Posted: December 01, 2011

CEO of the Year: John Horan

Building Horan & McConaty has been an undertaking steeped in meaning

Mike Taylor

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John Horan often tells employees to think of their job like landing an airplane. The surface on which they're touching down is not a hard, physical surface, but an emotional, often delicate one.

"We don't get a second chance to get it right," says Horan, the CEO and president of Horan & McConaty, a fifth-generation provider of funeral and cremation services in the Denver area. "Our mission is to provide unsurpassed levels of compassion and professionalism during some of the most difficult and painful times in people's lives. We have to get everything right."

Horan & McConaty is the largest independent funeral-service provider in Colorado, with eight locations in the Denver area and about 100 employees. It provides funeral services for about 20 percent of the deceased in the Denver area - about 3,000 funerals a year.

But Horan has also told employees - he calls them co-workers - that it's not important to be the biggest. Only to be the best. It is clear he finds great meaning and fulfillment in his life's work, as when he talks about the important role of ritual and ceremony in the grieving process or the opportunity he has to make an impact during such a vulnerable time in people's lives.

It's also not surprising that Horan says hiring the right people is the most important part of his job. When he took over the business 25 years ago - buying McConaty Mortuaries with money cobbled together from his parents, himself and his wife, Andrea, a mechanical engineer - it consisted of about a dozen employees and served about 500 families a year.

"I had more problems on a day-to-day basis than I have now, when we are now almost six times larger," Horan says. "The difference is the people we have here."

Horan & McConaty is the story of a family business restored - by John Horan. Olinger Mortuary had been in Horan's family since 1890, and for a brief time, as a 26-year-old, Horan was the CEO. But less than a year into his reign, his grandfather died in 1984, leaving no provision for transferring ownership of the business. It was sold to the highest bidder, a national chain, to pay estate taxes.

"At the time I saw my future dissolving in front of my eyes," says Horan, who had earned a degree in business from the University of Colorado. Rejecting offers to continue as president, he spent the next year and a half figuring out his future. He considered a dual career of fire fighting and real estate development. But then he began meeting with Joe McConaty, owner of a family mortuary business dating back to 1911 in Denver.

"I spent most of 1985 and part of 1986 attempting to convince Joe McConaty that he needed to sell his business to a kid like me," Horan recalls. "Joe and I would sit in a back room at Patsy's Restaurant on 36th and Navajo. Finally one day Joe said, ‘I've made an important decision. I'm going to sell my business, and you're going to be the buyer.' I said, ‘Well, Joe, we haven't agreed on any of the terms.' He said, ‘We've agreed on the things that are the most important. We'll agree on everything else.' And we did."

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Horan spent the first year immersed in every aspect of the business, one he'd grown up in: arranging and directing services, transferring the deceased in the middle of the night, embalming, even vacuuming.

"I thought that the best way for me to lead was by example," he says. "It took over a year for me to realize that for the most part I didn't have the right people on the team. I had people who were comfortable with mediocrity - at least mediocrity as I define it. I began encouraging people to realize their futures elsewhere. Some chose to do this on their own, which was great. That gave me the opportunity to attract some of the best and brightest in the field, people who I know have the sense of passion for this work that I do, who are capable of the kind of excellence that I expect."

Though he says he's not prone to joining groups, Horan has been chairman of the board of the Denver Hospice since 2002, an organization that serves 800 patients and families a day who are dealing with end-of-life issues.

"John just has this unique ability to put his arms around people and intensely respect them, love them, and get them to become engaged," says Wayne Nielsen, a vice chairman on the Denver Hospice board and president and CEO of W.G. Nielsen & Associates, who has known Horan about 10 years. "He looks at people and asks, ‘How do we bring their talent, their expertise to the table? And how do we enrich those people in the process? I've not seen this talent often in this community. There are others, but John is one of the shining lights."

Nielsen tells the story of one of his own vendors losing a son in a drive-by shooting. The father was especially distraught because he had no way to pay for a funeral. So Nielson called Horan.

"John knew the resources available to get this person buried with respect, to have a real ceremony and to be respectful of this person's life regardless of his circumstances," Nielsen says. "It brought great peace to the family. And he didn't delegate it to somebody. He said, ‘Here's how to do this. Let me make a phone call.' There's not many people like that."

Horan's paternal grandfather was once assistant chief of the Denver Fire Department, and Horan & McConaty, a ColoradoBiz Top Company winner in 2010, has long covered the funeral services for firefighters and police officers killed in the line of duty.

"They're the first people to step up," says Denver Fire Chief Eric Tade. "They meet with both the department and the family and tell them, ‘The last thing you guys should be worried about is the funeral process or arrangements or financial implications of that. And they've underwritten the entire cost of the funeral for the families. Not only do they take a huge burden off the families, they take quite a bit off the department, too. It's worth far more than the actual monetary value of the service."

Though Horan describes Horan & McConaty's growth as tortoise-like, it has grown steadily every year. Revenues have increased about tenfold since his first year in 1986. Still, he says, "I find myself much more interested in reading the surveys that families send us than in reading financial statements. It gives me a better sense of our future, of where we're going."

Regarding that future, Horan is keenly aware of demographic and behavioral changes, such as the trend toward cremation - especially in Colorado where about 60 percent of the deceased are cremated compared with 40 percent nationwide. To accommodate this choice, Horan in 2002 built the Cremation Gardens at Rocky Mountain Memorial Park, a serene and picturesque setting on the grounds of Horan & McConaty's main office on Dartmouth Street and Hampden Avenue. Horan himself often goes there to take calls on his cell phone, or to simply sit and think.

Then there's what Horan describes as "the first death-free generation in the history of humankind."

"The baby boomers are the first generation where it has become common to live into your 50s and not experience the death of a parent, a sibling, a spouse or a child," Horan explains. "Baby boomers are far less compelled to follow the traditions of their parents and their grandparents. There are times when I think that's a blessing and times when I think that's a curse. I think there's some value in tradition because tradition has evolved over centuries and generations, borne out of human experience."

Horan says he's seen a rapid growth of support groups, and one of those is HeartLight Center, a nonprofit community "grief support center" on the grounds of Horan & McConaty's main office.

"We're seeing increasing numbers of people who never adequately grieved when someone died, the thought being, ‘Well, I'm going to just pick myself up and move on,'" Horan says. "It's not that easy. The degree to which we have loved is commensurate with the degree to which we feel grief for that person. And one of the things I love about my work is to be with families at these sacred times and to help organize something that will bring deep meaning and give them comfort and help them move forward in this process."
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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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Readers Respond

This is quite a story of a very impressive man and company! I wasn't familiar with Horan and McConaty since I don't live in the Denver area but this story reminds me how business...and taking care of people...go hand in hand. It's a good thing - and not always easy to find in this day and age. By Rhonda on 2011 12 05

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