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Franchising influencer: meet the woman behind the theatre school

Franchising influencer: meet the woman behind the theatre school

Denise Hutton-Gosney discusses her 20-plus years’ experience, juggling running a business with being a SEN parent, what the pandemic has taught her and her exciting plans for the future

Congratulations to Denise Hutton-Gosney, MD and founder of Razzamataz Theatre Schools. Denise has been announced as one of the 100 Influential Women in Franchising 2020 in the Education and Children’s sector.

What’s your background?

Denise: I was born in Renfrew, Scotland in 1972. I was the youngest of four children and money was very tight. My oldest brother has cerebral palsy and there was very little support for families at this time, causing additional pressure for my parents. I was a very shy child, but I loved to dance and although it was a stretch financially for me to attend dancing classes, my parents often went without so I could continue my passion, which included competing in lots of disco dancing competitions. When I left school, I worked as a professional dancer performing in summer seasons, luxury cruise ships, pantomimes, the London Palladium, European and UK tours and training to be a trapeze artist as part of The Millennium Dome, now known as the 02.

What were the reasons behind launching Razzamataz?

Denise: After my career as a dancer, I knew I always wanted to stay within the performing arts industry, so I opened the first Razzamataz in 2000. The idea was to create a place where children and young people could be nurtured and supported. Performing arts gave me the confidence that I was lacking as a child so I understood first-hand how it could change lives. I was hugely ambitious so when the opportunity came to appear on BBC’s Dragons’ Den in January 2007, I jumped on it and that pushed my business to new heights after Duncan Bannatyne offered me the full investment.

What attracted you to the franchise sector?

Denise: I opened the first Razzamataz in 2000 and in the early days, I moved around the country, first setting up several schools in Cumbria, Paisley, Dumfries and Galloway. The classes were so popular that I couldn’t keep up with demand so the idea to franchise was just to meet the obvious need. Initially, the franchisees were dancer friends of mine who wanted more financial security and the career growth which comes from owning a theatre school. Today, our franchisees come from a wide variety of backgrounds. We have many parents who love it because of the flexibility it offers, we have former performers who like me, were desperate to stay in the industry but have a regular income and a financially secure future and we have many teachers that want more control over their careers.

How do you manage being a SEN parent with running a business?

Denise: In January 2017, my youngest son Lewis who was just two, was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness, type 1 diabetes. He has a very complicated care plan that has been difficult to manage but we are making good progress. Caring for Lewis has made me fully appreciate the struggles that other SEN parents go through. I’m lucky that I have my own business so I can work around Lewis and his complicated needs. He can’t always attend school and were I employed in a more traditional nine-to-five, I just don’t think I would manage. There are other franchisees in the Razzamataz network that also have SEN children so we are a good support to one another. As a theatre school network, we go out of our way to make each Razzamataz as inclusive to all children as possible regardless of any physical or emotional difficulties they may face. Lewis loves being a student at Razzamataz Penrith and Razzamataz Carlisle and I get such joy from seeing how many other SEN children and siblings have benefitted from being a part of our schools.

What was the impact of the pandemic on Razzamataz?

Denise: We had done lots of work to prepare for COVID-19, we knew there would be disruption but I don’t think anyone could have predicted what was to come. Every one of our schools had to close its doors but we knew that we couldn’t just abandon our students. We worked night and day to prepare our franchisees for taking their classes online, delivering the information in bite-size chunks to not overwhelm them. It was incredibly stressful but as soon as the children started the classes and all the additional free activities that we offered, the testimonials from parents thanking us came flooding in. Today, 100 per cent of our theatre schools are now re-opened, so children can get back to doing what they love. On average, we have between 70 per cent - 90 per cent student return rate, demonstrating that our communication and support of our customers during lockdown has been reciprocated with their customer loyalty.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your role?

Denise: My dad died when I was just 23, leaving us as a family with difficulties to pay for his funeral. My brother still lives with my mum who is nearly 90 and my hero! Through building Razzamataz, I have become financially secure and was able to buy my mum’s house, take her on holidays and treat her to meals out. Her struggle gave me a better life so it is lovely that I can do this for her now. I’ve got to meet many inspiring people through Razzamataz. We’ve worked with Ashley Banjo and Diversity, lots of different Broadway and West End stars and business mentor and author Penny Power OBE. Through these collaborations, we have seen our franchisees become hugely successful in their own right, winning prestigious awards and being financially independent. However, the most rewarding aspect is always watching the children progress. It’s a privilege to watch these shy young children become confident adults. I’ve former students who are now starring in musical theatre shows in the West End and so many others who have gone on to have successful careers and still credit their time at Razzamataz for giving them the confidence to follow their dreams.

What advice can you offer anyone considering a franchise?

Denise: Research what level of support you are going to receive. We heavily invest in our franchisees at every stage of their growth. Training is just the very start of it; we continue to offer one-to-one support, growth hubs, webinars with industry experts and free attendance to our yearly regional meets and Conference and Awards Night. Make sure you speak to other franchisees in the network and don’t forget to find out what customers think of the brand by doing some research on social media.

What are the key things you have learned in business?

Denise: Build a great team around you and invest in people that will take your business to the next stage. I’ve worked with the same people for 15 years now and we are a loyal and close-knit team although we also know how to have fun. Business is about making connections with people, being open to new ideas and taking everyone with you on a journey of growth.

Future plans

Denise: We are really excited to be working with Matt Fiddes, a former bodyguard to Michael Jackson and a successful entrepreneur and franchising expert. Matt runs one of the largest chains of martial arts schools in the world with more than 1,000 locations and he has been working closely with us to help the entire network become more profitable and to bring further enrichment to our students’ overall experience. He will also be looking to improve and streamline the operations and ultimately improve profitability. Matt has been incredible in this uncertain time and is working with us to provide even more opportunities for both students and franchisees. 

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