The business of pet cremations

A brainwave at a barbecue in 1984 set the Stringer family on the path to pet cremations and burials, an unusual but clever specialty.

Lance Stringer was 11 when his father Eric came back from a barbecue with the idea of starting a pet cremation service, as you would.
It was 1984 and in Perth at the time there were only two alternatives for dealing with deceased four legged or feathered family members: the backyard or, if you didn’t have a backyard, the tip.
Eric Stringer had acquired some land at Clackline, about 80km east of Perth to build a trotting track for horses, but had failed to get a license to train horses because he refused to use a whip. No whip, no start, it seems.
So, having contemplated (and then eaten) the charred remains of animals at that barbecue in 1984, he resolved to turn the place into a pet cemetery and crematorium. He got approval from the council and planted 800 pine trees to soften the landscape and then opened Lawnswood Pet Cemetery and Crematorium for business.
Eric set the price at $44 per pet – pretty cheap, but after all he was competing against the free alternative of the backyard.
That price included collecting the animal, digging the grave or chopping the wood for the crematorium (yes it was wood-fired – Eric had built it himself), painstakingly separating the beloved pet’s ashes from the wood charcoal, and supplying plaques or urns. It was incredibly labour-intensive, and Eric was effectively working for $6 an hour.
Young Lance started answering the phone to distressed pet owners, talking them through their grief. Through trial and error he learnt what to say, and developed a liking for it.
Unfortunately, as often happens with family businesses, as Lance grew older he and his father “butted heads”. So when he left school, Lance decided not to go into the business, but to leave home and study agriculture instead.
Long story short, he found himself working for an agribusiness firm called IAMA in Toowoomba, where he met, and fell in love with Madeleine, an officer with Austrade. She was appointed Trade Commissioner in Perth and so Lance returned home as a “trailing spouse”. He was 27.
It was now late 2001. The world had just changed thanks to events in New York but Eric, Lance discovered, was still chopping wood and digging graves, and not pricing his time into the invoices. “What’s your exit strategy, Dad?” he asked. On learning there wasn’t one, he decided to buy the business.
Father and son agreed on a price of $150,000 (it was turning over $110,000 a year) on vendor’s terms over ten years, $15,000 a year. Lance then had to break the news to his fiancé, Maddy, that the $70,000 they had saved for a deposit on a home would have to be spent on a new gas-fired crematorium. Lance wasn’t going to be chopping wood.
And thus took place an unusual, but effective, succession event and the business passed to the second generation. Lance remembers paying the final installment last year - exactly ten years later - and sharing a bottle of nice wine with Maddy that night.
Back to 2002. Lance and Maddy bought the business on January 1st, were married on March 2nd and had their first son, Jack, on October 21st.
Having designed and built a new crematorium (the ones you could buy were just incinerators), Lance had a logo made up, business cards and brochures printed.
He says that first year was incredibly hard: new business plus new family. He didn’t look for new customers in that first year, just tried to bed down the change of ownership and the operation of the new crematorium.
Then, in 2003, he “pressed the green button” – that is he started marketing properly to vets around Perth. The business suddenly doubled in size. He had to start hiring staff, which was “the steepest learning curve of all”.
“I realised that every single one of my staff would be representing me. I had to have 100 per cent confidence in them. There was a massive focus on hiring the right people”.
The business grew steadily and in 2007 he decided to build a horse crematorium. The banks wouldn’t lend him the money for it, so it was another year of hard graft and no cash for the family, but Lawnswood ended up with Australia’s biggest pet crematorium – big enough to comfortably take a Clydesdale horse.
That’s when Lance went to a Family Business Australia conference in Darwin and returned to Perth inspired and resolved to take the business to a new level. He hired a general manager – Joanne McKee – so he could “work on the business instead of in it, as they say”.
Out of that came a decision to move the family to Chiltern in Victoria and buy a pet cremation service in nearby Albury Wodonga. They immediately implemented their systems for running and marketing the service to vets and that business is now doing well.
That was 2010. Then last year, Lance and Maddy decided it was time to tackle the Melbourne market, which is dominated by another family business – Pet Cremation Services.
They bought 20 acres at Bacchus Marsh, investing a total of $1.2 million in setting the new business up, and moved the family (they have two sons, Jack and Harry) to Gisborne to live. In January this year, Edenhills Pet Cremations opened for business.
These days a cremation costs an average of $300 each and the business is now turning over $3 million a year and making a decent profit, all of which goes back into the business.
As for the next generation, well, “if Jack and Harry want to take it over, that’s great, but there is zero pressure. If they do, they’ll be required to work outside the business for a while and then work their way up.”
But Lance has just turned 40, so that’s a long way off, and the project of building a business in Melbourne is a big one – the family’s biggest.
Leaving aside its gruesomely ironic beginnings back in 1984, this is a business that definitely suits family ownership.
We’ve had three pets pass away (apart from the chooks that were murdered by foxes and Darren the budgie who simply left home). Ned the cat was taken away by the vet, Timmy Watson the dog was buried in the backyard and Murphy the Labrador’s ashes are still in the cupboard upstairs. It’s always traumatic.

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