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Overcoming Tragedy to Lead Triumphantly

Robert Seelig, CEO and Founder, Catholic Management Services

After suffering a tragic loss early in life, Robert Seelig’s journey has come full circle; today, as CEO and Founder of Catholic Management Services, he understands more than ever why he is here, where he is going, and that faith can make all the difference.

After suffering a tragic loss early in life, Robert Seelig’s journey has come full circle. Today, as CEO and Founder of Catholic Management Services, he understands more than ever why he is here, where he is going, and that faith can make all the difference.

Robert Seelig was only four years old when his father committed suicide – an event that would forever impact his life. “Growing up, I continually questioned the meaning of life and why we lose the people we love,” he recalls. In high school, Seelig began to explore his faith and entered the Catholic Church at age 19, but it was his time at Loyola Marymount University and his exposure to Jesuit teaching that would ultimately strengthen his faith foundation and help him begin to answer many of the questions he struggled with.
After college, Seelig married and transitioned into the family business on his wife’s side. “I was a good leader/manager, plus I was good with numbers and finances even though I hadn’t studied accounting,” he says. “I started opening offices on the West Coast and really growing the company over a period of ten years before eventually taking it over.” Despite all his success, Seelig felt there was something missing. “I had this strong calling to connect my daily work with my faith.” When the Diocese of Oakland was seeking a new leader to manage their struggling cemeteries, it wasn’t quite what he had envisioned, but he felt compelled to rise to the challenge.
To date, Seelig has made a significant impact on the mission and vision of Catholic Management Services (CMS), and through his focus on quality as well as community engagement, he’s not only revitalized the end-of-life ministry, he’s expanded it. CMS staff members now support over 30 active cemeteries conducting 10,000 burial services each year, as well as 10 funeral centers.
Read more about how Seelig’s unique “shared services” model has reinvigorated a vital ministry that is producing positive financial results while providing much-needed help and service to families in their time of grief.

REALM: Had you always planned on a career in business management?

RS: In college I chose political science as a major because I was very interested in how the world worked. I didn’t have any interest in going into public office, but people often told me I should become a lawyer. I met my wife during my senior year and my plan was to get my graduate degree and eventually teach. Once we got married and started having children, I suddenly realized the responsibility I had to take care of my family. I decided to go to work for the family business on my wife’s side with the continued thought that I would go back to graduate school. After I was on board they asked me to run the office, and then they wanted me to take over the company. In many ways I was “anti-business” going into college and now I was confronted with the opposite -- running a company, figuring out how to grow it, handling finances, etc. I had been in leadership roles throughout high school and college, so it was a very natural fit. I bought the company from my in-laws and a few years later, a publicly owned company made an offer to buy it. While I was torn about what to do, I realized that my heart wasn’t into doing this for the rest of my life. I wanted to find something more professionally meaningful, so I saw this as an opportunity to sell the company.

 

From there, I went to work for U.S. Filter for five years as a regional vice president. The corporate experience was good, but I soon began looking around for opportunities in the non-profit sector. A friend who worked for the Oakland Diocese told me about their cemetery system, how it was losing money and that they were looking for someone with a faith background, as well as a business background, to turn it around. When they contacted me I wasn’t too excited because, after all, who would want to work with cemeteries? As I thought more about it, the job became more appealing. It didn’t require a lot of travel and that meant more time with my family. I also became quite curious about why these cemeteries were losing money and whether people really saw them as being relevant today.

REALM: When you were at U.S. Filter, and searching for a new opportunity that would make a meaningful difference, what things had you considered?

RS: For the most part, I was trying to figure out how to bring my faith into my work. Being in a publicly owned company, I had to respect all faiths. God can be a part of the organization and workday in a very silent presence. People knew me for who I was and how I carried myself, but it was more about how I could connect my daily work with my faith, and in a sense feel like I could breathe a little bit more. An organization like Catholic Charities was interesting to me; however, I wasn’t by any means actively running around trying to find anything. Even when the opportunity with the cemeteries happened by chance, it took me six months to decide to take the job. The Diocese had been searching for quite some time, so the Chair of the Board was patient and gave me time to discern my decision. I got strange looks when I told U.S. Filter I was leaving to manage cemeteries. Many people didn’t understand because it was so drastically different. The Diocese saw me as a fresh thinker and young talent – in fact; I was one of the youngest in the entire organization of sixty employees.

REALM: How did the transition go and what was it like taking the helm at such a young age?

