CEO’s Corner: Welcome!

The CEO’s Corner: Welcome!

CEO’s Corner will be a monthly feature featuring a Q&A with The Chamber’s President & CEO, Larry McElwain. Have a small business question for Larry? Let us know!

What was your profession before becoming the Chamber President & CEO?

From 1972 until 2014, I either worked at or owned Warren-McElwain Mortuary in Lawrence.  I was employed there as a licensed Kansas funeral director and embalmer in July 1972.  I had worked earlier from 1968 – 1970 as a night attendant there, while I was a student at the University of Kansas.  Bill Warren owned the business when I returned from school on the west coast in 1972.  I came back to work there with the idea that I would eventually purchase the business, but because of the untimely death of Bill in 1973, ten months after I arrived, I was thrust into managing, and then purchasing, the business in July 1974.  I was 25 years old when he died and 26 years old when I became the co-owner.  I formed a corporation with my Dad and father-in-law to purchase the business.  My Dad sold his grocery business in our hometown of Maize, Kan., and moved here to join me in the business.  If you think about it, it is quite a challenge to train and work with your Dad in a field that you barely know and one totally foreign to him.

How many years were you in that profession before coming to the Chamber world?

I was in the business from July 1972 – June 2014, so 42 years total, with 40 of those years in ownership. We saw the Lawrence business grow during that period of time with a market share of 17 percent to a market share of 67 percent upon the sale of the business in October 2014.

What is it like doing business in Lawrence, Kansas?

Lawrence is a GREAT business town.  Although there is nearly a population of 100,000, it has a smaller feel.  People know each other here.  It is also a very welcoming community.  In my 40+ years here, I have not found a town vs. gown attitude that other towns talk about.

My model to build the business, which at the time had a very low market share, was to get involved in non-profits to meet and develop relationships with people and leaders through that experience.  During my years here, I have worked with and served on the Board of Directors of at least eight agencies. The funeral business is like many businesses in that it is built on relationships.  If you are an unknown quantity, then you put yourself out there to meet and develop those personal relationships.

What’s the BEST business advice you ever received?

As much as possible, make business decisions after first doing the math.  Have an accountant that understands your business and listen to him or her. After going through three accountants that never understood the uniqueness of our business, we chose an accounting firm that had 1,200 funeral home clients, so they had a more intimate knowledge of standards and numbers that we could compare to. Also, I was advised early to rely on my instincts and that always seemed to work out.

What was the WORST business advice you ever received?

“You can grow the business with more partners rather than just assuming more personal debt.”

My biggest mistake based on advice was to think that we could build a powerful statewide business ownership with six partners spread across twelve funeral homes in a 300-mile area. Those twelve funeral homes did around 1,600 funerals per year with about 60 full and part-time employees. At the time, consolidation was the hot topic and many of us smaller operators thought we could work like a larger group and still receive economies of scale, equal to the big players. I mistakenly thought that my strong personality and leadership style could prevail with anything thrown in front of the six partners.  When millions of dollars and IPO stock was thrown in front of us, it appealed to four of them to take the money and run. My original partner and I ended up with seven of the twelve businesses. We eventually sold those to the people that were managing them.

I had a great partner in Lawrence for 27 years, but when it expanded to six partners around year 15, there were too many differences in their businesses from mine, and too many competing goals. Choosing the right partner is crucial, but still there is an element of luck.

What are your favorite business-related topics to discuss?

  1. How to build sales and market share in a personal service business. You cannot run sales promotions to create more business and revenue as in other types of businesses.
  2. How to build any business in a mid-sized town.
  3. How to hire, train, and retain good employees. Finding employees in the early years that would be on-call 24/7 was easier than in the later years.
  4. How to afford to change with the times and differences in markets; how to swim with the sharks, but not be eaten by them.
  5. Finding humor in whatever you are doing and not taking yourself too seriously.
  6. How to change the public image of a service industry business.


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