t afford them. Two is that, since our community needs a lot of help, I volunteer for some fun things—educational things. There are two organizations I like to volunteer at the best. One is called Omaha Table Talk in which we bring together people of different races and different cultures, and we do it in people’s homes. I think last time we had about 60 people open their homes. We try to mix the people in the homes so in one home you might have African-Americans, Caucasians, Spanish-speaking people, Arabs—anybody, just so they are mixed together. They then have a nice place to get together and talk. It acts as a safe haven to ask questions about other people that you normally wouldn’t.

“The other organization is the Hope Center, in North Omaha on 16th Street. They take kids who come from very poor families that don’t have a great family mix, or a poor home life, and bring them in after school. We give the kids some recreation, we feed them there, we help them with their homework, we have people who actually talk to the children’s teachers during parent-teacher conferences, and we learn what those kids need. As a result, about 86% of the kids we deal with graduate from high school and go on to college. Those are two important areas that I try to help with in the Omaha community.”

Are there practical advantages that arise from doing these things for your business?

“Yes, I met 100 people at a luncheon at the Hope Center a week ago, and now they know me, and know I am involved in the community. I feel it’s a great way to network in the community. That’s what you want to do: you want you and your business to be known in the community. It’s also fun because you are giving back, and anytime you give back, it’s fun.”

Do you think there is anything special about Omaha in regards to the culture of business ethics here?

Do businesses generally practice a higher standard of ethics here? “I would like to say no, because you’d like to think that other places have that high level of ethics, but, yes. There is something special about Omaha. Omaha is a small-large town that is unique because we have five Fortune 500 companies here. Most cities may only have one or two. It’s an amazing place. Warren Buffett, who doesn’t give much to charity, aside from his gift to the Gates Foundation, has made so many people in the community wealthy, and they have been able to give back money. A lot of the good things you see happening around Omaha are in connection with the rise of Warren Buffett’s stock. The really neat thing about Omaha is the generosity of the community. There are a lot of people who have made a lot of money. The Kiewit people, for example, made a lot of money with contracts in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and that money is being given back to the community like in no other town. Also, if you look around, most of the people in Omaha who make big money live in reasonably modest homes.”

As a last question—where do you see business ethics heading, especially in your industry?

“I think ethics is one of those things that you can not operate without. The future of ethics is, in my opinion, very bright because, in order to run a successful business, you have to have a proper ethical outlook. I think there is nothing more important because, oftentimes, all you have is your reputation. If a burger joint started buying cheap meat with E. coli and someone got sick, it’s going to hurt that business badly. You have to have the right ethics to make sure people don’t regret working with your business."