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A Life Story Is More than a Beginning and an End

Jerry Harty, Herb Ayers, and Jon Durham stand in front of the construction of their new building in the background that will offer commercial and residential space.
Jerry Harty, Herb Ayers, and Jon Durham stand in front of the construction of their new building in the background that will offer commercial and residential space.

By John Fulton

Life Story Network began as a way to change how things had been done in the funeral business for generations. Jon Durham would know.  He is the third generation of his family to operate a funeral home in Vicksburg. He is following in the footsteps of his father, Sheldon Durham and his grandfather, Duane Rupert.

Jon Durham returned home to join the family business in 1986 after receiving a degree in Mortuary Science from the University of Minnesota. Durham surveyed the family business and knew that funerals could be better, perhaps more meaningful. He realized that funerals were still being done the same way they were in 1933 when Grandpa Rupert started. Sheldon and Jon Durham thought they could do more and began by adding personalization to the funeral services by creating memory folders that included an obituary. The initial production of memory folders involved a computer Durham brought home from Minnesota with the printing done at the Vicksburg Commercial. The memory folders were handed out at funeral services and were meaningful to their client families and guests. Everybody wanted one.

Durhams then formed a partnership in 1990 with Herb Ayers.  Ayers owned the Marshall and Gren Funeral Home in Plainwell. The homes were renamed to Rupert, Durham, Marshall and Gren Funeral Homes. These partners soon built a third funeral home in Portage on Lovers Lane.   All three remain in operation today.

Ayers and Durham are visionaries looking for ways to offer more to their customers. ”The big question was if a Life Story could be written for all of their client families and if a Life Story Memory Folder could be produced in a short period of time,” Durham said.  After offering the service on a limited basis they found that everyone had a life story worth telling.  “The true test of success was if writing a life story, scanning photographs and printing a Life Story Memory Folder could be done in time for a funeral,” Durham said.  They found that with practice and teamwork that it could be done.

When the concept really took hold they were designing the Life Story Memory Folders on their own computers and physically taking them to a color print shop.  A huge improvement was when they were able to purchase their first color printer. Over time they have added Life Panels for display, video, web services and more.

In 2002 they decided to expand the vision and offer Life Story Services to other funeral homes. This business began in the basement of their Portage Funeral Home in January of 2003.  Six months later Jerry Harty joined Durham and Ayers as a partner. Now they serve 70 Life Story Network client funeral homes in five states. Before they bring a new product to market they always test services and products in their own funeral homes.

Herb Ayers draws a parallel with Life Story Network Funeral Homes and the 4 gospels in the New Testament.  Ayers says, “Where would we be if the life story of Jesus had not been told?” Durham said, “Everyone’s’ life is significant and their story must be told.  A funeral service should be more about their life than their death.”

Client funeral homes must be committed to building personal relationships not just selling caskets and services. Durham says, “Life Story Network Funeral Homes are the only funeral homes offering this type of service in the United States.  Producing a Life Story requires time and a large commitment to your customers. It is not easy; the funeral home must want to be better.”

In 2010 they purchased a 17,500 square foot factory once owned by Fisher-Graaf Manufacturing at 518 E. North St. in Kalamazoo. The property was part of a brownfield development project.  The trio transformed the facility into a modern, high tech business facility that now houses Life Story Network and has four apartments plus two condos that they occupy along with other tenants. They employ 21 people, eight of which are writers.

The interior of the remodeled facility as it has been turned into working office space for Life Story video and web designers.

They need the modern space to go along with the high speed technology necessary to serve the Life Story Network client funeral homes.  They must excel at turnaround time, and they do.  Everything is produced and back to their client funeral homes in just three hours for funeral directors to review.  Once reviewed all products are completed in just three hours.  Of course they don’t have to drive the products around like they did in 1986.  All of the communication is accomplished electronically.

This is a very relaxed work environment in large rooms without walls and cubicles. The three partners don’t have titles and share the decision making to a great extent. Durham oversees creative areas; Harty supervises human resources and finances, while Ayers takes the lead in customer support and sales.  Life Story Network is a pet friendly environment where the staff and owners bring their dogs to work. Sometimes there are as many as 10 dogs.

Durham says they really like the downtown Kalamazoo community.  The area reminds him of growing up in Vicksburg where there was a sense of community where you helped and knew your neighbors. Durham and his business partners have become involved in the local community and have been giving back in many ways through Ministry with Community and other organizations.

They are still envisioning new things. They have broken ground on a 13,800 square foot building project on their property that will offer commercial and residential space with five apartments.  Both buildings are fully leased even before they were completed and they have a waiting list. The new building is expected to be completed in June 2014.

Life Story Network has spun off a couple of other business.  Creative people love challenges and they wanted to find other ways to use their gifts and skills.  Ignertia was started as an employee owned business to sell their services in video, graphic design, 3D animation and web design to the general business market.  Monumark is another business that develops QR codes for gravestones. QR codes can be scanned by many electronic devices that direct you to a web page that tells the deceased’s Life Story.

The future for Life Story Funeral homes is bright and they are going even further.  “Our goal is to be in 10 states this year and eventually to have member homes in every state in the United States,” Durham said. Currently the funeral home directors interview the client families for the Life Story Memory Folder, but in the future they plan to launch an option for their client families to load the information directly on line.

The exterior of the manufacturing facility turned into Life Story headquarters in Kalamazoo.

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