Jenny Tay’s 71-year-old father, Roland Tay, founded Direct Funeral Services (DFS) 30 years ago.
He is a famed undertaker known for conducting funerals for the poor, needy, and some of Singapore’s high-profile murder victims – pro-bono.
This includes the 2011 Bedok Reservoir murder-suicide, Ah Meng’s death in 2008, and 8-year-old Chinese national Huang Na’s murder in 2004.
Although Roland has since handed the business over to Jenny and her husband, Darren Cheng, he hasn’t fully retired and still handles the pro-bono cases, which is something he is truly passionate about.
“My dad’s family used to own a coffee shop beside a funeral company and as a child, he always helped to send beverages to the funeral parlour for the families that ordered them. What struck him the most was the stark disparity between the funerals that the rich and poor could afford,” said Jenny, Managing Director of DFS.
“One family had a very elaborate funeral, while the other one beside just had a coffin in the middle of an empty room. My dad strongly feels that regardless of one’s financial status, everyone deserves a dignified send-off.”
So this is why he decided to set up his own funeral business that offers affordable services for all, and often arranges funeral services at his own expense for those in need.
Tripling The Company’s Revenue
When Jenny first joined the business in 2014, she knew nothing much of the business – apart from what she’d read about her father in the news, who often made headlines for his charitable acts.
But despite her lack of experience, the 31-year-old has more than tripled the company’s revenue from $2 million to $7 million a year (this is according to 2015 audited figures).
At age 28, Jenny quit the advertising sector and took over the reins of the business – this was when she first learnt of her father’s heart attack.
It was a huge scare for her seeing him warded in the hospital, so she wanted him to stop physically exerting himself and lighten his workload by joining the company.
“After all, I have always wanted to be in this trade since I was 18. But back then, my dad felt that I was not ready yet and wanted me to gain working experience first,” said Jenny.
At her enthusiasm to succeed his business, her dad expressed that he is very touched as he reckoned that most millennials would not be keen to join his trade.
“Sometimes, my dad and I have differing views in business management, but we always manage to reach a common ground,” said Jenny.
“The best thing about my dad is that he is very open-minded to newer and better approaches as he imparts his 30 years of valuable experience to me. I think we work very well as a tag team.”
Currently, she oversees the company together with her husband, who holds the role of Executive Director.
Darren also quit his job as a private counsellor, to accompany her into this field, helping her become a force for change.
Not A Smooth Start
When the couple joined the business in 2014, they had a culture shock when they found that key service standards were lacking in the industry.
Funeral proceedings were done haphazardly, with someone dressed casually reading off a script and directing mourners through the rites in an offhand manner.
So to change things up, the duo implemented wait service at wakes and introduced an emcee service to help professionalise proceedings.
“Although emcee services are still uncommon at funerals in Singapore, we’ve found that it helps to comfort families and loved ones, and we want it to be an option available to all. Friends of clients have approached other local operators asking for this service, and I’ve witnessed some adopt the practice, which is a good thing. Competition is what we need to raise the entire industry,” said Jenny.
Together, the couple also introduced employment benefits, career progression, and better accreditation to the industry, attracting younger workers and fresh graduates to the line.
In 2015, the duo established Direct Life Foundation, a subsidiary of DFS that hopes to improve people’s quality of lives through education, activities, and charitable topics.
“Two books titled ‘Where Did Grandpa Go?’ and ‘Last Wishes’ were published this year to open discussion about death. The first is a children’s book published by Darren; and the second was launched in collaboration with SingCapital, which covers estate planning and other things people need to consider to prepare for death.”
The foundation also facilitates active volunteerism by serving as a platform to connect elderly, volunteers and beneficiaries.
It held its first event in January 2016, where 80 volunteers helped out in a charity event to cut and dye the hair of the elderly folks at Swami Home; and it plans to hold more of such events that lend a personal touch, such as hair cut drives and lunches, to bring senior citizens closer together.
