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Entrepreneurs Panel

Julie Meyer
Richard O'Sullivan
Debbie Pierce
Jennie Johnson
Brian Hay
Laura Tenison
David Pollock
Tony Caldeira
Steve Purdham
Charlie Mullins
Jeremy Roberts
Michael Oliver

Mike Cooper reveals...

He’s the funeral plans entrepreneur who first knocked ’em dead in the telecoms business. Kirsty Hewitt puts on her most sombre face and tries not to giggle inappropriately as Mike Cooper reveals...

Death, it appears, is not quite the taboo that the chattering classes would have us believe. If Mike Copper’s funeral plan business, Avalon, is anything to go by, we’re actually planning our own send-offs with a precision of which the Pharaohs would have been proud.

Avalon Trustee Company was founded in 1994 and since its creation it has helped thousands of people organise their own memorial service.

But, Cooper says, the firm would never have existed had he not closed a deal worth around £150,000 in an entirely different market in the early 1990s.

Cooper – a career salesman – started out selling insurance with Norwich Union but it was starting his own telecoms company that provided him with the cash to create Avalon.

When he left his role in insurance to start Corporate Communication Specialists (CCS) in 1991 at the tender age of 25, the world of communications was just beginning to change: the deregulation of BT had just come into force and analogue telephone signals were being replaced by digital.

Cooper says a lot of people thought he was mad to leave a well-paid job as a sales manager to go into business with no guarantees but suggests this is one of the things that spurred him on – he wanted to prove he could do it.

When the enterprise was just three months old he managed to negotiate an exclusive deal to resell Ferranti digital telephone systems.

After visiting “lots and lots of businesses”, Cooper says he managed to close a deal with an IT company worth just under £150,000. This, he adds, was gross revenue for the firm and meant CCS’s business plan for two years was achieved in just one deal.

He says, “You have to have a good product or service, something you believe in, but this is meaningless unless you convey it in the right way, positively, with enthusiasm.” The contract meant he was able to enjoy a hefty bonus and a larger pay packet but, instead of splashing the cash on cars or “fancy holidays”, he put the money to one side and this, coupled with savings (before he left his insurance job he was picking up a salary of around £100,000), was what he used to start Avalon – making it, he says, his best deal.

Cooper says he did not use any loans or overdrafts to get the Avalon business off the ground; instead he used his own savings and profits from CCS to fund the venture.

He told EN he had the idea for Avalon when he realised people could buy pre-paid funeral plans in Europe but not in the UK so, spotting a gap in the market, he decided to act.

Avalon had a turnover of £6.5 million for the year ending 2010, a figure that Cooper forecasts will increase to £11 million by the end of this year. The company employs around 120 people and has offices in both the UK and Spain.

He says the recent downturn has not dented profits – if anything it has increased them. He explains, “People are more cautious, they are not making frivolous payments, they are not going on holiday in the same way as they did and are looking to put their future in order.”

He told EN everything he does is about “sowing the seed, germinating and growing the business” and this is why Avalon caters for both the rich and the poor (with plans starting at £2,695).

“We have assimilated the products to match different market places, we’ve learnt to adapt; we have not become a dead dodo,” he says.

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