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Funeral planning popular as workplace perk

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Few things in life are as tough as planning a funeral.

Just ask Mark W. Duffey, the president and CEO of Everest Funeral Package, a Houston company that provides “funeral concierge” services to a growing number of Americans through their employer-paid life insurance policies.

“My dad died two years ago of cancer,” Duffey recalled recently. “The day he died, a week after his 84th birthday, was a Friday. Everyone knew, everyone was prepared for it. But it just hits you. All of the small things you have to do … everything feels like you’re trying to move a mountain. It’s like trying to run through quick-sand.”

That’s where Everest, which began operations in 2003 and employs about 100 people today, gets to work, tapping its database of every funeral home and cemetery in the U.S. to help arrange all of the nitty-gritty details that can so easily overwhelm grieving survivors.

“Having someone to turn to who you don’t have to worry about, someone who’s not trying to sell you anything. That’s the best experience you can have in what is otherwise a terrible situation,” Duffey said.

That, in a nutshell, is what Everest is about, an ally to the bereaved, an informed, useful source of information, at a cost of just a few premium dollars a month.

The company’s services also have helped address workplace issues such as employee satisfaction and retention.

For employers that offer health insurance, life insurance, free parking and have even grown accustomed to offering child or elder care referral services, it just seems like a good idea to try to ensure employees get help with funeral services.

Everest’s add-on is primarily available through two large group life carriers, Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. and Aetna Life Insurance Co. The company’s benefit is available to 25 million lives through those carriers alone.

“We focus a lot of our attention on our carriers. It’s a great differentiator for them,” Duffey said.

Indeed, carriers can market Everest’s services at little to no extra cost, to give themselves an extra edge in a highly commoditized marketplace.

Hartford, in a 2009 survey, affirmed what instinct already tells us: four out of five employees agreed it would be helpful to have funeral planning, will preparation and estate planning services available through their employers.

“It just was just a logical extension of what we do,” Brad Molinksy, the carrier’s director of product management, said. “It fit nicely with our core product as a tangible benefit. … It really does help people at such a difficult time.”

As good as group life has been to Everest’s business, individual life holds even greater promise, according to Duffey. “We think that’s really where the market is,” he said.

Along those lines, it signed a deal in the fall with World Financial Group, which is owned by Transamerica, so that its 6,000 agents in Canada who sell individual life can now also market Everest’s services.

As many as 3 million funeral policies are sold in the U.S. every year, small policies that cover the cost of a funeral. Everest, Duffey said, would be happy to have 10 percent of that market.

“Group life is big but it’s been static and is actually shrinking,” Duffey said. “The growth is on the individual side.”

One of the big “problems” with traditional pre-need insurance products, he said, is that the funeral home is typically listed as the beneficiary. “So if you move, you’re stuck. Ours is portable and cheaper,” Duffey said.

For individuals, Everest costs less than $50 a year – or $495 as a one-time fee.

But whether it’s actually cheaper to buy might not be as crucial for consumers as what they get from Everest: an advocate who works to negotiate the best price possible and helps them avoid the unwanted extras.

That’s important in an industry that remains dominated by independents, in which prices can vary by thousands of dollars from one funeral home to another, and where operators often prefer not to advertise their prices.

The cost of a funeral can average $6,500, not including a cemetery plot, grave marker or flowers, so “the shopping around we do can pay off. There are no Targets in the funeral business,” Duffey said.

Everest has a team of employees that stays in close contact with funeral homes every day. The team makes more than 100,000 calls a year to ensure Everest’s database of 22,500 funeral homes in the U.S. and another 2,200 in Canada is as up-to-date as possible.

The company’s licensed funeral directors are available round the clock. And because Everest has no financial interest in what products and services are chosen, it can be aggressive in negotiating the best price possible for its customers.

Everest’s services have proven to be a popular workplace perk, Duffey said.

“Good employers want to help their employees in times of distress, but they’re obviously not equipped to always handle everything that comes up. We also really help with presenteeism.”

Which means one less thing for everyone to worry about.

Click here to learn more about Everest.