Ronel Talks Money: Sonja Smith

Introduction:

The outbreak of the corona virus that turned into a pandemic and resulting in thousands of people across the globe losing their lives, emphasised that life is not guaranteed and it can be taken away with no warning signals. Talking about death and preparing for death are certainly not pleasant topics, but it is extremely important and something we should pay attention to.  

Sonja Smith started the first fully fletched funeral home in Centurion with a zero bank balance. Today Sonja is a multi-award-winning business woman, an innovative leader in the funeral industry and has grown the Sonja Smith Funeral Group into a successful business having ten branches and franchises across Gauteng. She also made headlines challenging the Constitution of SA with regards to the rights of parents in the case of pregnancy loss.    

Let’s meet:

Name and surname:  

Sonja Smith

Profession / title / business:

Managing Director Sonja Smith Funeral Group (Pty) Ltd

How would you describe yourself?

I am a 57-year old empath with the gift of compassion. Happily married to Rian Janse van Rensburg, who is also my best friend and Financial Advisor. We have 3 children and 3 grandchildren whom we absolutely adore. We love to travel and have been to Mauritius, England, Scotland, Turkey, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Germany, Croatia, The Greek Islands, Australia, USA and Mexico. We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us. I have a passion for being of service to people in times of grief.

Tell us about your business?

I started the first fully fletched funeral home in Centurion with a zero bank balance, a borrowed hearse & lowering device and 3 borrowed coffins. Prior to that I suffered hardship and there was a time in my life when I had no money to even buy a bread. My children went to school without sandwiches and the church looked after us, me being a single mom with two young children at the time.

The journey has been long and the challenges many, but with passion, persistence, and perseverance I worked my way up from gaining experience at 2 of the larger funeral companies during the late 90’s to where I am today. With our unique ‘velvet touch’ approach, the Sonja Smith Funeral Group has grown from strength to strength in the past 14 years. We currently have 9 branches & franchises in Benoni, Centurion, Fourways, Meyerspark, Midstream, Montana, Moot, Moreleta Park and Roodepoort.

Our endearment, personal touch and solace offered, along with the trend-setting influences and corporate social investment efforts, are unparalleled in the funeral industry.

What do you consider your proudest achievements / highlights?

By rolling out my business model through franchising, I have enabled like-minded entrepreneurs to start their own businesses in the heart of the death care industry. For a small investment, they have access to my Intellectual Property, training, support and my 22 years of experience.

Proudest highlights are accolades earned in the business world: I was awarded the Woman in Business Champion of the National Small Business Chamber (NSBC), The Business Excellence Forum Award (BEFA) for The Most Innovative Company and a finalist in the Margaret Hirsch Woman in Business Achiever Awards, all in the same year. Prior to that, I was blessed to be Businesswoman of the Year & Finalist for The Centurion of the Year (both Centurion Business Forum). I currently serve on the Board of Directors at 2 Retirement Centres and was Chairman of the Board of Governors at Centurion Hospice for 2 consecutive years. I am also Chairman of a Home Owners’ Association.

My greatest achievement to date, however is the historic breakthrough I made in challenging the Constitution of SA with regards to the rights of parents in the case of pregnancy loss. I believe that “Not having the choice to bury or cremate their little ones born asleep pre-26 weeks of gestation, is an infringement of the parents’ basic human rights in terms of our Constitution, viz. the right to dignity, equality and privacy.” My groundbreaking court case was heard in the High Court on 14 & 15 November 2019 and we currently await judgement. Hopefully the outcome of this case will result in fetuses miscarried prior to 26 weeks to no longer be discarded as medical waste.

What was your biggest failure or lowest point in your career?

In the early days, I thought I could be everyone to someone. I tried to do the collection of deceased persons by myself, made the funeral arrangements, conducted the services, did the design and printing of funeral programmes and managed the finances. A one-woman-show. Huge mistake!

