27/02/2020

Meet The NI Couple Transforming The Funeral Industry

A L'Derry couple has set out to transform the funeral industry by thinking outside the box.

The death industry as it's cheerily known is not the most obviously appealing when it comes to career pathways, but 'death care tech' hopes to bring the age old sector right into the 21st century.

Leading the way in reinventing how the cemetery and funeral planning industry is managed is local couple Leona and Seán McAllister, whose business Plotbox provides death care management solutions to assist companies involved in the business.

PlotBox is a cloud based management platform offering services including comprehensive mapping of cemetery sites, digital recording and storage of deeds and relevant documents, plot management and memorial management. Along with a whole host of advanced finance tools, the services all run from a single application accessible from any device anywhere in the world. Visitors hoping to trace loved ones can even avail of cemetery maps online to aid them in their search.

The McAllisters first came up with their idea ten years ago, and after a few years of 'hustling' to sell the concept in an antiquated industry, have now successfully extended their reach to the US and Australia as well as N. Ireland.

The couple will be share their unique Start Up Story next week during Derry city and Strabane District Council's Enterprise Week 2020.

Looking back at where they started their journey, Leona recalls the challenges of getting such a niche idea off the ground.

"We always get a few raised eyebrows for being in death care tech!" she admits.

"The idea came about around 10 years ago when my husband, our CEO Seán, was running his Engineering Survey business and he was asked by our local parish to survey the graveyard. He did that, and because it was our Parish he wanted to do a bit extra so he took photographs of the headstones and asked me if I would transcribe the inscriptions. It was a simple concept but an important one that was missing in this industry in terms of being able to link data to plot locations. He had the idea that we could do this service for other Parishes and it just grew from there with PlotBox as you know it now, being created in 2013."

While the idea generated a lot of curiosity, when it came to securing tangible investment, there was a bit more reluctance, a challenge faced by many local fledgling enterprises.
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With a more privatised approach to the funeral industry in the US, however, the McAllisters set their sights on getting established there.

"There was a lot of interest initially," Leona recalls.

"In terms of agencies, we received fantastic support especially from Invest NI and other programs such as those offered by Catalyst Inc. But the markets we operate in are different in terms of approach. They all serve families and they bury and cremate our loved ones, but they often have different models of operating."

The pair found early success in California where there were naturally more early adopters and an openness to technology. Their growth was also boosted by the more privatised industry in the US.

With an expanding team the couple can now be more flexible in the delivery of services, aiding their international growth plans.

"There have been a few challenges over the years in expanding," Leona admits. "In the early days Seán and I would both have had an evening shift to cover support for our clients in the States. Now, especially with Australia, we have the team in place to make sure we are offering support around the clock.

"Culture is another important thing to consider for expansion. It's important for all staff to be the right fit for the company and it can be difficult to achieve a consistent culture so many miles apart. Last year we hired a Head of Talent and Culture to help with that, as well as other initiatives to make sure our staff have a flexible career path, opportunities for travel and more."

With support services for local businesses improving locally, Leona is impressed by the changing environment in NI, and she will be encouraging other small companies to make the leap of faith when she comes to L'Derry next week.

"For anyone hoping to get their idea off the ground, I'd suggest getting connected within the start up world in NI," she said.

The firm is also about to launch the PlotBox Destinations Programme for graduates who get an opportunity to join the business and work in Australia or North America for a year and then come back to NI where they can have a variety of career options within PlotBox.

Those interested can hear more about the Plotbox story when Leona and Seán McAllister share their Start Up experience on Thursday 05 March at Ulster University's Magee Campus.

To register for the event or any of the wider programme of free events taking place during Enterprise Week go to derrystrabane.com/enterpriseweek or register via the What's On Derry Strabane app from Google Play & Apple App stores.


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