Family funeral business just won't die
Most businesses fail during their first few years. Yet Magnus Poirier is heading into its fourth generation of family control. How did the company achieve such staying power?

Claude Poirier, is unlike any vice-president you'll ever meet. He's has been working all his life at Magnus Poirier Inc., his family's chain of funeral homes. And like most vice-presidents, Poirier would like to one day hold the president title. But even though he's not there yet, he's already thinking about who will succeed him.

"We handle successions slowly here," said Poirier with a smile. "Even though I am 60 years old and I take care of all of the functions that a president normally handles, my uncle (73 year old Gilles Poirier) still has the title." That steady approach to management change is one of the key reasons that the company his grandfather Magnus Poirier founded in 1923, is still thriving, when most other startups don't last longer than a few years.

During the past 80 years, Magnus Poirier Inc. has built up a seven-branch chain of funeral complexes, all concentrated in the Montreal area. Last year, the company's 185 employees provided $12.5 million worth of services, including funerals, receptions, religious ceremonies, burials and cremations, to about 3,000 families. But two things stand out: the company's durability and its ability to grow steadily in a tough market.

"They are definitely one of the top three or four players in Quebec," said Dennis O'Neill, a regional manager at Batesville Canada, one of the province's top funeral casket suppliers. During his many years in the industry, O'Neill has gotten to know almost all of the province's funeral home managers. As a result, he's built up a good feel for the key trends. "There has been a lot of capacity added recently, even though the number of deaths has stabilized in the mid-50,000s each year," O'Neill said. "To do well, companies have had to be flexible."

According to O'Neill, the Poiriers' proved their adaptability by branching out beyond the family's catholic roots, to provide services to a wide range of ethnic communities. (These now provide more than half of Magnus Poirier's revenues).

Like much of North America's funeral industry, Quebec operators faced serious challenges from consolidators, such as SCI and Loewen Group (now known as Alderwoods Group) which quickly acquired strings of family owned businesses. However in recent years, that trend has stabilized and some independents have bought back their businesses. "Funeral homes have a long tradition of family ownership," O'Neill said. "It looks like the industry is finding a new balance that reflects that fact."

Poirier cites several factors for the company's durability. These include a focus on internal professional development and training programs, the sale five years ago of a minority share of the business to an employee cooperative, which gives unionized workers a greater stake in the company and most importantly: a balanced attitude toward family members.

Wading through the Poirier family's ownership and management power structure is like trying to figure out the periodic table of the atomic composition of elements. Claude Poirier's grandfather had ten children, of which two, his father Roger and his uncle Gilles eventually took over the business. Their holdings were later split among several of their six children. Complicating the situation, 17 Poirier family members work in the company, which itself creates a complex informal power structure that does not appear on any organizational chart.

But according to Claude Poirier, each family member has to pull his own weight. "We encourage them to come and work here, but if they do, they start at the bottom," Poirier said. "We don't care how much education they have. They climb the ladder one step at a time. Just like everyone else."

Another key success factor has been the company's conservative growth formula. "We never expanded faster than our ability to provide good service," Poirier said. "Our business is all about trust and integrity. If you don't have that, you will fail, no matter how big you are."

Despite the tough Quebec funeral industry market of recent years, there are signs that the picture will brighten somewhat. The baby-boomers have so far stubbornly shown a great reluctance to provide funeral operators with more work.

However the generation's older members are now entering their sixties and according to the Quebec government, the province's death rate is expected to shoot up more than 40 percent to 80,000 per year by 2025. If Magnus Poirier can get a good share of that business, the company is unlikely to keel over anytime soon.



Sidebar: Keys Magnus Poirier's durability

1. Magnus Poirier consistently avoided growth that would compromise its ability to deliver quality services.
2. The company responded to increasing industry consolidation by targeting ethnic communities, which now comprise more than half of its sales
3. Though controlled by the Poirier family, the company sold a substantial chunk of shares to a cooperative consisting of 131 employee members.
4. Though 17 of Magnus Poirier's 185 employees are Poirier family members, none have special privileges. Eight are trained thanatologists.
5. Successions are handled through a gradual consensus among key family members, thus avoiding the kinds of quarrels that can lead to disaster.


Fact Box:
Company Name: Magnus Poirier
Location: Seven locations in Montreal and Laval
Owner: Poirier family, employee cooperative
Founded: 1923
Products: Complete funeral, reception, chapel and burial services
Estimated sales: $12.5 million
Employees: 185, including 17 Poirier family members
Phone #: 514-727-8989



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