As an entrepreneur starting a business, it’s easy to take everything upon yourself, especially if you’re young and a start-up. Don’t. As you get your business strategies in order, take a step back to honestly analyse your own strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledge your strengths, but be well aware of your weaknesses. What skills come most naturally to you? What things do you avoid doing because you don’t enjoy them or they frustrate you? Having a good understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses will put you in a position to surround yourself with people who can fill in those gaps. Develop a team of people, employees, partners, or mentors with varying skill sets and experience levels that balance yours in order to set your business up for success.

How did you get back up after failure?

I employed people whose strengths were my weak spots. A good bookkeeper to manage the finances, more staff to loosen my hands to do what I do best. This made the workload lighter, attributed to my personal growth and my company’s growth.

 

They say that love is more important than money, but have you ever tried to pay your bills with a hug? Money is not a synonym of happiness, but life is rough and tough without money! I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt and the scars…

Let’s talk money:

How would you describe your money mind-set?

I believe that every woman should be financially independent. I cannot imagine having to ask my husband for money to buy a pair of shoes. My husband and I have separate bank accounts and we share responsibilities and expenses towards the household. Money for me is a vehicle that enables me to live my dream. My profession is a calling, driven by passion. Marc Anthony said: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” If I had a choice, I would render all my services at no cost to bereaved families, but I have a business to run, salaries and other expenses to pay. This is my reality.

What was your biggest discovery about money?

They say that love is more important than money, but have you ever tried to pay your bills with a hug? Money is not a synonym of happiness, but life is rough and tough without money! I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt and the scars…

To be financially independent, gives you personal freedom. After many years of contributing towards my retirement annuities, I withdrew a portion (1/3) when I turned 55 years old (against my Financial Advisor’s advice). I purchased my first beach cottage, zooshed it up, named it “Roes in Vrede” and started renting it out as holiday accommodation. I am now deriving a passive income stream that I never thought was possible.

What is your view about the importance of budgeting and do you have a budget?  

It is critically important in my business and personal life to have a budget. Yes, I do have a budget. Yet, it is extremely difficult to budget for the number of deaths that will come through my doors on a monthly or annual basis. I own a ‘grudge’ business, one of those services that you “buy because you know you have to [even though] you’d rather spend your money on something else.” You know, we love the peace of mind it buys and we hate what it costs us!

How do you save money?

I use a money market account for an emergency fund. During the last 14 years I have invested a lot of money back into my business. For me, it is important to receive my fragile clients who lost a loved one, in a lovely environment where they can feel at home. I also focused on creating awareness by expanding the brand in order to have a national footprint soon. Personally I save my money in retirement annuities for tax relief, thereby making provision for my retirement. I also invest in property and own a business and personal property portfolio.

What is your favourite investment type / -s?

I have recently discovered the magic of Airbnb. My beachfront property in Witsand, Western Cape is a popular holiday destination of choice and I have now acquired a second property in this lovely coastal town which I rent out as self-catering vacation homes. It is very popular amongst windsurfers and kite-boarders from all over the world who enjoy our “Skuitbaai” when the consistent Southeaster is at its best!

What is your view about having an emergency fund?

The biggest survival tool a business owner can have, because you never know when a Corona can strike again! So many businesses are in dire straits right now and it will take years to recover from the brutal attack of this virus invisible to the eye, but creating havoc.

Do you believe there is merit in being financially well organised – have all your policies in place, have a life file and a signed will etc.?

Oh, yesssss! Your first priority is to look after yourself and your family. Make provision for those things that you never expect will happen to you, e.g. temporary disability (sickness), dreaded diseases and death. How do you protect your monthly income? Did you make any provision for your retirement? Life happens, and things change constantly. In my mortuary, the quote by Robert Frost in vinyl letters against the wall speak to us every day: “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected…”

Everybody should have a LIFE FILE. A safe place to keep all your important personal documents. Keeping all the contents in your Life File up-to-date is extremely important. If you’ve ever had to do this for a loved one, you know the stress you will be saving your family by having your affairs in order.

If billing accounts are not in both your and a loved one’s name, your survivors will end up spending hours on the phone and in offices begging bureaucrats to shut them down or convert the accounts to their name so they can manage them. Think of every frustrating call you’ve had with your cellphone provider, and then multiply it by 20.

