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Sarah Cressall isn't afraid of colouring outside the lines

Written by Josh Russell, Emilie Sandy on Tuesday, 06 June 2017. Posted in Interviews

A chance accident in Zimbabwe unlocked Sarah Cressall’s creativity and led her to found kids art class franchise The Creation Station

Sarah Cressall isn't afraid of colouring outside the lines

Given that Sarah Cressall has dedicated her life to unleashing children’s creativity with The Creation Station, few would be surprised to hear that she would often let her imagination run wild. Having been told by her mother that she could achieve anything she wanted, the young Cressall – nee Long – composed a comic featuring a superhero based around a well-known chocolate bar. “The lovely people at Cadbury sent me a huge box of chocolate and I discovered the power of setting a goal,” she says. And this wasn’t Cressall’s only brush with creativity: her expressive endeavours also included plying her sister’s boyfriend with green-tinted, poorly set fudge and producing papier-mache creations in the family’s shed. “I loved that tactile process of making something and evolving ideas,” she says. “Personally I feel that the more we can allow children to experience the journey of ideas, the more their own unique personalities will blossom.”

Despite this, when Cressall entered a convent boarding school in Alnwick in Northumberland at age 14, it’s safe to say this latent artistic ability wasn’t nurtured, as one of her O-level art projects demonstrated. “When we were told to do a sunset, I used every colour that I could think of and blended them together but the teacher failed me,” she says. “As much as I loved art, I was told that I was no good at it.”

As a result, Cressall went down a more scientific route, concentrating on maths, chemistry and biology at A-level and choosing a degree that was more pragmatic than expressive. “My mum said ‘well people always have to eat,” she says. “So I found a degree in nutrition.” Studying at the University of Huddersfield, Cressall embarked on a four-year degree that involved completing multiple placements. And during one of these placements, her then boss and mentor John Wilkinson said she could eventually work her way up to become the regional manager. “I was like ‘I don’t know if this is really my passion’,” she says. Finding something she was more enthusiastic about wasn’t hard: not only had Cressall caught the travel bug – having spent time on a kibbutz in Israel and travelled around America by Greyhound Bus – but global events revealed her true calling. “It was in the 1980s: there was a famine in Ethiopia and Bob Geldof was doing Live Aid,” she says. “I thought ‘I’d love to make a difference there’.”

On the hunt for ways she could help, Cressall found Operation Raleigh, now Raleigh International, the sustainable-development and volunteering organisation originally launched by Prince Charles. But qualifying for the programme was far from a walk in the park. “In order to get on, you had a selection weekend, which was really tough, both physically and mentally,” says Cressall. The bootcamp-style experience needed high levels of discipline and physical fitness, even requiring participants to get up for runs in the middle of the night. Fortunately, Cressall rose to the challenge, fighting on even when she took a tumble from a 30-foot rope walk. “There were probably too many people on the wire so I fell off,” she says. “What I didn’t realise at the time was I’d broken my wrist but I was so keen to get onto the programme that I kept going.”

And this determination was rewarded: Cressall was selected to take part in the programme and chose to go to Zimbabwe. However, while earning her place on Operation Raleigh was tough, there would be even greater challenges to overcome when she was there. “While we were whitewater rafting down the Zambezi, we flipped and I tore the cartilage in my knee really badly,” she says. “I just had to hold on for dear life and hope we didn’t flip again because I wouldn’t have been able to swim.” Even once they had made it back to camp, Cressall’s injury meant she was less able to participate in the more active work. But rather than beating her, this finally gave her creativity, which had been stamped on during her school years, the opportunity to blossom. “We built this community health clinic and I did a mural on the wall: I burnt wood and made charcoal to draw it out and helped the local people to paint it,” she says. “While I was there with all of these different projects, a great guy came up to me and asked if I could help the local women develop rural creative workshops to help the community’s economy.”

