The managing director of one of the longest-serving family businesses in Stevenage and surrounding areas has sat down with the Comet for a Q&A.

Austin's has long supported the Comet, and continues to do so as we enter into our 51st year and a new chapter for the paper.

We sat down with Stevenage-born Claire Austin, who has worked in the family business since 1998.

Q: What does your role entail, and what do you find most rewarding about it?

A: I'm the managing director and oversee the whole business which includes the Austin's branches - we're just about to open our 12th branch - and the Harwood Park Crematorium.

I have an overview of everything that's happening in terms of staffing, advertising and project development.

We were builders and undertakers based in Graveley and moved into the Letchmore Road premises probably about 250 years ago and grown from there. We built a lot of houses in Stevenage. We continued to be undertakers and builders until the 70s.

The Comet: Austin's, which was initially both a building and undertaking business, has been family-run in the area since it was established in Graveley in 1700Austin's, which was initially both a building and undertaking business, has been family-run in the area since it was established in Graveley in 1700 (Image: Austin's)

My father decided that he would close the building business and focus on the undertaking business. We have branches across Stevenage, Hitchin, Letchworth, Buntingford, Ware, Hertford, Hoddesdon, Welwyn, Welwyn Garden City, and have a new branch opening in Harpenden. These have been established over the last 20 to 30 years.

Q: Why is it important to Austin's to keep your business local to Stevenage and the surrounding areas?

A: We're very community focused, we've grown organically taking in the towns around Stevenage. Our main office in the Old Town still forms the hub of the operational centre for those other branches.

The Comet: Austin's in Letchmore Road will be on the move come 2022 to a premises in the High StreetAustin's in Letchmore Road will be on the move come 2022 to a premises in the High Street (Image: Austin's)

It works well as an octopus if you like. We've got a lot of control and able to oversee the work that happens because everything is close by. That means we're able to maintain that personal approach.

I'm the only Austin working for the company at the moment, but my husband runs Harwood Park Crematorium, and my mum is still a shareholder and still takes in interest in the business.

Q: Did you always want to take over the family business?

A: No - I actually used to work with Metropolitan Police as a fingerprint expert. That's what I did originally, and the opportunity became available for me to come into the business. I became assistant managers at the crematorium. Then when my dad retired in 2000 I came and took over the head office.

It was never my intention - obviously I was brought up with it. I went to school in the Old Town, and the business was in the Old Town.

Q: How many staff do you employ, and can you give us an insight into a few of the different roles?

A: We've got 52 members of staff spread across the area. A lot of them are funeral arrangers - we have one in every branch. Stevenage is our busiest branch and there's three or four funeral arrangers. They're responsible for meeting with the families and guiding them through the whole process from beginning to end.

Then we have a team of guys who are operational and actually do the funerals, providing the crew and staff. Then we have back of house, managers organising logistics.

We have 10 members of staff at the crematorium, which runs completely separately. There's quite a variety of jobs.

Q: Austin's will have been there for many people in the community - that must be quite rewarding?

A: It is - we get some wonderful feedback from people. For most people you experience the loss of a loved maybe once or twice in your life and be really close to it - such as a parent or a grandparent. Most, when they suddenly experience that, find that they've got no idea what to do.

It's a very much a guiding and assisting sort of role to hold people's hands while they're going through it.

Q: I imagine the pandemic was quite a unique time for the business?

A: Yeah, it was very stressful for lots of reasons. Obviously, more people were dying than normal so it was quite difficult operationally for us to cope. We worked very close with the hospitals, NHS and Herts County Council. Then there was the side of it for families.

It was very difficult to help distressed families who couldn't have many people there for the funeral or come to the office. A lot of arranging had to happen over the phone, or by email. That was the biggest shock for people. At a time when you could only have six or ten people at a funeral it was really really difficult.

It was a different dynamic for the business. We weren't able to provide limousine because families weren't allowed to get into them - people weren't allowed to view their loved ones in the chapel of rest. Lots of these services we provide that make it a bit more personal, we weren't able to do.

Live streaming was introduced before the pandemic, but really of course took off in the lockdowns. Now, it's very popular, and they are recorded as well. It's snowballed because of COVID.

Q: As a Comet relaunch sponsor - what does it mean for Austin's to have had a relationship with us for as long as you have?

A: We've worked really closely with the Comet over the years. Obviously, we've advertised with the Comet, and it's been the mainstay of our obituary notices for the community. Now online and still in print. It's a way of enforcing our relationship with the community,

It's a good pairing for us to support the Comet.

Q: What's next for Austin's?

A: We've taken on the premises at 74A High Street. We're still in the process of planning it and deciding how that will work for us. We've got big plans to make some changes to our head office.

We've got a couple of other projects outside of Stevenage, with the new branch in Harpenden, and relocating our branch in Hertford.

We've taken on quite a few new staff lately. It'll be 25 years in 2022 since we opened Harwood Park, so that's quite a significant milestone - that's grown and grown with the memorial gardens.