When Mary Tomes mentioned to a funeral director acquaintance that she wanted a yellow coffin with white daisies on it, she could hardly have imagined where the chance remark would lead. Told there was no such thing – and never one to take no for an answer – she spotted a business opportunity, and in 2004 used her expertise and knowledge from the family print business to launch Oxford-based Colourful Coffins. Today, as the company celebrates its first decade by breaking through the £1 million barrier, she is recognised as an award-winning businesswoman and industry pioneer.
Born into an Army family in Caterham, Surrey, Tomes’ first foray into Oxford was when she was four years old and her father was stationed just outside the city. The area obviously made a big impression because, after several more postings countrywide, her father left the Army and returned to Cowley to set up his own printing business, Parchment Printers. Tomes finished her education with a fashion apprenticeship at the Oxford College of Further Education, before embarking on a stint as an in-house model for several of the city’s big stores. Marriage at 19 and the arrival of son Bob curtailed her modelling and travelling commitments and she decided to join the family business, taking over after her father died when she was 40. Having met second husband Kevin, she remarried in 1973 and today Kevin is chief designer, while both Bob and daughter Kate work in the family business. In 2010, Mary won the inaugural Gaia Award at the prestigious NatWest everywoman Awards and was proud to be awarded the first Fellowship of the Society of Bereavement Practitioners.
Tell us how a casual remark about a coffin led to a million-pound business
As printers we did a lot of work for local funeral directors and I just happened to mention that I wanted a pretty coffin. When he said they didn’t exist, I was quite surprised. I was approaching my 60s and looking to step back from the print business, but I wanted something to keep me busy. I talked to Kevin about the idea of launching a business designing bespoke, personalised picture coffins and once he’d got over the shock, he could see it was a great idea. It’s been hard work and a long road, but now I really believe colourful coffins are finally coming of age.
Presumably you knew very little about the funeral trade, was it easy to break into?
Not at all. The funeral business is still very traditional and being a woman with a new idea made it even more difficult. The vast majority of coffins are still bought through funeral directors, so we had to persuade them that there was a market for colourful picture coffins and that they shouldn’t be afraid to offer something that was so completely different to what was already available. When you think that for years they had been selling what were effectively “plain brown wooden boxes” the idea of a beautiful coloured picture coffin that was personalised to celebrate the life of an individual was very different and quite hard for them to take on board at first. We still sell exclusively through funeral directors and many of them are now great supporters of what we do.
Were you ever tempted to give up?
Do you think you’ve changed the way people think about coffins?
I’d like to think so. In the past 10 years, we’ve introduced personalised colourful cardboard ones, we’ve added a new range with sparkles and glitter, and we’ve even developed online tools so people can upload their own pictures into a template to design their own. It’s something that more and more people are doing now, in the same way that they plan their funeral and choose their favourite music or readings, now they are choosing their coffins too.
I think the media has helped make it less of a taboo subject too. We’ve been fortunate enough to be on TV several times and in newspapers and magazines, so it always gets people talking. We’ve also noticed a real increase in interest since Hayley in Coronation Street chose a flower-patterned coffin for her funeral and her “mourners” dressed in bright colours. It’s all about changing peoples’ perceptions and I hope we’ve helped to do that.
What’s the most unusual design you’ve ever had to do?
That’s probably the question I get asked more than anything else. We’ve had dolphins swimming in a sea of chocolate, crossword puzzles, graffiti designs, sporting celebrations and montages of family photos. We can do any design that a family asks the funeral director for and they often send in photos or drawings for us to use, sometime they come and see us as well and talk to our designers. My view is that if the design is very special and means something to a family, then who are we to say it is unusual or not. I might think a request is a bit different, but then I meet the family and discover the story behind it, which is lovely – you almost feel you get to know the loved one they have lost. For us, it’s all about celebrating a life by remembering the person as an individual.
Where do you get your determination to succeed from?
My father. My brother and I were very fortunate; when we were growing up our parents talked to us about what was going on in the world, current affairs, politics, we would always be included and that made me very curious.
They also taught me about the world of books and rather than read something like Treasure Island, I would much prefer a good autobiography or travel book, I always wanted to find out more.
Is there a secret to your success?
I think it’s the fact that in launching the concept of colourful coffins, we found something which hadn’t been done before. It took a long time for the market to embrace it, but we are finally there and, most importantly, we’ve never lost that personal touch. It’s never been about the money and it’s not about the product itself, it’s always been about the families. I think people have finally grasped that and understand us now.
It’s very much a family business, does that work well?
It does, Kevin is a great designer and he looks after all the creative and technology side, Bob is on the road in sales, so he spends a lot of time with the funeral directors, and Kate is involved in customer care. It makes it very personal, which is perfect for the business we are in.
What’s your greatest achievement?
It has to be winning the Gaia Award, which was for the most inspirational and successful female entrepreneur running a business with a clearly defined social and/or ethical purpose at its heart. I was so proud of what we had achieved and the award wasn’t just for me, it was for all the team who have worked so hard. They’ve been incredibly loyal and I couldn’t have done it without them.
I’m also very touched by many of the wonderful letters we receive from families, it makes my job very special, knowing in some small way we’ve helped brighten their lives on a very sad day.
You’re committed to charity fundraising; I believe you’ve just founded a new charity?
Yes, we’ve raised money for charities such as Oxford Children’s Hospital and bereavement charity SeeSaw. Now we’re involved in the launch of a new charity called the Child Funeral Charity (www.childfuneralcharity.org.uk), which is very exciting. I’m a co-founder and trustee, together with some like-minded colleagues from the funeral industry. We’ve all been involved in helping families arrange a funeral for a baby or child and we’ve seen what an emotionally difficult time it can be. We launch this summer and we’ll be working with professionals such as midwives, bereavement nurses, hospices and funeral directors, who can refer a family to us for financial support if they feel they are struggling with the pressures of paying for their child’s funeral.
Losing a child is bad enough, coping with additional costs for the funeral can be devastating. It’s not a bereavement charity, there are many of those which do an excellent job, this is about giving financial support at a time of greatest need and we hope it will make a real difference.
Between work and the charity launch you don’t have much downtime, but away from the office, what do you like to do?
I love dancing – Kevin and I met at a dance, he was in the United States Air Force and had been posted to RAF Croughton. Last year we celebrated our ruby wedding and we still love dancing together. I also like travelling and gardening, plus I’m grandmother to Bob’s three children and Kate’s little boy, and I enjoy playing with them. I’m also a carer for my mum, who’s 92, so what with running the business full time, I’m never idle.
You’ll be 70 next birthday, time to slow down?
Absolutely not. I couldn’t think of anything more awful than stopping work one day and never feeling the thrill of wondering what the day had in store. There’s no substitute for a good day’s work and the thrill of the competition; that’s what I enjoy.