Having clocked up time bringing back Burger King to Blighty and spearheading the growth of the Harry Potter franchise with Warner Bros, Sarah Kelly is now leading Stagecoach Performing Arts’ 300 franchisees into the future
Standing outside the old courthouse in Walton-on-Thames which houses Stagecoach Performing Arts’ headquarters, Sarah Kelly wipes away some hair from her face and says: “There’s a prison in the basement.” Apparently, it’s a relic from the time the building was used to serve up swift justice. Although, she admits she hasn’t taken the time to check out the dungeon yet. You can’t really blame her. After all, since stepping up as CEO for the franchise in 2013 she’s been busy modernising and strengthening the franchise for the future. “It’s been four years of really heavy lifting,” she says. And with the business’ 30th anniversary this month, Stagecoach Performing Arts is now ready to take the world by storm.
This is in no small part thanks to the work ethics her father instilled in her from early on. “My dad was a butcher and had his own chain of shops,” she says. Importantly, she didn’t just notice the benefits of owning a business yielding succulent Sunday roasts every week but she also saw how much her father pushed himself. “He was a very hard worker,” she says. “He was butchering six days a week and I used to go and help him from a very early age, making sausages. It gave me very strong work ethics. I can still remember going onto the high street when I was about 13, just knocking on each shop’s door and asking if they needed some help on Saturdays.”
But despite having seen the benefits of business ownership, Kelly almost went down another route when she went to university. “I’d always been very good at biology and wanted to go into it professionally as a doctor or a nurse,” she says. “But I can’t stand the sight of blood.” Given this particular phobia would prove a hinderance for anyone aspiring to have medicine as a profession, Kelly instead enrolled at University of Portsmouth for a bachelor degree in hotel-and-catering management. “It was a business degree that just happened to have a hotel and catering orientation to it,” she says. “You did economics, management, HR and marketing – all sorts of areas. It was a real sandwich course. No pun intended.”
During her third year she had an experience that changed her life. “I spent that year at a hotel and worked in every department,” Kelly says. “When I got to the sales and marketing team I realised that it was what I wanted to do.” She loved turning consumer insights into services and products people wanted. “I really enjoyed that part of the business,” she says. Recognising this was where her heart lay, she switched majors and ended up with a diploma from the Chartered Institute of Marketing.
Following her university studies, Kelly quickly found a job at the Forte Group, the now defunct hotel chain. “But they were massive back then,” she says. “They had about 900 hotels.” Having claimed one out of two spots in the company’s management programme before 3,500 other candidates, Kelly quickly immersed herself into the chain’s sales and marketing department. “That was when I understood that I had a flair for it,” she says. “It enabled me to be creative, apply my business understanding and my passion for understanding people. It all came together in that role.”
After two years at the Forte Group and another two years with a marketing agency, Kelly began what she describes as her “decade of fast-food” by joining Burger King in 1990 as its marketing director for Europe and the Middle East. “It was my first introduction to franchising,” she says. Burger King had launched its first UK restaurants in the 1970s but had struggled with extremely slow growth in the 1980s. However, by the time Kelly joined the business things were looking up as the franchise had just bought a chain of Wimpy restaurants. It was her job to provide the marketing for all local franchisees transforming into Burger King outlets. “Over a period of a year and a half I transitioned over 200 stores,” she says. “It was a baptism of fire. It was immensely fun.”
Her seven years working with Burger King and her subsequent three years with Wendy’s International didn’t just sharpen her marketing chops but also provided vital lessons about what makes franchises successful. “The contract has to be at the heart of the franchisee-franchisor relationship,” she says. This means franchisors have to be totally transparent about their expectations on franchisees from the get-go to avoid any future problems. One of those things is that while franchisees can have an entrepreneurial streak, they can’t be allowed to push against the walls of the model. “The reason why is because the business only works if franchisees work within the framework,” she says. As long as everyone is clear about this, there’s nothing stopping franchisees from reaching their goals.
Another important lesson during her decade of fast-food was to recognise the importance of cultural sensitivity. “If you go into Israel you can’t offer a double bacon cheeseburger because it’s not kosher,” she says. “Or if you go into the Middle East you have to make sure the meat is halal.” Recognising how vital this was, she made sure to do her research wherever these brands planned to set up shop so she could better advise her bosses about the best way forward. “That was pretty hard for these American brands to get their heads around,” she says. “They were used to just being able to replicate it in the US.” But by showing how offering things like spicy bean burgers could boost their profits, Kelly persuaded them to take cultural differences seriously.
Exciting as it was to work across 25 different markets, by the time the 1990s drew to an end Kelly became sick of spending too much time away from her family. “I remember being in Greece in some lovely hotel and picking up the phone and my husband telling my that my daughter had walked for the first time,” she says. “I thought, ‘this is ridiculous. What’s the point of having a child if you can’t enjoy them?’” Having made the decision to work closer to home, she used her marketing network to find a new role at Warner Bros. “I remember on my first day that someone put this tiny little book in front of me, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and told me ‘Sarah, read this because I want you to do the channel marketing for it,’” Kelly says. In the following few years, she spearheaded the launch of everything from Hogwarts-inspired socks to jelly beans alongside the release of the movie series featuring Stagecoach Performing Arts alumna Emma Watson.
Moreover, working at Warner Bros also provided an important lesson in leadership. “I had this wonderful managing director,” she recalls. “He was so calm and serene.” This was quite the contrast to her previous career when everyone seemed to work with the dials turned up to 11. However, not only did he not take notes at meetings, the director seemed to gently float from room to room to check in and things still ran smoothly without much prompting. “He told me the trick to running a business is less about doing and more about conducting,” Kelly says. “He said, ‘I put the right people in the right place like an orchestra. You put the instruments in the right place and if you just conduct it the right way you’ll end up with a symphony.’”
