I was leaving to meet the Queen when I heard: 'We've buried the wrong body in Worcester'

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The Independent Online
Howard Hodgson, 46, is now the head of Ronson, the cigarette lighter company, but his start in business was the rescue of his family's funeral firm. He sold his last stake in that company in 1991 for pounds 7m

The worst moment in my career in the funeral business had to be in 1988 when I was being presented to the Queen with Alan Sugar, Gerald Ratner and Richard Branson. Just as I was leaving the hotel, the phone went and I heard: "We've buried the wrong body in Worcester." It took less than an hour for the press to get hold of the story. It wasn't really our fault - the hospital had given us the wrong body - but instead of enjoying seeing the Queen I felt like I was about to be beheaded.

That was a few years before I got out of Hodgson Holdings but we were already doing close to 1,400 funerals a week. That's a serious responsibility. The customer doesn't care if we're burying 1,399 others that week; he just wants us to make sure his father's is done properly. That's easier to ensure if you're small and able to manage every little detail. But growing bigger was the only way I could save the family business from looming bankruptcy.

It was quite fashionable in the Sixties to be a working-class lad who made good. It took me quite a while to realise that making that claim was not fair to my father's efforts.

The family business, founded in 1850, was in Hockley, a very densely populated area of Birmingham - what was then called a slum. But by the time I was born, my father was the fourth-generation funeral director. He drove an Aston Martin, lived in the upper-crust suburb of Edgbaston, owned a holiday home and a yacht, and sent all his children to private school.

I refused to go on to university, though. Instead, at 18, I was apprenticed to a funeral director in Cardiff. I was probably the worst apprentice they ever had. I wanted to look like Paul McCartney and it took nine trips to the barber before my hair was the length they wanted. We used to fit out coffins as quickly as we could so we could play cricket at the back of the stock room with a piece of old coffin as a bat.

By then the family business was starting to falter. The area where we were based had been demolished, and most of the people had moved out to the new estates being built by the council. My father should have moved the business, but he thought people would come back to him.

I could see it was going to go bust and wanted to do something about it. So in 1975, at the age of 25, I bought him out for pounds 14,000. I agreed to pay him pounds 2,000 a quarter and promised to provide him with an income for the rest of his life.

The first thing I did was to visit our bank manager, who congratulated me and then said he was foreclosing on the business. The overdraft was pounds 9,000, but more important was the pounds 140,000 in mortgages and charges on assets.

Fortunately, he changed his mind when I told him my plan for the business.

Funerals are 80 per cent fixed overheads. If you don't make your budget figure you take a huge loss; if you do, it's mostly profit. Our business had a capacity of 1,200 funerals a year, but we were only doing 400. My plan was to buy other funeral businesses in the same geographical area and rationalise the labour and capital equipment.

The first year was the toughest. I needed to conserve cash so that I could buy another business but I also needed to spend on the infrastructure, which had been neglected over the previous few years due to the pressure of meeting the bank's demands.

The condition of the business was terrible. The roof of our main building needed fixing and the choke was stuck on the hearse so that it bellowed smoke.

To boost cash flow I pulled in debtors as quickly as possible and pushed the creditors out. It helped that the death rate that winter was substantial. Nine months after I took over I was able to buy another business in West Bromwich on the drip - that is, paying by instalments - for pounds 9,000. It was small but it added 50 per cent to our turnover. I also cut the staff at the original business from 10 to four, partly by replacing full-time pallbearers with off-duty firemen.

There are not a lot of middle managers in the traditional funeral business so we had to create them as we went along. One of the mistakes I made was to take people with a funeral culture and try to teach them management skills. I should have done the opposite.

There is no quick, easy, guaranteed way to be successful. One of the important things I've learnt is that you have to know your business thoroughly. But you've also got to have drive and determination. And you've got to enjoy it.

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