How St. Peter Became the Philippines' Leading Deathcare Provider
Death is inevitable, no matter how much we deny it or put it at the back of our heads. It’s the one absolute certainty about life, and the sooner we learn to accept it, the sooner we can learn to let go of all of the unpleasant and morbid things associated with it.
Like many other things, death is also big business. The global deathcare services industry was estimated to be worth around $115.4 billion in 2020, and is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.8 percent to $160 billion by 2027. In the Philippines, Statista estimates the revenues of funeral and related activities at around $110 million (P5.6 billion) in 2020, which is down over 42 percent from $190 million (P9.6 billion) in 2019.
Perhaps one of the leading names in deathcare and related services in the country is St. Peter Group of Companies. Founded in the 1970s, the company claims to cover about 95 percent of the market share in pre-need plans. It currently has the widest network of branches in the industry, with around 290 memorial chapels and around 300 Life Plan offices. It has nearly 1,000 employees and roughly 8,000 sales agents, has 11 casket factories spread out across the country, and provides service to around 9,000 deceased individuals and their families monthly.
The company has two main business units: St. Peter Life Plan, which offers traditional memorial life plans; and St. Peter Chapels, which provide the actual memorial services for each life plan purchased.
While the company is undoubtedly a success story today, it wasn’t always this way.
The Story of St. Peter Group of Companies
The company was founded by Francisco M. Bautista and Basilisa R. Bautista, lovingly called “Tatay” and “Nanay” by all “St. Peterians.” St. Peter Life Plan was founded first, on October 27, 1970, while St. Peter Memorial Chapels was established on June 6, 1975.
St. Peter Group of Companies President and CEO York Vitangcol
“Tatay was orphaned at age four and he finished only Grade 4,” York B. Vitangcol, president and CEO of the St. Peter Group of Companies, tells Esquire Philippines. “He had a very tough life when he was young. But he strove and worked hard to survive, from selling trash and junk (by kariton) to assisting firemen while they were fighting fires (he hitched with them on the firetrucks). He ate little and saved. He later met Nanay and was able to start a gravel and sand business company.”
But the outbreak of World War 2 put a damper on the young couple’s plans. Vitangcol says the Japanese forcefully took his grandparents’ gravel and sand trucks, beat his Tatay up, and left him for dead tied to a post in the silong of some house. Fortunately, his wife found him there and saved him. Together the couple tried to regain what they lost during the war.
“They tried to venture into the memorial park business but it did not pan out,” Vitangcol says. “Tatay then said, ‘Let’s not veer away from the deathcare industry. Let’s start a pre-need company selling memorial plans or life plans.’ This was the birth of St. Peter Life Plan. After almost five years from the establishment of St. Peter Life Plan, St. Peter Memorial Chapels opened its first memorial chapel—its Quezon Avenue branch.”
As any entrepreneur just starting out could attest, building a business from scratch isn’t easy. When Tatay Francisco set up the life plan business, he had difficulty understanding finances and had to hire experts because of his lack of a formal education.
“Managing the companies during the earlier part of the organization’s history was really the biggest challenge,” Vitangcol says. “His daughter Florita Vitangcol, who is my mother, was an architect by profession, (and she) needed to learn the ropes as well.”
Officers and employees of St. Peter Group of Companies during its National Convention in 2017
Selling life plans to a skeptical public
The main challenge was convincing people to sell memorial plans to the public. These life plans, which ensure that the funeral services will be taken care of by an accredited funeral home, were basically unheard of at the time.
“It was difficult to sell these life plans during the ‘70s to the ‘90s because the prospect of selling a product associated with preparation for death was not acceptable,” Vitangcol says. “In the early days, it was basically an unpopular, unwanted and even offensive product. Our sales people would hear violent reactions such as, “Walanghiya kayo, buhay pa ako, binebentahan mo na ako ng kabaong!,” or “Ha? Kabaong? Ikaw kaya ang ilagay ko diyan?”
“Another challenge were the poor quality standards of the services which were actually provided by the accredited funeral parlors to the planholders when the life plans were used," he adds.
The company soldiered on, however, and, eventually, the public grew to accept the wisdom of preparing for your own passing by ensuring that the loved ones they leave behind would not be burdened by the cost of things like embalming and cremation services, the casket, and the grave where they will be buried.
Innovations in deathcare
In later years, St. Peter became well-known for introducing innovations in a highly traditional industry. It pioneered things like eBurol, which was the first online 24-hour real-time viewing facility in the Philippines, helping loved ones who couldn’t physically be at the wake pay their respects virtually. This later on gave way to other online services such as ZoomBurol or ZBurol, eLibing, the St. Peter mobile app, and St. Peter’s Gate, which is an online community where clients can create personalized pages to remember and honor their dearly departed.
“Now that we’re in the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the Digital Revolution, we plan to tap on technology to further enhance the customer experience,” Vitangcol says. “We have already been using zBurol (or Zoom Burol, an enhancement of our eBurol) in some of our chapels. We will soon be introducing our ecommerce store, where customers may buy our life plans online. We plan to automate our casket factories, as we search for ways to bring down costs while enhancing the appearance and quality of our caskets.”
The 55-year-old CEO maintains that the company’s growth is always tied to customer satisfaction.
“Our future plans are poised on continuously improving our customer service to sustain or even grow consumer confidence and eventually grow our numbers,” he says. “It’s as simple as that. For our chapels expansion plans, we continuously search for possible memorial chapel locations so we can bring ourselves closer to the customer. And for cremation services, we will have to hasten the establishment of more crematoriums/crematoria as the pandemic made the Filipino people aware of, and accept, cremation as an alternative option to traditional burial.”
St. Peter has also expanded into casket factories and logistics hubs, providing auxiliary support for the company and helping streamline the business process to make it more efficient.
During the groundbreaking of a new St. Peter Chapel
Choice for deathcare
While there are many other deathcare providers that have since been established over the years, St. Peter cites its people—mainly its salesforce, funeral chapel frontliners, logistics support team of casket factory workers, management, leadership, and Board—as its primary edge over its competitors.
Perhaps, in many ways, St. Peter should also be commended for helping simplify and demystify the process of death and grieving, providing dedicated services during a truly difficult time in many of its clients’ lives.
“Our entire team is focused on and committed to our vision,” Vitangcol says, “(That is) to be the choice of the Filipino in deathcare services, and mission, which is to help in nation-building and to do our best to be excellent in serving customers for the good of our respective families and of humanity, and of course, for God’s glory.”