Gillions Funeral Services Ltd | Family funeral business embraces technology

Gillions is based in Dunedin and services the wider Otago area from Palmerston to the north, Lawrence and Roxburgh in central Otago, to Milton and Balclutha in the south.  Established in 1961, the business is owned and operated by the Gillions family.

Keith Gillions is the third generation to work at Gillions.  His grandfather entered the funeral industry in the 1930s, forming Gillions and Sons with his father in 1962 and now, together with his wife Elizabeth, Keith is running the company.

“When I was growing up the majority of funeral homes were family businesses.  As children we lived on the premises and our backyard was the funeral home.  To us, it was normal.  It was a very caring environment.”

Keith joined Gillions 15 years ago and in 2011, implemented a succession plan to ensure the firm’s future.  “I bought the business, freeing up my father to work towards retiring, which he will do this year,” he explains.

Formerly a computer systems analyst, Keith’s passion for technology has seen him introduce innovative digital services into Gillions, from live internet streaming to remote participation. The chapel boasts a TV production unit with eight cameras.

“More people are opting to live stream the funeral service and for a whole array of reasons.  There are people who may not be able to make a funeral because of geographic distance or cost, or maybe they are in hospital or infirm.  With live streaming, people can easily be incorporated into the funeral process.

“Recently we Skyped a live tribute and eulogy from Canada.  Remote access can make a funeral more inclusive and allow those who can’t be there to feel part of it.  There are lots of different ways technology can be useful in our business.”

However technology is just one of the changes Keith has seen have an impact in the funeral business over the years.

“The majority of funerals used to be held in churches followed by burial at one of the local cemetries.  That has shifted to more funerals being held in our onsite chapel or in non-demoninational places.  Burials have been replaced with more cremations. Also replaced has been the traditional hearse load of flowers, with donations to hospices and other organisations now very common.”

While Gillions take funerals and burials around the lower South Island, Keith says the business’s short-term strategy is to focus on optimising the business unit in Dunedin.

“We’ve closed our branch in Milton and are concentrating on developing and growing our business here,” he says.

Keith brought Markhams Otago, and more specifically advisor Mark Dalloway, into the picture when he took over the business five years ago.

“I spoke with Mark and realised he would meet our needs and there was the opportunity to shift our accountancy firm.  So we joined Markhams and with our confidence in Mark, we feel we can move forward very comfortably.

“As well as the end of year accounts and tax returns, Mark acts in a business advisory capacity.  We look to him for advice and guidance with our business.  Currently we are refinancing the company and he is involved with that.”

There are several elements of the Gillions’ business that need specialist financial management, such as the GST charges on international services.  “If we are sending ashes overseas, we need to know what elements incur GST as circumstances differ.  Mark knows all of the things that makes our business work – he’s very practical and that suits us.”