Having developed a high growth business with music, dance and drama schools in Essex, StageAbility founders Gary and Ann Sullivan speak to Stuart Anderson about their exciting plans to expand across the UK via franchising

'There are 12.4 million children in the UK, and it's rare to find one that doesn't enjoy drama,' point out StageAbility founders Gary and Ann Sullivan. 'In fact, our pilot drama school in Essex has proven that there is a huge market out there for developing young people through drama, dance and music, not just to turn out actors and singers but to help children become stable, confident and happy.'

Established in 1992, the original StageAbility was ticking over generating £22,000 a year until four years ago, when Gary and Ann began to drive the growth of the business up. 'We recognised a lot of latent potential in the business and drove the turnover up to £38,000, then £80,000, then £100,000, last year it reached £120,000 and this year we're on course to achieve around £170,000. By opening more schools and putting additional income streams in place from initiatives such as holiday workshops and projects we have developed the business into a very exciting model. To give an idea: the profit margins are in the region of 30-38 per cent.'

While continuing to develop their Essex territory, with a target of reaching a turnover of £280,000 in the next three years, Gary and Ann have also commissioned Franchise Development Services to put together a professional franchise package to kick off the company's national expansion. 'The set-up costs are low, mostly funding the marketing and advertising,' Gary reveals. 'We've developed the franchise to enable the franchisee to pursue either a low scale launch for people who want to come in initially part-time as they grow the business, or a more 'all guns blazing' type launch for a management franchisee, where between four and six schools are opened right away building to 12 by the end of year one.'

The role of the franchisee is emphasised as that of a business builder and manager. 'You do not need an acting background,' Gary confirms. 'It's not difficult to find very good actors who are out of work, and we have developed a very specific blueprint for teaching the classes that we train all new tutors in from head office. We also provide a refresher training course every year to update tutors in new ideas and directions. For the franchisee, it's a case of recruiting the right people and concentrating on growing the business.'

Franchisee training focuses on managing, operating the computer registration system, using the marketing templates provided in the package and training an administrator to assist, over a 15 day course. 'We're going to work very closely with franchisees to help their businesses grow by constantly increasing classes, retention, quality of students and tutors,' explains Gary. 'Our Essex operation currently operates 28 schools in an area with a population of 380,000, and the franchise package has been designed to offer an even better potential with territory covering a population of 500,000.'

With educational funding squeezing the syllabuses offered in schools, the arts - especially drama, music and dance - are suffering. 'This opens up opportunities for business to provide that element of fun that kids don't get in schools anymore,' Gary points out. 'We're not setting out to turn our students into actors. Our classes prepare children for life - the skills of drama walk hand in hand with the skills of life, whether that life is as a solicitor, teacher, salesman, etc.'

With further pilot schools set to open in Norwich in preparation for the launch of StageAbility's first franchisee, Gary and Ann are seeking serious-minded business people to take on an opportunity for strong growth and genuine satisfaction. 'It's hard work but great fun,' Gary comments. 'When you get tearful approaches from parents because their child, who before they joined your school wouldn't stand up and say their name, can now communicate with confidence, you do enjoy a great sense of achievement and satisfaction.'