The AVBOB Group has been proactive in responding to new COVID regulations and sensitivities around the evolving funeral environment

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, funeral directors have proven to be invaluable to the communities they serve. They have become leaders – and indispensable guides – on how to progress the memorialisation of loved ones through lockdown restrictions that have made it exceptionally difficult to grieve using traditional and cultural practices.

Carl van Der Riet AVBOB CEO

The rapid increase in new COVID-19 infections and mortality during the second wave placed immense pressure on SA’s funeral industry. In tandem, AVBOB has been cognisant of the financial plight of many of its insurance and funeral-service customers. As a mutual society, AVBOB has provided its members with R260 million worth of free services, including the execution and arrangement of funerals, the cost of coffins and transportation of the deceased. These benefits are in addition to the value of the funeral-policy cover.

On top of that, and a cost that AVBOB absorbed, is R12 million in PPE that would have been a cost carried by its customers. Yet PPE is merely one aspect of how new COVID-19 regulations have changed the manner in which a body is prepared for burial.

When an undertaker collects the deceased from a family home or hospital, they are now required to wear full PPE. The deceased must be placed in a special body bag before being transported to the mortuary and transferred to a burial coffin. All equipment used during this process must then be disinfected – including the hearse and the outside of the coffin – before coffin bearers, who also need to wear full PPE, can perform their duty. These new procedures, along with strict regulations and protocols, no night vigils and a limited number of attendees at a funeral, have debatably been the most difficult of adaptations that mourners, in increasing numbers, have had to face.

As SA’s leading and largest funeral-service and mutual-assurance society, serving more than 2.3 million policyholders and around 7 million lives, AVBOB observed a steep 54% increase in funerals between July 2020 and January 2021. Carl van der Riet, CEO of AVBOB, says that ‘to meet the greater demands of the day, we engaged a proactive strategy from day one, which included ramping up our manufacture of coffins, caskets and funeral ware at our AVBOB Industries facility in Bloemfontein, and introduced cost-effective ways to ensure family members wishing to attend a funeral could do so using an online streaming service’.

He adds that AVBOB sees ‘online streaming of funerals becoming a more acceptable practice in the future, regardless of when or how lockdown restrictions are eased, and to benefit our members further, we have also adopted other new technologies and innovations that do not add a cost burden to our policyholders’.

AVBOB also bolstered its existing infrastructure by refurbishing shipping containers into mobile mortuaries and distributing these to hotspots across the country. The mobile mortuaries are fully equipped with cooling systems, mortuary racks, lighting, ramps and standby generators. The 24 mobile mortuaries have enabled AVBOB to ensure that it can deal effectively with the growing fatalities of the pandemic.

Another innovation, which was installed by AVBOB in 2019 – prior to the COVID-19 pandemic – is an aquamation facility at the company’s Maitland agency in Cape Town. This is an environmentally friendly alternative to flame-based cremation, using heat, pressure and water with a high alkaline level. Alkaline hydrolysis is an effective process that responds to current times – and which, according to Van der Riet, is included in future plans for roll-out to other provinces. This is the first facility of its kind in Africa.

AVBOB has ensured that its undertakers can perform their duties safely during the pandemic without adding to the cost burden of its policyholders

Also in play, and which is currently being further enhanced, is the introduction of a fully automated new business-sales application that allows AVBOB intermediaries to meet rising consumer needs, with policy documents and schedules issued immediately, regardless of an agent’s location.

AVBOB is a mutual society, meaning it has no shareholders. So instead of paying dividends, it shares surplus profits with its policyholders in the form of special bonuses and free member benefits. Maximising member benefits is at the core of AVBOB’s shared-value proposition. ‘Our unique business model sets us apart from our competitors,’ says Van der Riet. ‘In addition to maximising member benefits, our shared-value business model has enabled us, over decades, to assist entrepreneurs to set up and manage their own AVBOB funeral branches. We provide infrastructure, amenities, stock and vehicles, with no capital outlay expected from the agent. They are also trained and equipped to manage their operation and receive ongoing legal, technical and additional financial support from AVBOB.’

It speaks to the creation of entrepreneurship, more especially in township and rural areas where employment opportunities are constrained. Local businesses are empowered to supply supplementary products and services, such as catering, and organise the provision of cars for the family, fresh flowers or tents.

‘In combination, mutuality and the shared-value model means AVBOB can also invest significantly in corporate social investment programmes and enterprise and supplier development initiatives,’ says Van der Riet. ‘Being a good corporate citizen in the communities in which we operate entails being dedicated to responsible and sustainable approaches to doing business. Relationships are absolutely fundamental to our positioning as a caring member of the community.’

Van der Riet believes that building and maintaining such relationships, as well as AVBOB’s devotion to customer centricity and people-focused values, has elevated its strong brand. ‘The social needs facing our country, especially those in the historically disadvantaged sectors of our society, are considerable,’ he says. ‘Our aim is to ensure we keep our policyholders at the centre of all we do and as such we will continue to engage, listen and respond to different views of all communities to ensure that our decision-making continues to service the needs of the bereaved – now and into the future.’

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