For Cameron Smock, president and CEO of Bonney Watson — a provider of cemetery, cremation, and funeral services for more than 150 years — few things in his industry are more certain than change and disruption.
“It’s fundamentally changed,” said Smock during an interview in his office at Washington Memorial Park, the company’s flagship cemetery and funeral home, in SeaTac.
Smock, 56, who was hired by Bonney Watson in 1988 to be a licensed funeral director and licensed embalmer before moving his way up through the management ranks to become president and CEO in December 2007.
Situated on a 70-acre, felted green expanse of lawn, the cemetery is tucked between Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and its ancillary hotels and rental car parking lots, where tidy rows of headstones sit in contrast to tidy rows of parked cars that surround it.
“I think a majority of the family-owned funeral providers in our service area, 10 or 15 years from now, probably won’t be here,” Smock added. “It’s challenging.”
Bonney Watson’s roots date back to 1868, when two business partners — Oliver Shorey and A. P. DeLin — opened a shop that sold cabinets and caskets in downtown Seattle. By the early-1900s, Shorey’s brother-in-law, L. W. Bonney, and Harry Watson, the sexton of Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, owned the business following a series of ownership changes, retirements, and successions.
The business relocated from downtown to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in 1912, where it operated for more than 100 years.
Last year, Bonney Watson closed its Capitol Hill location and sold the property to a private developer.
Today, the company employs about 45 people full-time, according to Smock, and about 30 individual descendants from three different families (the Drummeys, Tuttles, and Welches — who purchased the company 100 years ago) own
The business squall Smock portends has headwinds common to many legacy businesses, such as the growing popularity of e-commerce and box stores.
Costco sells caskets online for about $1,000, which is approximately what Bonney Watson pays wholesale for a comparable casket. When staff members meet with a late loved one’s relatives to discuss final preparations, it’s common for one family member to thumb an iPad or smartphone screen searching for caskets, urns, and other funeral furnishings at lower prices.
Industrywide, customers have moved away from traditional — and more expensive — burials and toward less expensive cremations.
“For the past several years, the number of deaths in King County that are cremated has been greater than 75 percent,” Smock said.
Another challenge for Bonney Watson is consolidation. Over the past 30 years, Service Corporation International, a publicly traded company headquartered in Houston, Texas, and the largest funeral-care provider in North America, has amassed (largely through acquisitions) more than 1,500 funeral homes and 400 cemeteries in 43 states — including two dozen in the Puget Sound region.
Bonney Watson also has made consolidation moves to remain competitive — but on a much smaller scale. It acquired Washington Memorial Park and Mortuary in 1978, opened locations in Federal Way and Burien in 1989, purchased Wiggen & Sons Funeral Home in Ballard in 2000, and acquired Southwest Mortuary in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood in 2014, but the Ballard and Burien locations have since closed.
Still, Smock remains cautiously optimistic about Bonney Watson’s future.
He said the company has a stable family ownership, a history of running its operation completely debt-free, and reinvests a sizeable portion of its revenue into capital improvement projects at each of its locations.
Bonney Watson’s Federal Way location has proved to be a needed resource for South Sound families, particularly among African American and Korean American churches and communities.
And the company has recognized, and is responding to, families who increasingly hold funerals at clubs or other casual venues, instead of churches or gravesites.
“We’ve tried very hard to not fall into the mindset that we just need to keep doing what we are doing to be successful,” Smock added. “If we want to be here another 150 years, we need to find ways to create meaningful experiences for families — and articulate them in a way that resonates.”