On a funeral home's anniversary, a celebration of life

By Ray Lope, John Sullivan

A parade may seem like an odd way to celebrate a funeral home’s centennial. But this and other community events sponsored by Wm. Sullivan & Son brought recognition and honors to this Michigan business.

In 2006, our family business, Wm. Sullivan & Son Funeral Directors, marked its 100th anniversary. As the special year approached, we decided to celebrate the occasion by showcasing our commitment to the metro Detroit communities we serve.

Wm. Sullivan & Son Funeral Home is the oldest business in Royal Oak, Mich. We have a long history of active involvement in greater Royal Oak as well as in Utica, Mich. William Sullivan founded the business in 1906. William’s son James joined his father in 1932 and in 1939 relocated the funeral home to its present location. James’ sons William and John came into the business as licensed funeral directors in the 1960s, and son-in-law Raymond Lope entered the family business in 1973. The fourth generation, Michael Lope, joined in 2006, our 100th anniversary year. The Royal Oak home has undergone three expansions; the Utica branch was added in 1969. To date, we have conducted more than 30,000 funeral services.

Although people might not normally think of a funeral home as a place for celebration, it is the Wm. Sullivan family tradition to make the funeral service another opportunity to celebrate the lives of our loved ones. We wanted to emphasize that message in our anniversary year. That’s why we kicked off the festivities by cosponsoring Royal Oak’s Holiday Magic Parade in November 2005.

A time for reflection

Our 100th anniversary offered a great opportunity for us to reexamine the family business. We took time to think about how we wanted to move forward. Our family brainstormed about how to best approach the celebration and considered many ideas. We decided to become more proactive in communicating with the communities we serve.

As a first step, we created an anniversary logo and tagline that conveyed our family tradition: “Celebrating 100 Years: From Our Family to Yours.” We used the anniversary logo and tagline consistently in all our communications throughout the year. We also used archived files and photos from past anniversaries as the foundation for our marketing materials.

Next, we planned a calendar of events. In choosing among possible activities, we had a simple goal: to ensure the regions we serve would recognize our celebration and understand the role we’ve played in the community. We wanted people to take notice.

In 2005, we were asked to cosponsor Royal Oak’s annual Holiday Magic Parade, a televised event presented by the Downtown Development Authority. We were saluted as Royal Oak’s oldest family-owned business, and the mayor gave our family the keys to the city. Eleven family members participated in the parade. We were thrilled to play a major role in an event that brought joy to the community.

We were also a sponsor of Royal Oak’s Veterans War Memorial Monument Relocation Project and participated in the rededication ceremony on Sept. 30, 2006. We helped coordinate and facilitate the manufacturing and engraving of the memorial’s bronze plaques and granite monuments, securing a cost savings of several thousand dollars.

Early in the 100th year, we helped to create a memorial to honor Utica’s volunteer fire department, where John Sullivan served as a volunteer firefighter from 1969 to 1975. The village of Utica’s first siren, purchased in December 1925 and put into service in January 1926, was refurbished and moved from atop the former City Hall. The siren was affixed on a quartz slab donated by Wm. Sullivan & Son and placed on a permanent memorial in front of the Utica fire department building.

In honor of Veterans Day 2006, our Utica location dedicated its new flagpole to the veterans of Macomb County, Mich. U.S. Rep. Candice Miller spoke at the ceremony and presented a flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol as well as a proclamation honoring our 100th anniversary. The mayor of Utica and the president of the Vietnam Veterans of Utica also spoke. The color guard from Selfridge Air Force Base was present at the ceremony, which included music provided by the local high school band. Our Royal Oak location also received a proclamation honoring our anniversary from U.S. Rep. Sander Levin.

Creating awareness

In 2005, we heard about a small business in Northern Michigan that had commemorated its 75th anniversary with a local newspaper supplement. This sparked the idea that Wm. Sullivan & Son could do something similar—or even larger in scope.

Leveraging our family’s long-standing relationships with our local newspapers, we asked the publishers of the Royal Oak Daily Tribune and the Macomb Daily to consider a 100th-anniversary supplement. We gathered information from our 50th-anniversary celebration, old family photos and interesting facts on how the family business evolved over the past 100 years and how the legacy continues. The papers also drew on their own archives to create an outstanding keepsake detailing the history of Wm. Sullivan & Son Funeral Directors, which included advertisements and messages of support from other local businesses.

We also worked with a public relations agency to help spread the word about our anniversary. More than 12 articles appeared in local daily, weekly and business publications about our events and our business, and we were mentioned on Detroit talk radio stations.

At our two locations, we created lobby displays to showcase our history and distributed the 100th-anniversary newspaper supplement to funeral home visitors. On our website, we showcased historical photographs and a timeline. We also made presentations to the Women’s Club of Royal Oak and other community groups.

Celebrating every day

In an age when many local funeral homes are being acquired by large corporations, we are excited to continue our tradition as a leading funeral service provider dedicated to attending to the needs of families in a personal, caring and distinguished manner.

In recognition of our innovative and creative anniversary celebration, Wm. Sullivan & Son was one of nine funeral homes that received a “Best of the Best Award” from the National Funeral Directors Association at its annual convention in October 2006.

Through our outreach, many community members have learned more about the history of our family business. Thousands of them watched our family as we received the keys to the city in the Royal Oak parade. After articles appeared in the local papers about our events, we heard from families and local Chamber of Commerce members who had read the stories. We also received recognition from political leaders for our long-standing commitment to the community.

Most important, we achieved our goal of ensuring that the communities we served would recognize our celebration and understand the role we’ve played in the region. We look forward to continuing our tradition of serving families for many years to come and will starting planning for the next anniversary celebration soon.

Brothers-in-law Ray Lope and John Sullivan are third-generation co-owners of Wm. Sullivan & Son Funeral Directors in Royal Oak, Mich., and Utica, Mich. (www.sullivanfuneraldirectors.com).

Tips for celebrating a special anniversary

• Set a budget, but be flexible if an interesting opportunity comes along.

• Engage marketing and public relations professionals to help formulate and execute a strategic plan.

• Work with public officials to have the anniversary celebration recognized.

• Think outside the box; develop ideas that will be noticed.

• Plan a variety of events that will attract attention, and use public relations to seek exposure from local media.

• Consider updating your corporate logo and advertising to tout the anniversary.

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Summer 2007

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