'Some analysts have us down as a retail business,' explains Bill Heiligbrodt, with evident bemusement. 'Some put us with nursing homes and the healthcare industry. One analyst - don't ask me how we got there - even has us in with the tyre companies.' Perhaps it's a measure of the euphemism that still surrounds his business, a reflection of the previous low profile of his company in the UK, or its rather anonymous name. Or perhaps it's just a straightforward case of confusion. Whatever the explanation, over the past few months Heiligbrodt, president of Service Corporation International (SCI), the US's largest funeral business, has sought to erase any lingering doubts in British minds about who he is or what his company does.
Since he parked his corporate jet at Heathrow in June and set up camp in London's Dorchester Hotel his Texan brand of corporate raiding has transformed the UK funerals business, swiftly consolidating what was formerly a highly fragmented market. In August, SCI took control of the family-dominated Great Southern Group for £113 million after a protracted and acrimonious bid battle. A few weeks later it secured Plantsbrook, the largest quoted UK burial business, after a recommended £193 million offer. Now the restive Heiligbrodt, whose German surname translates into the suitably sacramental 'holy bread', is eyeing acquisitions in mainland Europe and, from there, the Far East.
As Heiligbrodt points out, the funerals business (known, somewhat paradoxically, as 'deathcare' in the US) is a vast industry with some highly unusual financial traits. His company is highly cash-generative, has virtually no inventory, no receivables and a high asset base of city-centre properties. Neither is it subject to technological innovation nor economic conditions. 'It's a very predictable business,' he says, 'based on death rates; numbers that are mapped and easily available in any country, city or zip code.' There are some things, however, that are forever beyond SCI's control. 'You can't make somebody buy something in this business,' he admits. We want to give the consumer what he wants without any hard-sell tactics.' An indication of just how sensitive SCI's tactics are can be found in the back of its annual report, where there is a personal address 'to our valued shareholders. As an owner of shares in SCI, you are probably aware that the company's name does not appear on any of our funeral homes or cemeteries,' it begins. 'If you, your family or friends are ever in need of the services we provide, the 800 number below has been enclosed to help you find the SCI firm most convenient to you.' And the number? 800-9-CARING.