When people across Belgium were confined to their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19, those employed by funeral services company DELA were sent out into the empty streets to retrieve the bodies of those who had succumbed to the virus in their homes. It was a surreal time that coincided with Sandra Schelleken’s first few months in the CEO role.
"We were confronted with a lot of limitations regarding how funerals could be organised," she tells The CEO Magazine. "That was really, really tough because we know how important it is that everybody has a very good opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones."
The undeniably challenging year was also a period of creative spirit as DELA’s team devised new ways for those unable to attend the funeral to say their farewells. Ideas included placing candles in the windows as the funeral car passed, or making a one-minute stop in front of the deceased person’s house.
We were confronted with a lot of limitations regarding how funerals could be organised. That was really, really tough because we know how important it is that everybody has a very good opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones.
For Sandra herself, it was a challenging time to start in a new role. "I always find it’s very important to be able to connect to customers, to the people in the company, to really get a feeling of what is happening within the company and what is important," she reveals.
"We have about 120 locations but I could not go out and visit them, and our two headquarters were also closed."
Pivoting to an online set-up was therefore key, with the company hosting regular virtual coffee chats, breakfast meetings, video messages and social events.
To Sandra’s advantage was the fact that she had been working with DELA for the 10 years that led up to the pandemic, first with DELA Netherlands as CIO and then Director of Funeral Care before moving to DELA Belgium as Director of Insurance for a year, before taking on the CEO role over there.
Now, with a sense of normalcy restored, Sandra is turning her attention to growth. DELA Belgium currently insures around 900,000 people, and she is confident it will break the one million mark by 2025.
Expansion of its insurance product portfolio is also on the cards, as well as its network of funeral homes. DELA Belgium has grown its market share in the funeral homes market by 10 per cent since 2019 and covers around one-third of Belgium. It currently holds around 12,500 funerals a year.
Perfect service can only be achieved with colleagues who feel really rewarded at work, who feel happy at work.
"It’s important for us to be able to offer our funeral services nationwide but that will take a little more time," Sandra admits, offering 2030 as a realistic target. "But in the meantime, we want to keep on growing our market share like we have done in the past years."
DELA’s scale and long-established history enables it to offer consistency, transparency and high quality to its clients, particularly when compared to other smaller players in the space. Nonetheless, it is continually improving its services in recognition of the importance of the funeral process.
This is where the company culture comes in, with Sandra placing great emphasis on this pillar of the business.
"Perfect service can only be achieved with people who feel really rewarded at work, who feel happy at work," she insists. DELA’s customer satisfaction scores show that the company is on the right track with a net promoter score of 81 for funeral care.
"And we were also proud to win the global award for world class workplace from Effectory this spring," Sandra says.
As DELA seeks to build on this, technology will play a big part, enabling clients to easily see all of the arrangements at the click of a button, helping to remove any unnecessary stress and allowing those far away to participate in the planning process.
These initiatives follow DELA’s earlier foray into technology with the launch of its highly successful mourning app a few years ago, which is designed exclusively for children.
Sustainability is also a major focus. "DELA is a cooperative and so we stand for solidarity. We were founded on the strength of the collective and the fact we care for each other, and that also means contributing to a better world," Sandra explains.
"Therefore we really want to make socially responsible choices and we also actively want to contribute to making the whole funeral care industry more sustainable."
Reducing CO2 emissions forms a cornerstone of this plan with DELA Belgium committed to reducing its carbon footprint. "At the moment we are selecting our new corporate clothing. It will be made from sustainable materials and the old clothing will be reused as laundry bags," Sandra says.
"We’re also preparing to do energy scans of all our funeral homes in order to find out where to improve our CO2 emissions. Also we embrace the development of sustainable coffins, like the living coffin made from the underground fungal network of mushrooms. This is a a valuable source for new life."
Being both a life insurer and a funeral care company, our business is quite diverse. It means we work with a wide range of suppliers, from the very big world-wide IT suppliers to the local church.
"Being both a life insurer and a funeral care company, our business is quite diverse. It means we work with a wide range of suppliers, from the very big world-wide IT suppliers to the local church," Sandra says.
"Among our suppliers are some important strategic partners, with whom we have been working together for years and in the last few years we’ve been putting emphasis on using the same strategic partners in all three countries where we are present."
Sandra says the company does this in order to safeguard its corporate identity and seek like-minded synergies. "Growth United helps us group wide in developing our strategy and carrying it through to operational reality," she explains.
"I think it’s important to have a really open relationship with these strategic partners. They should feel free to give us feedback on how to improve the way we do business with them.
"I always insist on a very high professional level and this can only be built on mutual trust. Also I look for partners that are authentic, customer-oriented and who really want to build a cooperative relationship."