Last week, we had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Manuel about the evolution of her fantastically successful franchise, Stagecoach Theatre and Arts, at the school’s headquarters in Walton-on-Thames. Stagecoach is one of the most successful franchises in the UK, and offers part-time education in the performing arts to more than 40,000 children aged between 4 and 16 worldwide, in countries including the US, Australia, Canada, Spain.
How the idea behind Stagecoach evolved.
Stephanie Manuel has always been involved with the performing arts. She is herself a play-write and actress, and has appeared in: Lytton’s Dairy, Three up two down and Hold the front page; but it wasn’t until she was looking for theatre training for her son that the idea took shape.
Stephanie soon discovered that there was a marked lack of theatre-training opportunities for children. It was finding this gap in the market that prompted her to consider setting up an after-school and weekend theatre school, offering singing, dancing, and acting lessons.
On seeing that her old school was for sale, she made an appointment at a bank to inquire about loans. She says ‘they laughed and showed me the door.’ Some years later, an executive from the same bank invited her to open an account with them- she politely declined…
It wasn’t until she was in her early forties and her children were in their teens that she met David Sprigg. The skills and experiences she gained in her personal and working life leading up to that critical meeting, good or bad, prepared her for her new life as a business-woman.
‘Being given this opportunity to realize my ambition was like being given the keys to paradise.
A perfect partnership.
Stephanie’s idea went into ‘cold storage’ for ten years until, by chance, she met then banker, David Sprigg, who proposed that they go into business. Together, they seemed to cover all the bases required to build a successful business.
Stephanie founded Stagecoach with David in1988. More than two decades later, Stephanie’s experience, knowledge and love of the subject, alongside David’s financial and franchise-networking expertise, has proved to be a winning combination.
‘He and I are two halves of a whole: what he’s really brilliant at, I’m not; and what I know about, he doesn’t.
In 1988, Stagecoach ran just 3 schools in the UK. Today, Stagecoach runs 640 schools through their franchising-network. The network was formalized in 1993, after the company had already opened 24 schools. Up until this time, joint-venture partners consisted of friends and family-members who had witnessed the project’s success and who wanted to be involved.
Stephanie says that the transition and development of the franchising scheme has been relatively smooth. She attributes this to its pilot-like beginnings, whereby problems and issues had already been largely addressed while the franchise-network was not fully established.
‘We came up with some of the answers before we began… I think we were well-prepared before we got to the franchising stage.’
The franchise network.
After deciding to formalize and develop the network, Stephanie and David consulted a number of accountants, lawyers and franchise experts. Their challenge was to streamline the service they already offered, and to assure the same quality of service across the entire franchise network. This involved devising and implementing comprehensive cross-network training programs.
Stagecoach now has an entire department devoted to their network. The importance of this core, says Stephanie, is fundamental to the network’s success. Franchisees begin by receiving the same training, as well as two hefty tomes: ‘How to set up a Stagecoach’ and ‘How to run a Stagecoach’.
The Franchise Department keeps in close contact with their franchisees, supporting and helping them in the event of difficulties, as well as keeping them informed of any innovations and developments. In general, they are expected to come to the department for advice, rather than go to one another. Franchisees can also expect internal inspectors to visit announced. This all helps to keep the network coherent.
Initially, a lot of promotion was involved, not only to lure-in customers, but also to attract prospective franchisees. Stephanie wanted to find franchisees that were already performing-arts practitioners with relevant skills and experience in the field.
The Stagecoach network is still growing. This is undoubtedly partly due to the concept itself, which has its own returns- but there is clearly even more to be gained from being a franchisee: running one school can bring in approximately £12,500 per annum, and four, £50,000- but earnings can reach up to £60,000 or even £70,000!
Keeping things interesting.
Like any good business, Stagecoach is always looking to improve its service, but its success comes from its constant drive for innovation and diversification.
In recent years, Stagecoach has extended its training programs to babies and to older children, as well as incorporating sports into its curriculum. Stagecoach also runs a shop from its website, which stocks dance clothing, puppets, scripts, make-up and face-painting kits. Innovation and diversification can keep franchisees interested as well as giving you a huge advantage over your competition.
Advice for the prospective franchisor.
Stephanie’s advice to any budding franchise-owner is, first of all, to make sure that there is a market for your product or service on a wider scale. She suggests piloting your franchise scheme before diving in; a major part of knowing whether your business is franchisabe is if you’re able to train somebody else to do the job you do as well you do.
‘If you can’t train somebody else to run your business and make a success of it as well you have, then you don’t have a franchisable business.’
Stephanie urges prospective franchisee-owners to be prepared to give their business time to pay off, and to be ready for some seriously hard work. She considers the following to have been critical to the success of Stagecoach:
- A niche business concept
- A good partnership
- Passion for the concept and business
- Consistency throughout network
- Positive approach
Stephanie believes that, as women, we may well be at an advantage. We have ‘warmth’ and ‘passion’, as well as ‘broad vision’ and the ability to ‘multi-task’; all of these are essential attributes for the success of a franchisor.
‘Women should stand up, be brave and be counted, because I think that women make fantastic business people.’