Recession-proof and slow and steady it may be... but the funeral business isn't for everyone: Melville Morgan's Nick Berryman
Melville Morgan's Nick Berryman speaks to John Mulgrew about the family firm and how it takes empathy to cope with grief
It's not a business for just anybody," says Nick Berryman - the boss of family-owned funeral business Melville Morgan. The 46-year-old businessman, who spent his formative years working in Japan and has also worked for some of Northern Ireland's biggest engineering firms, took over at the helm of his wife's family business almost two decades ago.
And unlike many business owners, the father-of-two says he thinks the UK will prosper once it leaves the EU.
Nick, who is originally from Chiswick in west London, has expanded his wife Rosie-Anne's family firm since he joined. Earlier this year, it rebranded from Melville & Co to Melville Morgan.
The father-of-two, who worked for firms including FG Wilson, now Caterpillar, was asked by his father in-law Raymond to work in the family business.
The company has two main strands, and also includes Morgan Removals, which is now Morgan Document Security. "We look after people's hard drives, we deal with solicitors and accountants. We act as their filing cabinet," he said.
The funeral business has grown to five branches under the Melville Morgan brand, including locations at York Road, Lisburn Road, Holywood Road and Ballysillan Road in Belfast, along with another in Bangor.
The firm also owns Bobby Morrison funeral directors in Lisburn.
Melville Morgan now has 25 full-time and part-time staff based across the business. And like any business, it has moved with the times - though some things never change.
"When I came in back in 2000, there were no computers. There was just a typewriter downstairs," Nick said.
"We now have computers, we have added to our staff and we are just on our second fleet of cars and are running Jaguar limos and hearses.
"The core of what Melville Morgan has always been, that's the core thing that we have preserved.
"Every funeral is still organised by pen and paper. When you are sitting down with a family, you don't want to flipping up a laptop.
"It's extremely rewarding. You are sitting down with people when they are very emotional.
"It's listening to what each family wants, treating them with respect, and making sure that day is meaningful for them. There is a lot of satisfaction derived from everyone that works here, from that process.
"You have to get used to people looking over your shoulder, to make sure you don't put a foot wrong. You can't go back to the family and say, 'we'll redo this'. You have to get it right first time."
And he said the business of death and dealing with the final journey an individual will make isn't for everyone.
"It's not a business for just anybody. The family don't want us to by sympathetic, they want us to be emphatic.
"There are days that are more difficult than others. A child's funeral is always upsetting, no matter how long you have been in the business.
"Day-to-day, we have to be professional. The family don't want to see any of us showing emotion. It is paying tribute to the person that they loved."
Nick was born in Chiswick in 1970 and went to school at King's College.
"From there on, I came to Ulster University in Coleraine, where I studied business with Japanese," he said.
"I had studied business studies in school, and the Japanese economy was growing. It seemed like a good choice. It was another language and I had spent six months out in Kyoto with the degree.
"Through my father's contacts in Japan I worked in a department store for six months and really got to grips with the language.
"I only bumped into two other people who were from English speaking countries in that time.
"They (the company) moved me around and looked after me very, very well. It was excellent customer service orientated.
"The customer is always right to the nth degree. It was excellent grounding."
He then joined generator maker FG Wilson in Larne when it was still a family business before its takeover by American giant Caterpillar.
"When you go into your first company, that's when you discover how little you know about business. It was an excellent grounding in the operation of a business," Nick said.
"My role coming in was purchasing some of the stock parts for generator sets, then I went on to specialised parts for custom made generator sets, which were shipped out worldwide.
"On from there, I became purchasing managing at Daewoo Electronics in Antrim."
He met wife Rosie-Anne during his time at university in Coleraine.
"She was doing European business studies and Spanish," he said.
"She went into the family business, when it was a removals business. There was a lot of work in deep-sea removals and she was dealing with those.
"Their work turned into a lot more corporate work. They then moved into records management."
The company has its roots dating back to 1858, when the then Melville & Company used horsedrawn carriages.
"My father-in-law (Raymond) bought the funeral business about 30 years ago, in the late 1980s, and had grown it slowly over the years," said Nick.
