Handing Over the Keys

Purchasing Footlights Dance Studio was a logical next step for Teresa Novak, who felt a deep loyalty to the studio where she had worked for years.
Photo courtesy Footlights Dance Studio

Maybe the best buyer for your studio is right under your nose

by Chris Koseluk

Owning and operating a dance studio was your career goal. It took years of work, struggle, and sacrifice, but you did it—and you’re proud of it. But nothing lasts forever, and the day may come when you realize it’s time to hang up the tap shoes and leave the pliés behind.

It’s time to sell—but who will buy? The right buyer may be closer than you think—maybe in your own studio.

Studio owners often want something beyond just a financial commitment from a buyer; they want someone who already has skin in the game. “It’s really important to find somebody who cares. This was my baby,” says Melanie Frey, who owned Summit School of Dance, with locations in Frisco, Breckenridge, and Eagle County, Colorado, for nearly 30 years before selling it in June 2017. “We have a history and a name in the community. And I wasn’t willing to just hand it over to someone young and energetic who thought she could do it. I wanted someone who would carry on the legacy.”

 

Epiphany in the dairy aisle

For Frey, that someone was Kelly Threlkeld. Threlkeld had danced since age 3, but with a master’s degree in organizational communication, her career goal was to take corporate America by storm. She and her husband settled in Summit County in 2010, and in 2011, says Threlkeld, “I walked into the Summit School of Dance to find out if I could become an instructor. I started my own advanced ballet class within the month. I’ve been working there ever since.”

In recent years, Frey had been thinking of selling Summit. Not only was the physical strain taking its toll, but the emotional stress was also starting to weigh her down. “As a dance educator, you don’t have students for just one or two years, you have them throughout their childhood,” Frey says. “Every time a student graduated, moved away, decided on sports instead of dance, it hurt my heart. It became personal.”

“I think what really helped the transition was that Melanie [Frey] told everyone she was leaving the business in good hands. The community knew that the current owner believed in the new owner.” —Kelly Threlkeld

Frey investigated companies that specialize in selling small businesses, but was told that Summit had limited income potential. Frey approached Summit instructors about buying, but most didn’t seem like a good fit, and she thought that Threlkeld—young and newly married—wouldn’t be able to buy the studio. Then one day, Threlkeld brought a friend in to teach a master class. A studio owner, he was looking to expand to a second location. Frey wondered if he might be her answer, but unfortunately, Summit’s location wasn’t right for his needs. But during her conversation about the other studio owner with Threlkeld, Frey sensed something.

“One day she called while I was grocery shopping,” says Threlkeld. “She said, ‘Is this something you want to take over?’ I stopped in my tracks in the dairy aisle and said, ‘I hadn’t even thought about it!’ Over the next few days, that was all I could think about.”

Threlkeld liked that the school was well established and a staple in their small mountain town. Having taught there for five years, she knew the staff, the dancers, and the parents. Most importantly, her values matched Frey’s. “I believed in how she was running her business,” says Threlkeld, who credits her husband for encouraging her to go for it. “I believe this is what I was meant to do and everything in my past led up to this decision.”

 

Finding the way through faith

Amy Parsons felt it was time for a change. “I found that the inevitable 24/7 lifestyle of owning a business was becoming harder on me and my family,” says Parsons, who started the Christian-owned and operated Footlights Dance Studio in Flower Mound, Texas, in 1996. “When I was on vacation, I was still handling studio matters at a distance. The studio grew to a point where it was harder to put in the necessary hours there.”

Summit School of Dance founder Melanie Frey (right) wanted to protect her studio’s legacy, and found just the right buyer in Kelly Threlkeld (left), a faculty member who shared Frey’s dance education values.
Photo by Eli Pace, Summit Daily News

Just as Parsons was thinking about selling, sisters Christina Hedding and Teresa Novak were thinking about buying. The sisters had grown up dancing in the Dallas area, and as adults, each taught at various schools, with a combined total of 17 years teaching at Footlights, where Hedding’s daughters take classes.

One day Hedding simply asked Parsons if she had ever considered selling her studio, and if so, whether she would consider selling to herself and Novak. “Several years before, my sister and I had talked about the studio venture,” says Hedding. “It had been in both of our hearts to do something to further His kingdom.”

“We both had been praying about what that could be, and the studio kept coming to our minds,” says Novak.

