New Funeral Directors CEO
aims to breathe life into death

February 2014

Katrina Shanks

We need to start talking about funerals. It’s something we all need to deal with and consumer needs in funerals are changing.

Katrina Shanks had been in her new job less than a week when she presented her board with her 100-day plan.

The brand-new head of the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand says her plan’s priorities are around growing membership, adding to the Association’s value proposition, and being a “lead voice on issues affecting the sector” as she seeks to raise the profile of this “understated industry”.

High on her list of ways to do all of the above is to start a conversation about a subject most of us don’t even want to think about.

“We need to start talking about funerals,” she says from the Association’s lively annual conference in Blenheim. “It’s something we all need to deal with and consumer needs in funerals are changing.

“It’s just like weddings – many consumers want something different these days. They don’t all necessarily want to have a funeral in a church and be buried in a cemetery. The other day someone was buried with a motorbike, so funerals and burials can include all sorts of weird and wonderful things!

“Also, the country’s demographic is changing. Different ethnicities and rising obesity – many things are changing and that can be a challenge.”

Somewhere Katrina would like to see greater change is around how we finance our funerals. “Very few New Zealanders pre-pay their funerals and we really should be. It’s just another part of being financially literate. I’d also like more discussion about where we access credit to pay for funerals. If you’re suddenly faced with a bill of $5000 or $6000, it’s a lot of money to find.”

Challenges such as these were what drew the recently departed National Party MP to the job.

“When I announced my retirement from Parliament I started looking for opportunities that might suit my skills. I’m a chartered accountant, I have been an auditor, a business advisor and I’ve worked in banking. So I know business and what makes a sustainable business model.

“I also wanted a job that reflected my value set, and this organisation does. For a start it’s values based. Funeral directors play a huge part in helping grieving, vulnerable people through a very difficult time. They need to treat people – both the dead and living – with great respect and dignity, and they do.

“It’s a largely unregulated industry but the Association has very high standards for its members and it offers professional continuing education. It also has a robust complaints process. These make up an attractive value proposition for membership and are a large part of the reason the majority of New Zealand funeral directors are our members.”

Katrina says while the Association’s standards and complaints processes are working, the regulatory environment may change after a Law Commission review of the sector. The Burial and Cremation Act remains substantially unchanged since it was enacted in 1964, and many of its provisions are largely the same as what was in The Cemeteries Act, passed in 1882.

“This was another challenge that attracted me and another way my skills fit. In Parliament I was deputy chair of the Regulations Review Select Committee so I know the importance of legislation and regulation and the effect it can have on business and industry bodies. With my experience, I can be a strong advocate for the sector.”

Katrina was also the Financial Controller for the National Party, which means she understands the importance of membership and the need to retain it.

“It’s all about offering tangible benefits to being a member. With our standards and on-going education in particular, we do that, however, it is about ensuring that we are continuing assessing what our membership requires. I believe we’re in a strong position to grow.”