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The Mabindisas breathe life into the funeral business

The Mabindisas breathe life into the funeral business

The couple have applied their respective skills to resurrecting their defunct family funeral parlour and ensuring it flourishes

Vuyo and Nkateko Mabindisa have breathed life into a third-generation funeral parlour business in Soweto and transformed it into a thriving powerhouse.

City Press met the Mabindisas at one of their offices in Dube, Soweto, to discover how they have made a success of the business of death.

Nkateko is an accountant by profession and Vuyo is a qualified teacher.

He took over the running of the family business 12 years ago.

Nkateko comes from a family of educators. Her sibling and mother are both teachers.

Vuyo was raised in a family where no one had a formal job, but his uncle ran a funeral parlour that had been established by his grandmother in 1967.

Initially, he took no interest.

“I wanted to study analytical chemistry and got accepted at the University of the Witwatersrand, but I did not have money because my mother was a domestic worker,” says Vuyo. “So, I went to QwaQwa in the Free State to study for a teaching diploma as it was free to do so there.”

After qualifying, he taught for a short time at Dr Vilakazi High School in Zola, Soweto.

He then worked at a casino. It proved to be his last salaried job.

“After working at Gold Reef City Casino for about two years, I absconded because I knew I was not meant to work a 9-to-5 job. At the time, the family’s funeral business was closed and the building was unused. I approached a few of my cousins and asked them to help me resurrect the business,” he says of the decision he took back in 2007.

With limited resources, Vuyo had to make a number of personal sacrifices. These included selling his furniture to buy coffins for display.

However, the venture took a while to get up and running.THESE DAYS, VUYO’S FUNERAL SERVICES CATERS FOR FUNERAL AS WELL AS FINANCIAL SERVICES, OFFERING FUNERAL COVER.

“It was bad,” recalls Vuyo. “I would do five funerals in eight months. I would open here and the whole week no one would come in.”

The business started improving slowly, but the growth rate remained slow.

These days, Vuyo’s Funeral Services caters for funeral as well as financial services, offering funeral cover.

WHEN NKATEKO JOINED, THE COMPANY HAD ONLY FIVE STAFF AND A HANDFUL OF SIGNED-UP FUNERAL POLICIES.

It is the latter aspect that saved the business, Vuyo says.

“I am a visionary; I come with ideas. But I am not good at administration. The business was doing okay, but the administration was terrible, so when Nkateko joined me in 2014, she came with the skills that the business
needed.”

When Nkateko joined, the company had only five staff and a handful of signed-up funeral policies.

“When I arrived, there were less than 300 sign-ons,” Nkateko says.

“Even the underwriter was reluctant because the book was too small.”

The effect of having too few clients was that even when the company found a willing underwriter, the premiums would be higher, recalls Ntaketo.

“One of the underwriters told us to increase the book to 500 sign-ons at least, and he would take it on. Two years later, we had about 5 000 policyholders on our book,” she says.

Among the changes the couple had to implement were: opening more branches that dealt specifically with sales; introducing a seamless administration regime that required less paperwork and relied more on software; and no longer accepting cash deposits – this being a stumbling block for the elderly, who have traditionally always paid their premiums in cash.

“We lost some clients during that transition because most of the elderly clients did not adapt well. They were used to bringing money to our offices and getting cash receipts. With the introduction of sales consultants, we needed to avoid them having cash in hand so that they focused on their sales targets.”

Vuyo continues: “We have five branches these days: three in Soweto, one in Orange Farm and another in Devland. To unlock the potential of the business, we had to focus on getting more policies instead of actual funerals, because the policies are secured business and could sustain us. When it comes to funerals, you cannot project how many you will get.”

Vuyo says that because the policies usually comprise multiple covers for each client, recruiting the right people is key, as is offering excellent customer service.

The results speak for themselves: Vuyo’s Funeral Services now has more than 40 000 clients, employs 111 staff and handles more than 25 funerals a week.

The biggest stumbling block thus far, Vuyo says, has been human resources.

“We employ people in the communities in which we operate. As a result, we do not get skilled people, so we have to develop them. One of the bigger corporates once poached a lot of our staff all at once; these were people we spent money upskilling. At the time, we could not afford to hire skilled people, but we can now.”

Since the business has been able to recruit – and retain – skilled staff, the next step has been to professionalise its processes. This has led to the outsourcing of some human resources capabilities.

“We do not compromise when giving funeral services because that good work becomes our advertising,” says Vuyo.

“We can afford to perform these services at a loss because we make more money on the financial services side. Most of our funerals come from referrals, so that model is working. Our focus is on the policies we offer.”

The biggest misconception about the industry, the Mabindisas say, is that they are happy when people die.

“That is untrue. When people die I lose premiums, whereas when they are alive we get business through premiums. We are not a death business because, in fact, when people die, sometimes we have to top up to offer a great funeral service,” Vuyo says.

The Mabindisas plan to expand their business to neighbouring provinces.

They say that by continually innovating their business model, the expansion should happen sooner rather than later.