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Reece Donnelly: The Apprentice star reveals big plans to recruit UK franchisees

Reece Donnelly: The Apprentice star reveals big plans to recruit UK franchisees

The entrepreneur explains why he's called 'action' on the children's services franchise industry with Theatre School of Scotland

It’s already been a busy day for Reece Donnelly when he calls me just after lunchtime. The night before, he was on the star-studded red carpet as an attendee at The Brits. This morning, he was interviewing dinner ladies before heading into the office for some afternoon calls.

Clearly Reece wears a lot of hats, but it’s evident that his business, Theatre School of Scotland – a performing arts training facility for children – remains at the centre of everything. The business launched in 2017, when Reece was just 20 years old.

Since then, it’s opened three sites in Glasgow (the country’s head office), Edinburgh, and Greenock. It’s opening a site in Cheshire later this year, before entering the franchise arena, with an aggressive recruitment drive across the UK.

Franchising is the latest in several efforts from Reece to grow the brand at scale. Last year, he was one of the candidates on BBC’s The Apprentice, hoping to land his business plan in front of Lord Alan Sugar. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite make it, bowing out on health grounds (which means technically he wasn’t fired). But the exposure has nevertheless proven fruitful.

“For me it was the perfect platform,” says Reece. “I was getting put through these tasks but I was getting to sell my business every episode. We had 10 million viewers every Thursday night for eight weeks, which for me, was just amazing. I think that’s something that will stay with the brand for years.”

More than a theatre school

Theatre School of Scotland has a comprehensive teaching programme – one that arguably transcends what’s typically considered to be the performing arts offering in the franchise space.

“A lot of people think that we run small dance classes at church halls on a Saturday morning, and that just isn’t the case,” says Reece. The business positions itself as a training base for children hoping to go professional, although some choose to attend purely for fun and a confidence boost.

“I don’t believe that children should be coming in on a Saturday morning to be taught for 45 minutes,” says Reece. “I genuinely believe that there’s a market out there for performers to be teaching the next generation.”

Students aged from three years onwards can enrol in courses such as acting, musical theatre, singing, dancing, and lamda, or take one-to-one lessons. (There’s also a sister business Theatre College of Scotland which is aiming to provide a degree course in the future.)

Sessions take place at one of Theatre School of Scotland’s physical locations, but beyond this the company also does outreach programmes with local schools – something that initially received reticence from the local community.

“When we opened the Greenock site, there were a lot of local schools that felt it was ridiculous for a big school to be moving into the area,” says Reece.

However, Theatre School of Scotland aimed to take a collaborative approach, whereby the business positioned itself as the next step in elevating talented students’ performing arts journeys. “When you have that open approach and when people can see you keep going, they slowly convert,” says Reece.

Now, the business frequently works with schools and has regularly seen local performing arts clubs encourage their students to also attend Theatre School of Scotland. Why? Because Reece has the industry contacts.

The Theatre School has a talent agency called KX Management which runs alongside it, meaning when broadcasters come looking for young performers they get the call.

“Our students can be seen on everything from Disney and CBeebies to BBC One,” says Reece. “Just today, we announced that we’ve got three children who are the voice of Haribo.”

Other high-profile jobs include Call the Midwife Christmas Special which was filmed over three weeks in the Scottish Highlands; the David Walliams book adaptations which are similarly all filmed in Scotland; and Harry Style’s ‘Adore You’ in which a student played the younger version of Harry.

Cultivating audition-ready children requires industry expertise which means all staff must have a BA degree in the creative arts – a requirement that has inadvertently overcome the common challenge of hiring staff to run classes.

“In this industry, you’re always going to have an actor, a singer, or dancer who’s in between professional jobs. And they’re exactly the type of people that should be teaching children,” says Reece.

Filling the socio-economic talent gap

Reece’s appearance on The Apprentice wasn’t just significant for Theatre School of Scotland, but a win for representation. He was the first Scot to appear on the show in eight years, which coincidently chimes with the business’ mission to get greater regional representation onto our TV screens – something Reece is so passionate about he’s decided not to open franchises in Central London.

“There’s still a regionality crisis on our TV screens across the world,” he says. “I think let’s fly the flag from the regions. Up North is amazing. In Wales, there are such talented students. And we’ve just seen a young girl from Ireland play the lead role in Matilda. I think we need more of that.”

This awareness of the disparity between the regions and London is borne from Reece’s own experiences. Although Theatre School of Scotland is seven years old, the entrepreneur has been involved in the industry for much longer. Reece started acting when he was six years old, appearing in shows such as BBC’s Waterloo Road. He then studied BA Drama at the University of Sunderland.

“I think even when I was a child, if I didn’t have a postcode within 45 minutes of the M25 I would have been ruled out of a job,” he says. “And I think that all it takes is for someone on the phone, like me or my team, to make sure that children are represented.

“I come from a working class, if not lower-class area of Scotland. The chances of me doing what I do now were pretty slim. And I would just like every child to realise that there’s much more out there. Don’t set your hopes on getting a job and getting two weeks annual leave in the summer.”

It’s interesting how this regional focus could potentially cross over into the way Reece focuses on the brand as the business begins to franchise into different areas of the country. An obvious change is going to be the brand name – Theatre School of Scotland will change to Theatre School of England, of Ireland, or of Wales, depending on location.

Beyond this, Reece says his focus has been shaped by his homeland. “I think in Scotland you need to be open to building a community and I think across the board, we are a community-led business.”

This has created some unusual collaborations with local businesses. For example, Theatre School of Scotland partnered with Scottish car dealership, Arnold Clark, to bring free classes to the children of employees which were conducted in the show rooms. It was an unexpected action but Reece believes it led to around 200 new students, which is a demonstration of the ‘out the box’ thinking he’s looking for as he begins to partner with franchisees.

The decision to franchise

Franchising has been on the cards for a long time for Theatre School of Scotland, and over the years the business has been approached by numerous people who have been interested in investing. However, Reece has felt it’s not been the right time, until now.

“Whatever franchisees we bring on in these early days, they’re going to need to be prepared to be my best friend at the other side of the phone for the first six months because there’s so much risk for us,” he says. “But I think there’s amazing candidates out there. I think I’d rather share that success with the rest of the UK than keep it bottled up in Scotland.”

Beyond the niceties, there’s potentially a big financial opportunity here too, although financial information is yet to be released. Packages are expected to start from £25,000 and will be dependent on territory, with Reece hoping the big appeal will be the flexibility, the brand reputation, and the six established revenue streams.

“Whether it’s your productions, whether it’s your agency, whether it’s selling outreaches into primary and secondary schools, there are vast ways to make money in this business,” he says.

Although being a staff member comes with the pre-requisite of a degree, franchisees will not necessarily need the same qualifications so long as they take on a managerial role. “My ideal franchisee needs to be someone that’s filled with energy and gets the mindset we’re in,” says Reece.

This mindset comprises positivity, strong leadership, the ability to think outside the box, and ultimately someone who can understand the value of the brand. These traits are all characteristics that Reece feels have personally helped him to put himself out into the public space and essentially ignore unsubstantiated criticism.

“I’m a massive believer in positivity, spirituality,” he says. “I think I read The Secret as soon as I could read, and that ethos has carried through into my adult years.”

No doubt, this optimism will continue as Theatre School of Scotland opens its doors in England for the first time later this year – with Wales and Ireland hopefully in tow.

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