For 20 years, Razzamataz Theatre Schools have been providing young people across the country with exceptional training in dance, drama and singing, as well as exciting opportunities to perform.
While Razzamataz itself is a brilliant success story – an appearance on Dragons’ Den in 2007 and an investment from Duncan Bannatyne propelled the business into the limelight – there are many similar success stories among the hundreds of franchisees across the UK.
One of those stories is that of Nick Furlong and Gemma Hextall. The pair took over Razzamataz Sutton Coldfield in Birmingham in 2015, and since then it has become not only a multi-award-winning franchise, but an important part of the local community.
Furlong and Hextall had always wanted to run a theatre school, but they didn’t think it would happen so quickly. The pair first met at college, where Furlong was training in acting and Hextall in musical theatre. After working professionally in the industry for a while, they decided to study for degrees at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. In 2015, at the start of their third year, the pair spotted the opportunity to take over the Sutton Coldfield school on a mailing list that had popped into Furlong’s inbox.
“We originally ignored the email,” Furlong explains, “because we were still finishing our degrees. But then a couple of days later we looked at it and thought it was worth a call. So we called Razzamataz head office and it sounded like an opportunity we couldn’t refuse. It just went from there.”
Although they trained as performers, and had taken a number of other roles in the industry, it was when the couple started teaching that Furlong and Hextall realised how rewarding it was. They had worked at other theatre schools, but when they made their first call to Razzamataz head office it became clear for Furlong that “Razzamataz ticked so many boxes for things that were missing in other places we had worked at”.
“It has a strong ethos, its curriculum is modern and up to date, it covers commercial and musical theatre, it splits the age groups into sensible ranges from four to 18, there is great support from head office and there are plenty of opportunities for training to help schools succeed.”
The ethos throughout Razzamataz classes is about having fun, making new friends and enjoying being active, which leads to happy and healthy children. Students have also gained professional performing work from the West End to major television programmes.
With 20 years’ experience, Razzamataz has perfected the way it trains people to run their own franchises. It offers comprehensive training on how to run a business, from marketing to keeping the office in order, and provides a support mentor to be a source of advice whenever it’s needed. There are regular webinars and training opportunities so that anyone can run a Razzamataz school, even if they have no business experience.
When Furlong and Hextall took over their franchise in the summer of 2015 there were 38 students. By the end of the first term there were 80. That soared into triple figures when they added a Saturday school in 2016, and now there are about 330 students attending classes at Sutton Coldfield. Hextall says it was “a pretty crazy time”, as the two of them began the process of taking over the school while finishing off their degrees.
Furlong says: “Both mine and Gemma’s families have their own businesses so we both had the desire, but neither of us had any real experience and certainly no formal qualifications. Franchising opened our eyes to what can be achieved and was a complete contrast to my own schooling experience, where I was told I was unlikely to reach my goals. We met other young franchisees so there was a very clear route to success. We have support mentors who remind us that we are on the right track and the whole system is there to take away any doubts. Without franchising, we would have got a few weeks in and been overwhelmed and thought we were too young, and it wasn’t realistic for us.”
For Hextall, seeing the way Razzamataz transforms the lives of young people is one of the biggest rewards. “You see people come in on their first day barely able to speak, almost shivering in a corner, and over the year they develop until they’re singing solo on a stage. We had one student who was particularly nervous. It took her weeks to even speak to anybody. Two years later she joined our cast at Her Majesty’s Theatre and sang on a West End stage. It’s immensely emotional.”
“A highlight for me,” Furlong says, “is seeing our team grow around us. When we started we employed three staff. Now we have a team of 15. Some of them were students, some joined as classroom assistants and now they’re teachers. I love developing them, seeing them grow as people.”
With so many other performers and teachers in the network, and a friendly head office always available to talk to, a Razzamataz franchise not only offers a flexible business, but one that is backed up by training and support whenever it’s needed.
Furlong’s advice? “Be prepared to put in the time, the effort, the commitment and the dedication. If you do that you will absolutely see the rewards and they are really worth it.”
As well as rewards, there have been awards, too. Furlong and Hextall’s success means that Sutton Coldfield Razzamataz has won a number of awards. Last year they were in the final three for most outstanding young franchisees at the Approved Franchise Association Awards, and ended up coming second. “We were really amazed. That was the whole of the UK in every sector, not just performing arts,” Furlong says.
In Razzamataz’s own awards, Sutton Coldfield has twice won best community spirit, an award that shows the school is not just succeeding as a business, but as a valued part of the community. “It’s the one we’re most proud of,” Furlong says.
In the course of almost five years, there have been some real highlights. Furlong says: “I remember our first showcase in Birmingham in 2016. It was the first show we’d put on, it was something we’d achieved together, and it was a really humbling moment.”
“But the highs happen every week,” Hextall points out. “I couldn’t just pick one, because every week when I go in there’s something new.”
That’s what makes it worth starting a franchise. You don’t need the business know-how – with 20 years of knowledge and experience, Razzamataz will help with that. All you need is the desire to build something successful and rewarding, and something that changes the lives of young people.