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VOL. 128 | NO. 191 | Tuesday, October 1, 2013

New Model Brings Ford Back to Funeral Business

By Bill Dries

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Memphis political icon Harold Ford Sr. is changing careers again. In this case, it is a return to the Ford family business for the 11-term U.S. representative, who has been a Washington consultant and lobbyist since he opted not to seek re-election in 1996.

“I spent 22 years in the Congress, 18 doing this. It’s not that I’m tired of doing it. It’s not that I didn’t like it,” Ford said. “It’s just that I wanted to move on to something else. I think I found a niche – an industry that I’m familiar with, something that I do like – and I think we just sort of move from there.”

Former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. is winding down his lobbying business to return to the funeral business, with a funeral home on Sycamore View Road that will include a crematorium.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The Harold Ford Funeral Home is already open in the shopping center at 1638 Sycamore View Road, which Ford bought this summer. It is the first phase of a funeral business that will include a crematorium and a park for lighted cases holding the urns of remains from the crematorium.

Ford plans the Memphis business as a model for similar “Serenity” brand-name funeral operations he would like to start in possibly 15 to 18 cities across the country. That includes 24-hour viewing access on social media to the cases holding the urns as well as the park they are in and a barcode that presents a review of the life of the person interred.

“What we’d like to do is make sure that we have at least five over the next six months under construction maybe,” Ford said. “We have three more months here to work out all of the change orders. It’s all about putting a plan and taking this model if it works some other place.”

The funeral home includes portraits of Ford’s mother and father, Vera and Newton J. Ford, who raised all 12 of their children to work from an early age at the family business, N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home.

As a child, Ford fixed up a used car and, at age 13, made his first call for the funeral home.

“I’ve always maintained my (mortician’s) license. In my family, I have almost 65 to 70 percent ownership of the family business,” he said, adding that the family business will remain and complement his new effort. “I’ve always been able to run that business from a business standpoint in Washington and Miami, where I live. I’ve had a good crew to sort of manage everything for me. Now, we wanted to go into a different direction.”

That direction, Ford added, is where he believes consumers are already going but the industry has hesitated to go.

The funeral business has changed, with more Americans choosing cremation as an option, and Ford sees a niche in a funeral market in Memphis and other cities dominated by funeral homes that he believes too often discourage cremation because they also sell caskets and traditional burial as part of a package. He believes those who want to be cremated also want an alternative to having their ashes interred at a conventional cemetery.

“The big, corporate structures have not been able to shift into the direction for people to memorialize the ashes,” Ford said. “We thought we would get out on the cutting edge of this and try to address the issue.”

After the formal weekend opening of the funeral home on Sycamore View, Ford was due in Chicago Saturday to secure the financing to move ahead with the same basic business model there. Atlanta and the Virginia-Washington areas are also on the immediate list.

Ford left Congress at the end of 1996, after holding for 22 years the seat that at first covered all of Memphis and then most of Memphis. His departure came two years into the Republican majority in the House. Ford, a Democrat, had been on track before the 1994 Republican majority to probably become chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee. That was what then-House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas predicted during a Memphis visit.

When he left Congress, Ford said repeatedly that he was not retiring. He was also uncertain whether he would like his new calling as a consultant and lobbyist focusing on health care issues. He proved to be just as successful.

The common point of reference in Ford’s move from Congress to lobbyist to funeral home owner is his attention to detail. At Friday’s opening reception, Ford greeted guests at the door and took them on tours of the multiple chapels and the other parts of the shopping center that will be built out soon.

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