The most important document that everyone should have, is a will. Is your will signed, dated and up-to-date? When last have you reviewed your Will? It should be reviewed annually or after a life event, such as marriage, divorce, birth of a baby, death of a spouse or child.

There is a direct correlation between how prepared and organized you are now and the amount of time and money your heirs spend administering your estate after you are gone. Trust me, the relief an up-to-date life file brings to your family members during this stressful time is priceless.

Think you’re too young to worry about any of this? Can’t find the time? It always feels too soon until it is too late… 

What tips do you have with regards to retirement planning?

Start contributing towards your retirement fund as early as possible. Retire as late as possible. Make provision for medical expenses in your later years. Ensure that you are debt-free at retirement.

Knowing what you know today, what would you have done differently when it comes to money decisions / management?

I would have invested in share portfolios with a moderate aggressive/aggressive exposure. Time would have been on my side. I should have become an entrepreneur at a much earlier age in my life. I should have paid myself first, and not been the last one on the payroll for many years.

What is your advice to other people with regards to money management and building a better financial future for themselves and their families?

Budget. Budget. Budget. Do not live out of your till if you are a business owner. Have an emergency fund equal to at least 3x your monthly expenses. Speak to your financial advisor about protection plans: income protector, disability, dreaded diseases and life cover. Pension and Investment plans. Save. Save. Save.

What will happen to your Facebook profile when you die? What will happen to you online life when you die? Where are your passwords? Does your wife/husband/child know the pin to unlock your phone? What digital legacy will you leave behind?

Let’s talk business, how to be prepared for death and what your life file should contain

Sonja you are an award-winning business woman. You are widely acknowledged for your innovation and leading role in the funeral industry. What tips do you have for entrepreneurs to be innovative and to establish themselves as a leader within a certain industry?

Know your product/industry. Rules, regulations, governance, the legal stuff, be the go-to person. Use the media to bring your message across. Think out of the box! Customer service is not negotiable. Be the extra in extra-ordinary. Take calculated risks. Be different! If something is not right, don’t look the other way. Be a leader, not a follower of an archaic way of doing things. Establish a social media footprint.

It certainly feels awkward to plan and prepare for your funeral, but preplanning will reduce the stress and burden on your loved ones during this difficult time. How can people be better prepared with regards to funeral planning?

It is so important to talk about the D-word. Let your loved ones know what your wishes are. Pre-plan your funeral. It will assist your next-of-kin tremendously if they know what your wishes were.

Today, the Coronavirus is certainly changing how we say our goodbyes. No more large funerals filled with friends and family members who cry, laugh, linger and reminisce. Nobody wants to die alone. So many people across the globe are now dying at an alarming rate and all those deaths will require some sort of final rite.

A funeral is a ritual of loss and connection where we remember the dead and comfort the living. But the Coronavirus outbreak has altered that ritual and changed the way we say goodbye: the loss remains, the connections change. How we handle things is so different than the norm of a traditional funeral. We are doing our best to utilize our resources and our staff to try to help everybody get through this dark time. In the meantime, no hugs. No flowers. Now is the time to have those courageous conversations, to think about a living will or advanced directive.

Consider the following:

  • What will happen to your Facebook profile when you die?
  • What will happen to you online life when you die?
  • Where are your passwords? Does your wife/husband/child know the pin to unlock your phone?
  • What digital legacy will you leave behind?

What are the hidden costs that people should be aware of that funeral and life policies don’t cover?

  • Possible private post mortem
  • Transport costs/repatriation fees should you die outside the borders of your home town
  • Executor’s fees
  • Estate duty
  • Transfer costs (properties)

What are the 5 most important documents to keep in your life file?

  • Last Will and Testament
  • Title Deeds
  • Legal documents, e.g. ante nuptial contract/divorce order
  • Latest Income Tax Return
  • Next-of-kin Identity Numbers & contact details…. and don’t forget to entrust someone with your online passwords!
  • There is a list of 42 items in our Life File. Don’t delay. Download today – link below.

To connect with Sonja Smith

 

Free download: Sonja Smith’s Life File

 

Thank You