Financial advisors had suggested they start their own studio. But competing with Footlights was never what they wanted. They had a close relationship with Parsons and felt her values regarding the school closely mirrored theirs. “Footlights had invested in us as instructors and our loyalty ran deep,” says Novak.

“It was about continuing and growing the mission at Footlights,” says Hedding.

Turning over the keys in 2017 was actually easy. Each side sought legal advice, but what guided everyone was the goal of doing what was best for the school and the students.

“I knew that they would continue to love my students the same way I had,” says Parsons. “They would continue the legacy and style our studio was founded on and I trusted them implicitly. Once we were at that point, I never considered any other possibility.”

 

Setting up for continued success

Transitions went smoothly at both studios. Frey and Threlkeld agreed that Threlkeld would take over during the 2016–17 season. For a time, they kept the sale a secret. “Even though we had signed papers, I guess there was still an opportunity to back out,” says Frey, adding, “I kept asking, ‘Are you sure? Are you ready for this?’ ”

Over several months, Threlkeld shadowed Frey to observe the nuances of ownership. “I really tried to set her up for success,” says Frey. “I helped her train teachers. I gave her all the syllabuses I had created. We planned everything together.”

In February 2017, the two announced the sale to the studio’s teachers, staff, students, and the parents most closely associated with the school. Shortly after, Frey sent out a general email to the community.

“We wanted to be a united front,” says Threlkeld. “I think what really helped the transition was that Melanie told everyone she was leaving the business in good hands. The community knew that the current owner believed in the new owner.”

Everyone had adequate time to say their goodbyes to Frey before classes ended in the spring. “It went amazingly well,” Frey says. “I think I had been bringing up my age for so long that the parents were not surprised.”

At Footlights, people were initially surprised that Parsons was selling the studio, but found comfort that the school would continue under the familiar faces of Hedding and Novak.

“We have a parent observation week close to the end of the year and we made sure that one of us visited every class, introduced ourselves, and gave the families a promise of a bright future for Footlights,” says Hedding.

Footlights remains a part of Parsons’ life. Her youngest daughter dances there, and in the past year, she’s subbed and lent a hand with fundraising.

“The process of stepping out of the driver’s seat was emotional and challenging. You don’t take something from an idea to creation and not feel it’s a part of your own soul,” says Parsons. When the studio began, “I taught all the classes, locked up at night and cleaned the toilets, then entered the checks. My hands and my heart were on every prop and costume. I have attended dance families’ weddings, funerals, graduation parties, and much more. I love the people. You don’t walk away from that.”

 

Community caring is the key

Parents at Footlights Dance Studio took comfort from the fact that longtime teacher Christina Hedding would be the new studio co-owner (along with her sister, Teresa Novak).
Photo courtesy Footlights Dance Studio

The sisters’ business backgrounds were an asset. Novak’s resume includes stints as a marketing account executive for a television network and an executive director for a nonprofit. Hedding worked in the corporate office for a competition company and as an operations manager for a national TV recruiting firm. They joke that the only hiccup they encountered was getting used to the studio’s quirky software program.

The Summit studio community’s generosity was a pleasant surprise. “People help you any way they can,” Threlkeld says. “Parents and dancers offer help at a moment’s notice. Friends shovel the walkway just because they want to see your business succeed. Even competing dance studios offer advice, if needed.”

“I thought it was a big advantage to sell to someone like Kelly,” says Frey. “She loved what she was doing and she loved the kids. She was organized, caring, well-educated, and still continuing to learn.”

Hedding and Novak’s best advice is to talk to people. “Seek advice from family, friends, other studio owners, financial advisers, attorneys, anyone willing to help you out at a reasonable price, or better yet, for free,” says Novak. “A single person won’t have all of the answers, but together, the pieces start to fit and a plan falls into place.”

Threlkeld’s advice: Believe in yourself and trust your instincts. Realize you’re taking this step because you love dance. Owning a studio might not be the most lucrative career choice, but all owners reap the rewards of knowing they are passing on their love of dance to the next generation.

“Know that your passion for dance will get you through the hard times,” says Threlkeld. “It will help you make the decisions that are the best for you, your studio, and your dancers.”

 


Chris Koseluk writes about the entertainment industry for such publications as The Hollywood Reporter and Make-Up Artist Magazine.