Posted 7/8/2013 12:00 am
Updated 8 months ago
Scott Robinson recalled the first funeral in which he helped his father, Adam Robinson Jr. It was for that of his 15-year-old cousin who had contracted meningitis and had died within a couple of days of falling ill.
That was in 1995 and Scott was just 16 himself. Now 34, Scott Robinson related the one good thing about the tragedy of his cousin’s death, the thing that is one of the advantages of being a funeral director:
“While everybody else is trying to figure out what to do, you know what you can do to help. I kind of figured that out real early on. And I liked that part of it. … Everybody else buys flowers and sends food because, frankly, they don’t know what else to do. And we’ve got a concrete way to help.”
Scott Robinson is the current “son” in Ralph Robinson & Son Funeral Home in Pine Bluff. He’s vice president and the fifth generation to operate the business, founded in 1890 by the “Ralph” in the company’s name. Scott’s father, Adam, 63, is president.
Both said they didn’t set out to carry forward their family’s business. For Scott, it was just going to be a summer job. For Adam, working in the summer with his father was simply a way to get to spend time with a man in a profession in which you’re always on call. Death doesn’t take a holiday.
“If you don’t like working holidays, if you don’t like working weekends, if you don’t like working on your birthday, your wife’s birthday, your son’s graduation day, you don’t belong in this business,” Adam Robinson said.
Robinson & Son has nine full-time employees — not counting father and son, the only family members currently drawing their livelihoods from the business — and five part-time workers.
Scott Robinson declined to release revenue figures. To give some sense of the scope of the business, his father said they get about one “death call” a day, which, he said, doesn’t mean they conduct that many services. The funeral business encompasses a number of duties, only one of those being the holding of a full funeral.
Taking up the family calling was something they fell into, both father and son said.
For Scott, his decision to make his career at Robinson & Son was an evolution. His father “never got rid of me, which is what that amounts to,” Scott said, laughing. “It just kind of morphed from there.”
He has a bachelor’s degree in business from Lyon College in Batesville and a master’s in business from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Scott graduated from funeral service and mortuary science school in 2003.
Adam started working in the business in the summers at 14 “because my father was working all the time and that was the only way that I could be around him very much.”
He attended Davidson College in North Carolina with the intention of going on to medical school and becoming a physician. But in the April before he graduated from Davidson, his father, Adam Sr., suffered a heart attack and “42 years later, here I am.”
Adam Robinson Sr. died in 2007, but Adam Jr. has been leading Robinson & Son and another family business, Cooperative Life Insurance Co. of Pine Bluff, since the mid-1980s.
His father worked in the businesses for 60 years and never really retired, Adam Jr. said.
The Passing of Power
Family-owned businesses entail a unique set of challenges, one of which is working closely with family members and addressing the passing on of power. Asked about the challenges of working for his father, Adam Jr. spoke frankly.
“I’ve had many less than Scott. Because [Adam Sr.] was not in very good health, he was very willing to say, ‘Here.’ When you’ve been doing something for a long time, it’s very difficult to give up responsibilities that you’ve had. We’re working on that.”
Father and son agree on other challenges facing family-owned enterprises.
Among them: separating work life from family life, particularly in a funeral home business. Helping grieving people is paramount, but it can take an emotional toll.
Growing up in a family business, being promoted and serving as the “supervisor over people who saw you running around in your pajamas at Christmas parties when you were 10” also can be problematic, Scott said. There is a need to prove oneself. One can feel “like you have to work twice as hard as everybody else to prove that you’re worthy of the position, not just because you were brought up in it.”
To address that feeling, Scott worked for a year for another funeral home while he was in college, Roller-Crouch in Batesville, “mainly because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it outside of the family business.”
Managing family members’ expectations regarding investment in and income from a joint enterprise is essential, Adam Robinson said. Businesses need to be prepared for change and capitalized for it. When there are a lot of family members and others depending on a business for their livelihoods, “there is a tendency to use up all your capital. So you have to learn how to be a good money manager and a good investor, both in your own business and in the other things that you do. And that’s not always an easy lesson.”
“Most family businesses don’t survive past the second generation. We’re now on our fifth,” Adam said.
Change, both said, is a constant, something his work for Roller-Crouch taught him, Scott said. “Probably the biggest challenge for businesses 100 years or older is realizing that you have to adapt every day to change.”
Father and son ticked off a series of new developments in the funeral home business: computers and digitization first among them. “Everything’s done electronically,” Adam said. Robinson & Son has 1,500 subscribers to its website and debuted a mobile website just last month. “There are now website companies that do nothing but websites for funeral homes,” Scott said.
Societal changes have contributed to the need to be adaptable. More families are dispersed, with relatives often living far from the deceased. These far-flung family members learn about and want new services. They expect printed programs, video tributes, help with transportation such as obtaining bereavement fares from airlines and guidance on where people from out of town should stay and where they should eat.
Conducting funeral services has become akin to event planning. For example, visitations used to be held in the homes of family members, Adam said. Now, they’re most often held at a funeral home, and Robinson & Son modified its building to accommodate this shift.
But a family operation also has advantages, benefits that have outweighed the challenges. One of the biggest is “walking into something that’s already established, so you don’t have to spend your energy trying to establish the business. You’re trying to maintain and enhance it,” Scott said. “You know as well as I do that there are small businesses that fail every day because they just can’t quite get over that hump.”
Having the stable, reliable staff that can come with an established business also lets the Robinsons be active in Pine Bluff community affairs, helping the Boys & Girls Club, for example, and the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas.
An old, established business also provides a “platform that you wouldn’t have if you were just starting something or you were in another field,” Scott Robinson said.
Ultimately, Adam said, “I think you have to build on your past success. I think it’s important to remember that in this business, you’re just as good as the last family you helped.”