While Cressall was incredibly excited about the prospect of helping Zimbabwean women build their own creative businesses, she felt she first needed to build up more experience in managing commercial art. Moving back to the UK, she realised she could gain both a bit of cash and expertise framing pictures, so she quickly secured a job at a local framer. “We used to make and gesso these huge frames for the Tate gallery,” she says. “One time we made this massive picture frame and it was so big we couldn’t actually get it out of the building.” On top of this, Cressall began a diploma in arts management and started working as a designer-maker. “I just had this drive: I did a lot of papier-mache, clocks, glass, all sorts of stuff,” she says. “I immersed myself in it and started training other designer-makers.”

By 1996, Cressall had met her future husband Duncan and the couple decided to move down to Devon, which led to a serendipitous change of career for Cressall. “I couldn’t get a picture-framing job but I ended up running workshops for people with head injuries,” she says. “I realised that the benefit was just to do something together so I started getting out some clay and some different types of media and letting the students experiment.” Before long this led to a job teaching art at a disabled young adult centre. And despite having no experience in developing photos, when a member of staff asked Cressall whether she could set up a dark room for the centre she jumped at the chance, finding someone from the Yellow Pages to teach her the basics and buying second-hand kit. “Because of my picture-framing skills, I then created a gallery and we had an art exhibition showing off the students’ work,” she says. “I saw myself as enabling them to experiment and learn through doing, rather than teaching them.”

During this time, Cressall had another significant life change: she had her first child. “Becoming a parent, you see the world very differently,” she says. “You almost go through a little doorway into a whole world of stuff on the other side.” Two more children followed and Cressall wanted to start encouraging her kids’ creative instincts. Unfortunately she often found that by the time she had done all the prep for art sessions, her children had already finished playing and were wandering off round the house with paint-covered hands. “And I noticed that a lot of the organised classes that they went to were trying to teach them stuff, whereas I wanted them to blossom and the wonder within each of them to emerge,” she says. “That’s really where the first seeds for The Creation Station came from.”

Having realised that there was an opportunity to offer more hands-on reative classes, it didn’t take long for Cressall to find potential customers for the new company. “There are a lot of mums like me who want to be there for their kids and nurture their talent,” she says. “And many people don’t like doing arts and crafts in their houses, so it wasn’t a hard sell.” But it wasn’t only The Creation Station’s customer base that grew organically: as Cressall was under less pressure to draw a salary than the average entrepreneur, she was able to put the programme through its paces and ensure classes were up to scratch before worrying about how the business was monetised. “I was very fortunate to be supported by my husband Duncan, not just emotionally but also financially, so I never had to push too hard in terms of the bottom line,” she says. “That meant I was able to develop the programmes and test them at a pace that suited me.”

And without a doubt this has yielded remarkable results, enabling Cressall to build a roster of classes that really sets The Creation Station apart from the competition. “From a values point of view, we want to inspire imagination and the emerging potential of the children,” she says. “Parents and their children have an incredibly special relationship and we’re privileged to give them the opportunity to share a creative experience together.” Whether it’s sessions creating keepsakes for new parents, activities aimed at boosting self-esteem or creative kids’ birthday parties, the company offers no end of activities aimed at encouraging all kids, from tots to tweens, to express themselves. And it’s not just for whippersnappers: The Creation Station has recently launched a range of activities that cater to adults. “It’s not highbrow – we’re not teaching people how to do watercolours,” she says. “It’s about having a great afternoon or  night out, meeting new friends and doing some fun crafts.”

Once this programme was in place, it was a cinch for Cressall to prepare The Creation Station for its first franchisee, in part because she’d been planning for this eventuality since launching her very first class. “From day one, I knew it was about systems,” she says. “So I wrote down and recorded all of the processes and have continually improved and tweaked them.” This meant that in 2007 Cressall was ready to take on her first franchisee, signing Louise Radford up to operate The Creation Station’s first arm’s-length franchise. With the feedback this provided – and with some help in the form of the bfa’s specialist expertise – Cressall refined The Creation Station’s model, something that saw new franchisees start to pour in thick and fast. “We get a lot of enquiries now from people who are either looking for a class or an arts and crafts franchise,” she says. “But even though some days we’ve had over 90 enquiries, we only award it to 2% of people that inquire.”

