By Jeff Woodburn
It is easy to underestimate David Keller. He’s a slight, courtly man, old beyond his thirty-eight years, but underneath is man of simple truths, steel convictions and unconventional ways. Before he moved to Littleton last year to purchase the Pillsbury Funeral Home and the Beal House, he founded a very successful mortuary and removal business and then a funeral home in Memphis, Tennessee, which also happened to be the nation’s second most dangerous metropolitan areas in the country.
One night, while in line to get a coffee at convenience store, he interrupted a robbery and was assaulted, but quickly recovered and pulled out his handgun. He told his assailant, not once, but twice to stay on the floor, and promised “I will shoot you.” The man nonchalantly ignored the command and slowly moved toward him, and Keller fired and shot the man in the arm. The injured man fled, but was later apprehended. An experience like that Keller said, “Makes you want to move to Littleton.”
Keller’s approach to business is no less practical or straight forward. He lives by some simple axioms that include providing the best price, highest quality, avoidance of debt and, in a industry famous for its euphemisms; he doesn’t beat-around-the-bush. His funeral home has run advertisements that encourage people to consider pre-planning services and not to leave the decision to, as the ad suggests, their possibly tattooed or pierced children.
Born in central Pennsylvania, Keller grew up in working-class family and after graduating from high school enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. There he earned a degree in logistics, but it was the separate deaths of both of his grandmothers that spurred him toward a career as an embalmer and later a funeral director. Keller was not impressed with how his grandmothers looked or more specifically the job the embalmers did. “Embalming is a lost art,” he said, in reference to the process of preserving the body of the deceased for public viewing.
Keller enrolled in a mortuary Science College in Atlanta, and after graduating worked for several funeral homes in Tennessee. Then he saw an opportunity to put his talents for logistics together with his passion for embalming.
In 2000, Keller started a mortuary and removal service company in Memphis. His idea was simple, yet novel in the marketplace. He provided services to the smaller, locally- owned funeral homes, which didn’t have the time, inclination or the skills to embalm and move bodies across the region or country. His idea took off and business was successful, but as the large conglomerations increased their hold on the Memphis funeral market, he saw the writing on the wall. Large corporations aren’t going to outsource profitable services and, if they did, they’d dramatically mark up his services. Keller also saw the need for a good-old fashion, local funeral services, which were being bought up by large funeral service companies, like Houston-based Service Corporation. Plus, he knew that he could beat the big funeral homes on price and service.
So in 2008, the industrious Keller purchased a former 11,000 square-foot restaurant near his mortuary and removal company, and converted it into a funeral home. He aggressively took on his established competitors by talking straight about costs. High Point Funeral Home’s pricing strategy, wrote a Memphis-based newspaper, comes right off the price list of other funeral homes in town, with a discount of 33%-70%. Caskets are one of the major profit centers and Keller gets a 50% mark-up, compared to 200%-300% elsewhere. “I’m not the advocate of burying your money,” Keller said at the time. His idea worked. He plans to bring that philosophy to Littleton as well. “My business is based upon the death rate; I can’t control that,” he said, “All I have to play with is my profit margin.”
But, Keller insists, his Memphis business, which became the third largest funeral home in the city, wasn’t based solely on price. As consumers, he said, “we have become accustom to substandard. It is the new standard.” For him, this means treating the deceased as the “guest of honor.”
The heavy work-load and hours mounted, and Keller found himself managing people, not doing what he enjoyed most dealing with the families and embalming. “I’m an embalmer first,” he said. In August, 2009, Keller sold his funeral home for $3.4 million to an associate and began looking to get back to basics at a small-town funeral home. It just happened the company that helped him sell his funeral home was also working with the Pillsbury Funeral Home to find a buyer. It was perfect fit. “I intentionally came here to slow down,” he said, but along the way, he ended up in the restaurant business.
Because Keller used the IRS section 1031 tax free real exchange process, he was required to purchase commercial property equal to the amount realized in the sale of his Memphis properties. He also needed a place to live. Around the same time, the Beal House Restaurant and Inn had sold at a bank foreclosure auction to a local investor, and when Keller caught wind of its availability, he jumped on it. So, he had a place to live, but soon found himself in the hospitality business.
Besides waiting on tables as young man, Keller had no formal experience in the restaurant business, but he believes that certain successful principles are universal. The chief among them is overhead. He can regularly be found tending tables, the bar or cleaning up. Keeler’s most important task was to hire a good chef to run the operation and imbed a sense of thriftiness and humility. His philosophy for dealing with his employees is based up the idea that “I don’t need you, I want you.”
Keeler’s goal is to be the most affordable, fine dining experience in the area. He also has knack for detail and an eye for and interest in historic buildings. Keller has made changes that add to the functionality and appeal of both the Beal House and the funeral home. He also emphasizes a personal touch that easily can be lost in growth and efficiency. Customers calling both of his businesses don’t get an answering machine during reasonable hours, but get him, his sister, Candy, who works for him or another responsible person. He’s proud to note that the Beal House has made great strides towards being one-hundred percent green.
One practical attribute that could come in very handy is Keller’s his modest frugality and his aggressive up-beat personality. After such a spectacular success at such a young age, he has not let success go to his head. He understands that it is this condition as well as taking on too much debt that has destroyed many entrepreneurs. He has sworn off any debt. Despite conducting extensive renovations at the funeral home and the restaurant, he says “I struggle to stay out of debt.” When he sold his Memphis business, he realized, he said, “I’d never have this amount of money ever again.”