RS: While the organization had great people who really wanted to minister and serve families, I found a lethargic, rigid structure. I was the “young guy” asking them to explain why we do what we do. People couldn’t answer that question without saying, “this is how we have always done it.” I could not accept that answer. My job was to come in and figure out why they were in our current position, so I started digging deeper. As a 36-year-old walking in, I knew I would get push back from employees who had been there for a long time. Many of the office staff had spent their entire career in this job, so I represented significant change.

REALM: When you first came on board, what were some of the most important things you needed to focus on?

RS: First was getting engaged in the community. I found we were a somewhat unknown organization operating in our community. I wanted to go right out to the parishes where families were practicing their faith to make sure they understood the connection of the cemetery as a small sacrament and that a funeral is a sacred rite. We needed to be a resource to families and let them know they should plan ahead to alleviate distress when making financial and funeral decisions. I spent a couple of years working on that, reinvigorating relationships so that we could do an even better job serving families. Then, there was the internal work with all our employees. I realized I needed to go right to the heart of the issues, so I immediately jumped in to send a message to them that we were not just going through the motions.

REALM: How did you start turning around the cemetery program?

RS: When I started, we were losing close to a million dollars a year on cemetery operations that served around 2,500 families each year. I had to first figure out what was wrong. While part of that was cost cutting, more importantly, it was about re-envisioning how to structure our management teams at each cemetery. Revenues were going in the wrong direction because the organization was sitting back allowing other companies to take market share away from the Catholic Church. I realized from a branding standpoint that we needed to get out and explain how the cemeteries are nonprofit, charitable organizations that won’t turn families away based on finances, etc. The other companies could not tell this same story. We had families who naturally responded to us and were looking for people they could trust. When parishioners lost a loved one, they would come to their church for the funeral mass and, while planning it, would ask the pastors or parish staff for funeral home recommendations. Because pastors and parish staff have limited time, resources, and understanding of how our cemeteries operate, our organization needed to educate and be a resource to them in order to become a support to parish life. I put together staff to go out to the parishes and do presentations. I also determined that we needed to own our own funeral home. There are over 5,000 Catholic cemeteries in the U.S., and we didn’t own any funeral homes. Publically-owned companies had purchased over 25 percent of the local funeral homes, so there were not a lot of family-owned funeral homes left in the community. On behalf of the Diocese, I purchased a funeral home and that was significant.

REALM: How did you get the Diocese to say yes to that purchase?

RS: To broach the subject of buying a funeral home it was not just me going to the Bishop. I needed to go to him first and explain the need/benefit, and then I had to go present our concept to the priests. Not all were supportive because they had friends who were funeral directors. Despite their push back, I kept building my case for making this something the Catholic Church would own and operate. Once I got the support, we purchased a funeral home and launched our services. It was a tremendous success and as the word spread, I got even more support. We are now building our third funeral center and we have purchased three funeral homes for a total of six. Our full-service model includes a funeral home, crematory and cemetery. For families, offering these integrated resources is not only easier and more affordable, but it ministers to them at this most difficult time. We have since taken this model and provided consulting and advisory services for other Dioceses across the U.S. We’ve added staff in the last couple of years to continue to expand our ministry and we are currently operating in about 18-20 Dioceses nationwide.

REALM: What has been the biggest obstacle?

RS: Capital is certainly one obstacle and that is simply because we are self-funded by the Dioceses we work in. While we charge a management fee that is a percentage of the revenues for a Diocese, we are almost always brought into one that is in financial distress. Because of that, we feel a lot of pressure in the beginning to get the organization turned around. The second obstacle I see is that we’re somewhat disruptive to the existing management structure within a lot of Dioceses. If the cemetery department is losing money, my organization could be perceived as a threat to that director who has spent their whole life operating the cemetery. While we typically add staff rather than cut, there’s still a discomfort within the structure because it’s a shift for the Diocese and the director. My job is to try and be supportive of that director and build a bridge with them, while at the same time inviting some new ideas into how they operate their system. Working in the Catholic Church is very much about relationships, and establishing solid, trusting relationships doesn’t happen overnight.

REALM: If you look back, what would you do differently?

RS: For me, life is a bit of self-discovery as you go. Coming out of college, I didn’t know I would be successful in business or that life would lead me down this path. I have definitely come full circle in dealing with my father’s death and, in addition to serving the Church, I was able to confront many of my personal struggles related to grief and loss.

I have learned a lot of lessons along the way and my focus now is how to figure out the next steps from here, to make good decisions that leave a lasting influence. When I wake up each day, I think about where I can find God in the world and how I can go about interacting with people I meet because I know they are there for a reason. That is very much the philosophical approach I take in work and life and my hope is that I can breathe some life into leaders in other areas and provide support for culture change.

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