Grave undertaking: group that buried Elvis wants to take over UK firm

THE FUNERAL firm that buried rock 'n' roll king Elvis Presley and several US presidents has become embroiled in a traditional British takeover battle, writes David Hellier.

Our picture shows pallbearers carrying Presley's coffin into the Forest Hills Cemeteries mausoleum in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1977, in one of Service Corporation International's most celebrated funerals.

The US operator of funeral homes and cemeteries launched an pounds 87m bid last week in an attempt to split the interests of JD Field, a family company, and win control of the UK funeral firm Great Southern Group.

'I'm here to do a deal and I'm here for the duration,' said Bill Heiligbrodt, SCI's Texan president and chief operating officer. Mr Heiligbrodt said he had asked to meet the trustees of the Field family's interests. The shares in JD Field are split into a number of family trusts and the company has a 56 per cent shareholding in Great Southern.

Mr Heiligbrodt said he wants to bring US methods in the funeral industry over to the UK. Profit margins in the US are around 24 per cent compared with margins in the UK of 19 per cent, he said.

SCI, which handled the funeral of Jackie Onassis, takes pride in having buried US presidents, but it did not bury Richard Nixon whose wife had a link with another funeral company.

Mr Heiligbrodt, a former bank chairman, has been called a cowboy - but he loves the term. 'I gather it's not such a compliment in Britain, but I am a cowboy. I'm a football player, and I fish, and I just love being competitive,' he said. He became involved in SCI in 1967 when his Texas Commerce Bank lent it money for expansion. 'It's a very necessary business. Funeral services help the healing business and they're as much for the living as for the dead,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)