Kelly took these lectures with her in 2004 when she left Warner Bros. “It was one of those points in my life where I thought, ‘what’s next?’” she says. The answer was that she wanted to be more flexible around her daughter’s life. So she did two things. The first was to embark on a series of interim roles at brands like LOVEFiLM and Coffee Nation. The second was to go back to school to get a diploma in counselling psychology at University of Hertfordshire and to volunteer as a bereavement counsellor. “’I’ve always been interested in understanding people and I wanted to be more grounded and to give back as opposed to always taking all the time,” she says.
As a part of her psychology studies she went into therapy. “You have to do a journey to understand yourself before you can understand other people and deal with things in your life that may prevent you from being authentic in some way,” she says. One of the things she dealt with was that her years of fast-food and showbiz, not to mention having a baby, had made her put on a lot of weight. “Doing this counselling made me go on a programme where I lost eight stones in six months,” Kelly says.
The programme in question had been put together by LighterLife, the weight-management franchise. “It was so good that I decided to join it,” she says. But when she reached out to ask about becoming a franchisee, she was instead offered a job as head of franchising development. “So I took on that role and five months later I became the CEO,” she says.
Despite having led teams before, Kelly found it to be a humbling experience. “I’ve always been a specialist as a marketer and now I had to become a generalist,” she says. “It was a hard move to make.” Remembering the advice from her managing director at Warner Bros, she kept stopping herself from micromanaging people, especially in areas like marketing where she was particularly strong. “You learn a lot of humility when you’re a CEO because you have to understand both your strengths and weaknesses and to put together a team where you are weak,” she says.
By April 2013 she wanted to try something else. Eager not to rush into things, she took some time off to think about her future. “But after three months I started to become a bit itchy and needed to do something,” she says. “There are only so many drawers you can clear out and only so much dusting you can do at home before you get a little bored.” Not long after she began updating her LinkedIn profile a recruitment agency called her up. “They said, ‘think you’d be perfect for this role,’” she says. The job in question was to lead Stagecoach Performing Arts into the future.
At the time the franchise had already been going for over 20 years. However, the company had recently changed in a big way, with both founders leaving the business and one of them reportedly being in dispute with the new shareholders after it delisted from the AIM stock exchange. Needless to say, getting the business back on track and away from its stagnated growth wouldn’t be easy. “I don’t like to say that it was a poisoned chalice but it’s very difficult when you come into an organisation that’s been led by the founders,” she says. Additionally, she felt that connecting with the franchise network would prove a challenge. “A lot of them felt that they only had their business thanks to the founders, that they’d given them their start in life,” she says. “And here I was, a businesswoman without any performing arts background. What did I know?”
Luckily, she didn’t just see problems to overcome but also potential. “The franchisees were passionate about their product,” she says. “I knew that if I could unleash that passion and use it in a positive way I could swing the company back into a growth position.” Recognising that the key to unlocking the promise of the business lay in connecting with the franchisees, she set out to do just that and to ensure they were onboard with the changes she wanted to make. While some franchisees said they wouldn’t take part of the modernisation process, others were almost giddy to help. “They actually had long lists of things they thought wasn’t right with the franchise,” she says. “The good thing was that a lot of those things went parallel with the things we felt needed to change as well.”
Having reached common ground with the network, she began to transform the company. “They actually had barriers against growth,” she says. For instance, one rule said franchisees always had to be in the school, which made it difficult to open new ones. This was solved through introducing a new type of school managed by the franchisee’s employees. Other tweaks included a total rebrand of the franchise, making it a full-time business for franchisees as well as enlisting the help of the bfa to update its franchise agreement and operations manual. “The founders had done an amazing job but I think we were able to take it to the next level and modernise it,” she says. These efforts have not gone unnoticed: Stagecoach Performing Arts is now one of the finalists for the bfa HSBC Franchisor of the Year 2018 Brand Awareness award.
Nevertheless, for the untrained eye it might be difficult to see all these changes. After all, the number of franchisees has remained at about 300 since 2013. But this may change soon. “We now have a foundation to accelerate our growth on,” she says. For instance, the franchise has identified 100 more franchise opportunities in the UK alone and is planning to grow in nine international markets, including piloting the model in China. “Helping children accomplish on the stage of life is something every parent wants, regardless of where you are in the world,” she says.
And she doesn’t worry about finding franchisees to man the upcoming expansion, with many students over the last 30 years having decided to first become teachers and then franchisees. “It’s absolutely brilliant,” Kelly says. “I call it the cycle of success when you can attract people in through them having a great experience and then becoming advocates of the brand.” She’s also making prospective franchisees aware of the opportunity through magazine ads and networking with the bfa. However, she’s also clear about what she looks for in franchisees. “You want to work with children to unlock their potential,” she says. “Because if you don’t then it’s going to be really hard. Being business-minded and liking performing arts helps too.”
Once accepted into the programme, the franchisees get a lot of support from the franchisor. “We will work with them right from their principal training for a week here to identify what their business needs are,” she says. Understanding their goals as well as their strengths and weaknesses enables the franchisor to better help their franchisees. Kelly’s team will also use their new mapping systems to help identify the best place to open a new school and regional franchise managers – one of the new support systems from the last four years – ensure new members of the network always have someone to turn to for advice. Moreover, the headquarters also support franchisees with any new challenges during their journey. For instance, Stagecoach Performing Arts is currently helping franchisees tackle the challenges of the General Data Protection Regulation. “We can help them get to where they need to be,” she says.
Given all these changes, it’s easy to see why Kelly is feeling determind about the future. “I’m absolutely sure it will be a successful business for years to come,” she concludes. The stage is set for wonderful things.