Proving Her Mettle
“During my dad’s era, people shunned undertakers because they believed that being around us would bring bad luck. Even when I first joined the business, the job was seen as unglamorous and no one wanted to take it up.”
But Jenny said she was adamant about professionalising and changing the image of her trade. “Our work is no different from that of a doctor or a nurse. Like them, we are providing an essential service for the society.”
She started off by changing the presentation and personal image of the funeral director.
“We put on a more professional outfit for them, send them for customer service training, and help them brush up on their personal image and etiquette. When our staff looks the part, families naturally feel like they can entrust the most important aspect of their loved ones’ final journey to us.”
In terms of services, they have been working on modernising their services. These include having professional emcee service at every wake, wi-fi at wakes, grief counselling, night watch services (so family members can go home and rest without worrying about the wake), servers at night to help tend to visitors, as well as photography and videography services.
After revamping the business, they managed to entice a wider group of people to join their profession. In fact, DFS receives about two to three applications a week from fresh graduates or millennials wanting to make a career switch.
This is a huge jump from three years ago when they would only get one applicant in three months.
As such, the average age of their staffs have decreased from 55 to 30.
Their team has also grown from 5 to 65 people and over the past four years, their cases have almost doubled from 60 to 80 a month, to 130 to 150 a month.
Taking One Step At A Time
But implementing change was not an easy thing to do because staff and existing vendors were reluctant to adopt change.
“There is always going to be resistance to anything new. You need to grit your teeth and push through. After awhile, people will begin to accept it and slowly embrace it. But you need to have a mental expectation that the initial process isn’t going to be easy,” said Jenny.
In fact, in their first year, they actually avoided making any changes. They simply observed and worked on the ground with their staff for about 9 months to a year, before beginning their revamp.
According to Jenny, it is important to do things gradually because “nobody’s going to listen if you come in demanding for immediate change.”
“We wanted to build good rapport first by being hands-on and learning from our staff. Respect has to be earned.”
As a matter of fact, when she first joined, five of the older staff placed a wager on whether she would last a week in the company. It was mentally challenging and there were several occasions when she wanted to throw in the towel.
“Everyone spoke to me as if they were better than me, and even customers doubted me. I was also often mistaken for the catering girl and I remembered families requesting to meet my supervisor when they see me for the first time,” lamented Jenny.
But slowly, as people realised the changes she introduced had positive effects, they began to take her seriously.
“I’ve been working very hard to maintain the business – constantly bringing in new innovative elements and upgrading our services, not just for the company, but for the industry – all so I can create a legacy for my father,” she said.
But she emphasised that she does not want to change the entire business DNA built by her father and that she is “merely building upon it”.
A One-Stop Funeral Service
At the end of the day, she envisions the company to be a one-stop funeral service company that helps families deal with death.
She strongly believes that funerals should be a celebration of an individual’s life. She questioned: “If we’re paying so much attention to the details of a wedding, why can’t we do the same for a wake?”
She added that she doesn’t view her company as a funeral business, but a hospitality business instead.
“In the past, hospitality services during a wake were often overlooked, but today it is our priority. To us, it is important to send off the deceased in a dignified manner and it’s equally important to ensure that the bereaved families are well-taken care of.”
“It is very heartwarming especially when bereaved families to show their appreciation after the funeral. That’s when you know you’ve helped them achieve a proper closure.”
Sharing about the business’ future plans, Jenny said that they plan to introduce more value-added services to their customers.
With regards to business expansion, “other markets might be a possibility”, she added.
Although the entrepreneurial journey has been tough for her so far, her father’s words is what kept her going:
If you meet a wall, don’t keep banging your head against it because your head will crack. Find a way to go around it and if going around it doesn’t work, then try jumping over it or burrowing under it. If you want to do something, do your best to find a way to do it.”
Featured Image Credit: Direct Funeral Services