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Under New Management

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Same school, new owners—the realities of purchasing an existing business

By Maureen Keleher

As a dance teacher, you feel that you’ve paid your dues—teaching classes day in and day out, coming up with recital and competition routines, and following the protocol of the studio you work for. You’re ready to be your own boss, and you think you understand the business enough to be a successful studio owner. But is it smart or realistic to start a studio from scratch? Or should you consider buying an existing business?

It has taken Michelle Reis a few years to transition from teacher to studio owner, but she now feels that Dance Art Dance Studio is finally her own. (Photo Courtesy Dance Art Dance Studio)

If you’re ready to go down the ownership path, taking on an established school—and its students and parents—might be challenging and rewarding enough. And doing so allows new school owners to learn about managing a business without having to build a clientele or leave their community. Read on for two stories about women who have purchased established studios and are loving their new lives as business owners. 

The duet
In August 2006, Donna Lee Studio of Dance in Homestead, Florida, opened for business with two new owners, both experienced teachers: Alicia Norwood and Vicky Gonzalez. Before her retirement, owner Donna Lee Roach offered the studio to both women to run as a team. Gonzalez and Norwood had grown up training at the studio and understood Roach’s founding ideals. Along with the three-room studio that serves 400 families, the new business partners also inherited Expressions Dance Company, a nonprofit troupe that provides performing opportunities for the studio’s serious students.

For Norwood, 45, being handed the keys to the studio was like a passing of the torch. She had been assisting Roach with advanced classes since she was 18, while continuing her dance education at conventions such as Florida Dance Masters. ”I had helped build this studio and its clientele,” says Norwood. “I didn’t want to throw out all the time and energy I spent here- I wanted this studio.” 

Thirty-one-year-old Gonzalez, who had danced with American Repertory Ballet and Roxey Ballet, had been teaching at Donna Lee Studio since 2000 but didn’t have any business experience. “I think [Roach] chose me to be with Alicia because I would help to bring the studio into the next generation while maintaining the integrity of what she built over the course of almost 30 years,” Gonzalez says.

The school is known for its high-caliber training in ballet, tap, jazz, acrobatics, lyrical, and hip-hop. ”The original owner started on a small scale. We were stepping into a huge responsibility,” says Norwood. Despite the change in ownership, student enrollment has remained steady. Students take fewer classes because of the tough financial times, but overall enrollment has not changed dramatically in the past few years.

While Norwood and Gonzalez immediately felt respected by the teaching staff, parents, and students because of their prior teaching experience, both had to adjust to the responsibility of being “the boss,” from discussing student level placement with parents to making appropriate business decisions. “To parents with concerns, we used to be able to say, ‘You can go to Donna,’ ” says Norwood. “Now we’re the complaint department.

“I was unprepared for the business aspect,” adds Norwood. She says she had no experience with clerical projects like mailing registration packets or developing studio literature; Roach had handled all the administrative work. “I feel like when I do a task on my own, I have to have two or three people look over what I’m doing to make sure it makes sense,” Norwood says.

“It was important to gain the trust of parents in my new role before changing the way classes were offered.” —owner Michelle Reis

Attending dance business seminars and keeping in contact with Roach have helped both women play catch-up with their business training, learning such business strategies as how to search for potential clients within their community and then target them via direct mail. A new, glossy, tri-fold summer dance camp brochure about themed dance camps yielded the studio’s most successful summer in terms of revenue and dancing. “Who knew the paper you print on would make such a difference?” says Norwood.

In the past three years, Gonzalez and Norwood have struck a balance, utilizing each other’s specialties as teachers and business owners to keep the studio running smoothly. Norwood primarily teaches tap, jazz, and the “babies” classes; she also handles the payroll and accounting. Gonzalez runs the ballet program and uses her computer skills to work on the email, advertising, and rehearsal schedules. Both contribute about 40 hours a week to the studio and share equal responsibility for teaching and developing choreography for Expressions. After almost four years of ownership, Gonzalez says that she has settled into her role as co-owner.

Although the studio’s curriculum hasn’t changed, the shift in leadership, according to 12-year office manager Melissa Reimeres, brought changes in communication with the administrative staff. “It’s very satisfying to see them succeed,” says Reimeres, who handles the studio’s billing. “They allow me to offer suggestions and they keep me updated on financial information. It’s a privilege to work for them.”

The duo’s advice for a stellar studio? “Back your standards and make sure they are in the best interest of your studio and students,” says Norwood.

Gonzalez concurs. “Our families were at this studio because it was a good fit for them. If we had made changes, they would’ve gone elsewhere. You have to know your clientele and give them what they want.”

A family affair
When Michelle Reis decided to purchase Dance Art Dance Studio, she knew she couldn’t do it alone. The 41-year-old mother of three, who continues to hold down a full-time job as an administrative assistant at Washington University in St. Louis, was willing to take every helping hand.

“One of the hardest parts of becoming a studio owner is managing your time,” says Reis, who works almost 80 hours per week between her university job and running the studio. “I have a wonderful staff of instructors and receptionists who keep the studio running on a daily basis. I am fortunate not to be in this alone.” And she found that purchasing a studio that was established in the community offered the advantage of a following of nearly 300 students.

In 2006, Reis and her husband, Mike Reis, purchased the studio and its two locations: a 1,500-square-foot studio in Fenton, and a 2,000-square-foot studio in Eureka, Missouri. Reis, who holds a degree in arts administration from Butler University and danced with Butler Ballet and Ballet Des Moines, was thrilled to become the owner of the studio where she had taught since 1996.

The whole family jumped in to help: Michelle’s mother, Sheryl Hansen, handles the books; Mike Reis runs errands and takes care of maintenance issues; Michelle’s father, Jim Hansen, creates scenery and props; and Michelle’s oldest daughter, Ashley, 17, assists with tasks such as filling in for a teacher or cleaning the studio.

To ease the transition, former owner Susan Scharnhorst continued to teach at the studio for three years after the sale. Still, with ownership Reis faced the responsibility of balancing teaching duties with administrative work and handling conflict. She admits that in the beginning she wasn’t mentally prepared for all her responsibilities as a school owner. “I can no longer just come in, teach, and leave,” she says. “There is always something to do, prepare, or fix.”

Reis took several steps to make sure she wouldn’t have regrets later. She hired an attorney to get everything in writing regarding the purchase to avoid any potential “he said, she said” mishaps. And even though she had new ideas for the studio, she chose to get to know the parents, students, and staff better before making any executive decisions. “It was important to gain the trust of parents in my new role before changing the way classes were offered,” she says.

Over the course of four years, Reis revamped the school’s curriculum to make classes more age and developmentally appropriate; previously all classes had lasted one hour, regardless of student age or level. Now the youngest dancers take 45-minute classes, while the older dancers’ classes last an hour and a half. Reis bases tuition on how much time each student spends in the studio rather than on the number of classes taken.

Teacher Judy Bergin says that working under Reis has been a positive experience, and she credits the changes in the studio to Reis’ fresh perspective. “Michelle touches base with everyone,” she says. “I feel like I can go to her with any questions or issues.” For example, after a medical leave, Bergin wanted to schedule all her classes on one day instead of spreading them out over the course of the week, and Reis accommodated her request.

While it has taken Reis a few years to transition from teacher to studio owner, she feels that, in 2010, the studio is finally her own. Her own dance experience has given her a positive outlook on the adventures of running a business. “Everything is running smoothly; enrollment is getting up there [after] the downturn in the economy,” she says. “Sometimes it takes a few ‘rehearsals’ to get it right.”

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