By Andrew Jason
Photo by Hillary Ehlen
Almost every small business owner will tell you that they’ve done every job at their company. For Jim Boulger, owner of Boulger Funeral Home, that is really true, though. His first job in this fourth-generation business was vacuuming and he still has flashbacks to those memories.
“My joke here is that carpet has changed so much for the better,” said Boulger. “When I was vacuuming in high school, we had this carpet that you could see everything. My dad was a crazy person and you had to vacuum it in lines. I always tell my part-time employees, ‘You guys are so much luckier. I can’t even tell if you vacuumed in here.’”
The best way to vacuum isn’t the only business lesson he’s learned over the years. There are several surprising business takeaways from our conversation with Boulger.
Funeral homes are built on quality customer service. Perhaps the biggest trait needed to be a successful funeral director is empathy. They are dealing with people in their most vulnerable state. While empathy may be a requirement for funeral directors, it is something that should be learned and practiced in workplaces in every industry.
In fact, the Center for Creative Leadership published a white paper that described the importance of empathy in the workplace. They did a study that reported that “empathic emotion as rated from the leader’s subordinates positively predicts job performance ratings from the leader’s boss.”
With that in mind, Boulger has some recommendations on how to practice more empathy in the workplace.
“With me, empathy has always been kind of natural. Customer service is part of it but I’ve told people that I don’t find it difficult to put myself in the person’s shoes who’s going through the death. To me, just think of it like if you were calling in and it was your mom or dad. How would you like to be talked to? Or how would you like the conversation to go? If you can understand that, you can really put yourself in their shoes and make the service or arrangements the way you would want it to be done if it was your loved one.
“You don’t want someone to come in and be a robot. We want people to talk about their loved one. I like to think I get to know their loved one, even though a lot of them I haven’t met.”
A weekend is a non-existent thing when you’re a funeral director. Funeral Directors are on call many nights and must get up at any hour of the day to deal with a body. Boulger has a specific memory from what the life of a funeral director looks like.
“The very first Christmas I was on back in 2008, we had a double vehicle death on Christmas Eve. My wife just moved back. We just got married. It was 11:30 at night and I had to go. It was out of town so I didn’t get back until like 4 or 5 a.m. and I remember looking at my wife’s eyes and she was just like, ‘Does this happen?’ I said, ‘This is part of it.’”
While it might be more pronounced in the funeral industry, burnout is a fact of life in all workplaces. In fact, last year, a Gallop study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 percent of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes. The same study found that burnout accounts for an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in health-care spending each year.
So how does Boulger handle that burnout?
“Burnout is a part of this job. I like what I do and I like to think that my employees like what they do. We’ve had employees who have gotten out of the funeral industry just for that reason. I would say that the biggest reason is the on-call. One of the number one reasons that people get out of the funeral industry is the hours.
“It’s also draining. You are dealing with people going through one of the worst moments of their lives. In some cases, it’s a celebration but, at the end of the day, it’s still hard on the funeral directors to consistently meet with families like that.
“It’s like anything else, you have to want to do this job or it might not be the job for you. It’s not like, ‘I can eke this out for the next 10 years.’ You’re really not going to like it and it’s going to be draining.”
As an owner and manager, Boulger must also address burnout in his employees. So how does he do that?
“It is about the right employee. We are on call but we get a day off during the week. When you’re off, it’s important to be off. Don’t bug them all the time. There are some times here that you have to text them and say, ‘ I know you’re off today but this family is wondering about something.’ But, it’s important when you’re on vacation, you’re off.”
23 percent of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes.
Burnout accounts for an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in health-care spending each year.
* Stats according to Gallop study
Family owned business
Boulger Funeral Homes was started in 1897 by Boulger’s great great grandfather and it has stayed a family-owned business over the years. The company was basically started at its current location at 123 10th St. S, Fargo. They originally started in an old mansion (photos to the left) but tore it down in 1968 to build their new space.
Now with six licensed funeral directors, two full-time office staff and 25 part-time staff, they have a funeral home in Fargo, Kindred and Hillsboro. However, the pride of continuing the family heritage is important to Boulger.
“The funeral industry is one of the few industries that is still predominantly family-owned. I don’t know if you can say that about every industry. Being a fourth generation owner, I was a rarity at mortuary school. When I was there, I was one of two that had it in the family. I’m glad it was in my family. I just can’t say I would have ever thought to be a funeral director if it wasn’t in my family. I respect those who thought of it because I don’t know if it ever would have come up in my mind.
“Being able to carry on that legacy is important. You’re always going to have somebody who finds it really meaningful to meet with the owner of the funeral home and the fact that my last name is Boulger. I think that’s great. I’ve got more than enough competent employees but if that’s important to you, I think that’s great that we have that as an option. You can’t say that about every place. That’s something I’ll always carry with me.
“Whether or not my kids want to go into it, I’ll treat it like my dad did. ‘You do what you want to do.’”
In journalism, there’s an old rule called show, don’t tell. Boulger has also learned that’s true with management.
“When it comes to business in general, it trickles from the top down. If you treat clients with respect, your employees are going to see that’s the way you run your business and you’ll be successful. We’ve been blessed in that regard. I’ve had a good teacher in my dad. My dad had a good teacher in his dad. You like to carry that on. If your employees are happy, they’re going to make your clients happy and you’ll be successful.
“I know I’ve got my own faults. I would never say that I’m the best manager in the world but I would like to think I try and I will always hear my employees and treat them with respect. If we can solve a problem, we’re going to do it.“
Like all industries, the funeral industry is going through a shift in their workforce. According to the New York State Funeral Directors Association, less than 40 years ago, only five percent of funeral directors were women. Now that hovers around 43 percent and females make up about 60 percent of mortuary science students.
“It didn’t use to be that way. It used to be an old boy’s club,” said Boulger. “We have two women funeral directors on staff who are fantastic. More women are getting into it. Whether that tackles on to the empathetic thing is up to you to decide. We’ve had people who have requested to meet with women. I’m glad we have that option. Not every funeral home does.”