"He then added the Ballysillan Road and Clandeboye Road (Bangor) businesses. We bought the sites and put in two purpose-built funeral homes. I came in after I reached a peak in Daewoo, at that stage and in early 2000, my father-in-law desperately needed someone in Melville Morgan who could take the business forward."
His wife Rosie-Anne is a director in both businesses, but mainly works with her father in the investment part of the company, with an oversight over records management and funeral business.
Raymond got his start in the world of business at the tender age of 14.
"He wasn't great at school, and started on vans which were delivering school dinners around Belfast," Nick said.
"They had the contracts for delivering newsprint across Belfast newspapers."
Raymond's father, William Morgan, was in politics - a Unionist MP in north Belfast and a former Minister for Health and Social Services in the 1960s.
Nick has two sisters, both of whom live close to where they grew up in Chiswick. His father, Peter, in his late 80s, is a qualified barrister who spent most of his time as an in-house company lawyer, while his mother, Gillian, passed away seven years ago.
A keen hockey player in his youth, playing for Cliftonville, Nick's family have also followed in his sporting footsteps.
Nick has two sons, Morgan (20) and Sebastian (10).
"Morgan is studying at the University of Stirling, and went on a swimming scholarship and is studying law," Nick said.
Speaking about the company's performance, especially coming through a tough economic landscape over the last few years, Nick said it's a business which is largely unaffected by recession.
"A recession does not adversely effect the death rate. We have a business which is pretty recession-proof," he said.
"Through the boom times, we weren't booming, we were rolling along.
"We are looking to expand, but it is never going to be a business which is going to massively take off. It is slow and steady."
When he's not running the business, which he says you "never switch off from", it's all about his family
"We have just taken interest in what our kids have been doing. Morgan was interested in sports and swimming. That eats into a large part of your week.
"Then you have competitions all over the place. When you are playing taxi driver it takes up a lot of your time. I'm also teaching rugby, which I thoroughly enjoy.
"We also have four dogs. We have Bassets and two Pointers. The Bassets are very laid back, while the Pointers are very affectionate, but they need a bit of exercise."
And on Brexit, he's confident the UK will prosper outside the EU.
"I know it's early days, but I think Brexit will ultimately be a success as UK companies have always adapted to different trading conditions better than businesses from any other country," he said.
"The UK has always been a nation of traders. Brexit will I believe also be of benefit to small businesses."
The company is still looking at opportunities to expand further still, should the opportunity present itself.
"Yes, we are very much interested in doing that again if another site came up in an area we are not in," added Nick.
'It's early, but I think Brexit will be positive'
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. Ensure you always write everything down. Then double and even triple check what you’ve written down.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Make sure you have done in-depth research and know what you are getting into.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. I believe the best decisions become apparent a few years down the line. I’ll let you know five years from now!
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. I have always enjoyed coaching sport, particularly rugby and hockey.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. We regularly visit southern Spain — we love the heat, the relaxation and the slower pace of life. Our last holiday was in Marbella and we hope to head out there again soon.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. My interests all revolve round my family. My Friday evenings are taken up with the Boys’ Brigade.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. I’m a big rugby fan and follow the Ulster team — though I had to give up my season ticket due to my Boys’ Brigade commitments.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. I played rugby, hockey and tennis for my school — King’s College in Wimbledon. I also played hockey at Ulster University in Coleraine and continued my hockey career with university team-mates at Cliftonville Hockey Club.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book
A. I love reading and our house is full of books. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle is an excellent read.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. I would sum up my early life as school, sport and more sport — with some homework squeezed in here and there.
Q .Have you any economic predictions?
A. I know it’s early days, but I think Brexit will be a success as UK companies have always adapted to different trading conditions better than businesses from any other country.
Q. How would you assess your time in business with your company?
A. It’s been extremely rewarding over the past two decades. We have built up a very good small team around which the company can develop.
Q. How do you sum up working in the funeral business?
A. To be part of a professional, small team and produce a service which is meaningful to a family is very rewarding and the letters sent by families attesting to this are always well received by every member of the team.