With such a high number of candidates applying for new territories, The Creation Station has developed some pretty strict criteria for who makes the cut. “Firstly, they need to be someone who aligns with our brand values,” says Cressall. “That’s 100% non-negotiable.” While a prospective franchisee doesn’t necessarily need to be a burgeoning Braque or a Matisse in the making, they should be attracted to arts and crafts and be able to build relationships with people. However, perhaps the factor most vital in a Creation Station franchisee is having a degree of grit and an ability to learn from one’s mistakes. “It’s that positive attitude that we look for,” she says. “Even if the situation hasn’t worked out quite to plan, there’s always something you can learn.”

And this policy has certainly earned Cressall her fair share of gongs and plaudits: she won Best Woman Franchisor 2012 at the Encouraging Women into Franchising Awards, Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 at the Venus Awards and came in the top three of the Richard Branson Positive Impact On Society Awards in 2016 to name but a few. “I remember the first award I was fortunate enough to win, I couldn’t believe it because I was up against amazing people,” she says. “During those early years, it was a lovely acknowledgement.” Part of the reason Cressall feels awards such as these are so beneficial is that they show entrepreneurs they are moving in the right direction, even when it may not feel like it. “On every journey, there are always really tough bits: it might look all plain sailing from the outside but every journey has its hurdles,” she says. “Fortunately, if you can push through, that’s when you really start to see the light. Awards are a lovely acknowledgement of the fact that you’re on the right track.”

No one could argue that The Creation Station isn’t heading in the right direction. In the last 18 months, Cressall feels that the franchise has reached an inflection point in its growth, allowing her to start rapidly scaling operations. “We doubled the size of our warehouse, we changed offices, we’ve got a drop-ship warehouse in Denmark, we’ve got people on the ground across the country, we’ve got regional franchise support,” she says. But Cressall emphasises that the most important thing for her is ensuring The Creation Station continues to help its franchisees nurture the creative instincts of the country’s kids. “We’ve provided over 325,000 creative experiences now and there’s no way we could have done that without our franchisees,” she says. “They are the magical ingredient that really brings The Creation Station to life.”

And having honed the recipe for her franchise, Cressall still has one more trick up her sleeve: The Creation Station’s Impact 100, which will create positive outcomes through creativity. “We’re developing a series of creative workshops for different sections of the community,” she says. “It will be five creative workshops over a five-week period around supporting new mums’ mental health, people suffering with dementia, families in distress, baby bonding and special needs.” With the help of universities, specialists and corporate sponsorship, the Impact 100 is set to roll out this September. And rather than having a set-and-forget approach, The Creation Station will be incrementally improving the programmes based on the feedback of the communities themselves. “As we do these things, we’ll be listening, learning and tweaking it to make the biggest positive impact that we can,” Cressall says. “That's what we're all about.”

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

When he isn’t tooling around on trains in a tux like the Daniel Craig of the Greater Anglia transport system, Russell spends his time living the glamourous life of an enterprise journalist, judging Digital Business of the Year at the National Business Awards and attending conferences like NixonMcInnes’ Meaning 2013. However, like all good secret agents, Russell lives a double life – in his case, as a closet revolutionary. Social enterprise, sustainable business and collaborative practices are his true passions, something that he has had plenty of opportunity to air in his features here at Elite Franchise.

Emilie Sandy

Emilie Sandy

Aside from dashing between the Cotswolds and London to shoot business types for magazines such as EF and TV stars for the Beeb, Sandy is also a visiting lecturer at a college in Stroud – not to mention a proud mother to son Freddie and daughter Fjola. She has photographed our cover stars since our very first edition. You know what they say – if it ain’t broke...



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