Sarah Kelly reflects on her career and the life lessons she brings to her role as the CEO of children’s franchise Stagecoach Performing Arts
Sarah Kelly’s resume reads like a starstudded cast of world-renowned brands – from being CEO of weight management company LighterLife for three years and clocking up time with Warner Bros. Entertainment and LOVEFiLM, to her decade in the fast-food franchise space where she helped businesses like Burger King and Wendy’s International conquer the globe. Since 2013, she has been CEO of Stagecoach Performing Arts, where she is modernizing the business for the future. Stagecoach is on a mission to become the go-to name in child enrichment franchising in the world.
Sarah owes her highly accomplished career to her work ethic, instilled in her by her parents. She recalls working at her father’s butcher shop from as young as eight. “I remember being in the shop on Saturdays – from very early on I knew the value of hard work and money thanks to my dad,” she says.
It was not only her father that taught her the value of a disciplined work ethic, as her mother was also “cut from the same cloth”. “She absolutely gave us the ethic that education can give you choices in life. We were never allowed off sick and always had to go to school,” continues Sarah.
A tiny but significant detail
Although she grew up with her father owning a chain of shops, Sarah went down the education route, opting to go to the University of Portsmouth to embark on a business studies degree in hotel and catering.
However, things could have turned out very differently had it not been for one tiny but significant detail. “I loved biology and the understanding of the sense of being a human. I would have loved to have been a surgeon or a doctor but I cannot stand the sight of blood, so that dream had to end quickly. On the flip side, I was very good at catering and I like dealing with people. It seemed like the right industry to get into,” she explains.
In her third year at university, Sarah had a monumental experience that put her on the road to success. She explains: “I worked at the largest hotel in London called the Regent Palace Hotel in Piccadilly Circus. It was a 1,500-bed hotel and I worked in every department, including reception and security.”
It was there where she was also introduced to the marketing and sales team. “I really enjoyed the whole process and loved the creative energy in marketing and how it shapes a business’ direction,” she adds. “I have always been interested in the human psyche and marketing is all about consumer psychology.”
Answering the call
After finding her calling, she went back to university and majored in marketing in her final year. Sarah was soon snapped up by the Forte Group to work at its head office as a marketing graduate. Although now defunct, the hotel chain was massive in those days. “It was an 800-hotel strong global organization when I joined,” says Sarah. “I was lucky enough to get a placement in the company’s management program. More than 3,500 people applied for two spots in sales and marketing, and I got the marketing position.
“You can’t do everything on your own, especially if you are a CEO, so you need to craft a team like in an orchestra, playing the right instruments to be able to create a symphony at the end”
After a couple of years at Forte Group and another two at a marketing agency, Sarah began her “decade in fast food” and franchising. She joined Burger King in January 1990 as its marketing director for Europe and the Middle East. Burger King had launched in the U.K. at the time and wanted to take on McDonald’s, which was already an established player in the market.
An ‘interesting’ decade in fast food
“It was fast-growing, high pay, sales-focused but also retail-orientated, and being in marketing, there were a lot of media-driven campaigns,” says Sarah. “It was a great experience to not only get into franchising and understand it but also to get a highly paid marketing position. There was great development and growth for me in this period which is why I stayed so long in the organization.”
At Burger King and later at Wendy’s International, Sarah served as the marketing director for franchising across 25 countries in Europe and the Middle East. “I was working with master franchisees in those countries to develop their marketing for the business and to make sure it was in line with the global voice,” she says.
Sarah candidly describes this period of her career as “interesting”, especially when going into countries like Poland and Hungary, when the Berlin Wall had just come down, or the Middle East, where the culture was vastly different.
“The concepts of customer service, marketing and this shiny American brand coming into a market where only about five per cent of the population could afford to buy the product was a very interesting positioning piece,” says Sarah.
Another eye-opener was navigating being a woman in a senior position when entering a market that was primarily male-driven. “A lot of the time I had to keep my mouth zipped up, from a female perspective,” says Sarah.
And how did she manage to still lead and be heard in a patriarchal society? “Generally, as a woman in business, you use the same skills that you do in franchising: persuasion, facilitating using evidence to help franchisees grow their business, and staying professional at all times.”
In search of the golden nugget
Other important lessons were recognizing the importance of cultural sensitivity and listening to the master franchisee of a market. “As they often come from that country, they have a really good understanding of the cultural needs of the market,” she says, but that is not to say that she doesn’t do her own research too. “Always do your own piece of research so you have evidence against what franchisees or the master franchisees are telling you.
“Look for the key deliverables; the golden nuggets that transcend cultures. What you need to sometimes change is the tonality of how you deliver the message.”
An example of this is Stagecoach’s current brand positioning, which is ‘Creative Courage for Life’. The brand aims to develop children’s life skills through the performing arts and give them the creative courage to go forward and accomplish on the stage of life. “This grows their confidence, self-esteem, empathy and self-expression through the creative medium of performing arts and that has global value,” explains Sarah. “In today’s world where you’re not sure what the jobs of the future are going to be, one thing that’s always going to be needed is creativity to further innovation.”
In the U.K., parents are singularly driven when it comes to their children. It’s about evidence of attainment. Thus, the educational framework incorporates exams or some form of certification to evidence a child’s progress.
However, in Germany, parents don’t want their children stressed, especially outside their school environment. To adapt to this need, Stagecoach focuses its classes on using collective play through performing arts to understand life skills. “So where we have ‘Creative Courage for Life’ as our positioning, in Germany, it is tweaked to ‘Auf der Bühne des Lebens spielen’, which means ‘playing on the stage of life’,” says Sarah.
STAGECOACH PERFORMING ARTS BY NUMBERS
Perfection is overrated
As the 90s drew to an end, so did Sarah’s time in fast food as she wanted to be closer to home and her family. Using her marketing network, she landed a job as the director of marketing and sales for Warner Bros. Entertainment, where she worked on the “little known” Harry Potter franchise.
More importantly, this was where Sarah learned a valuable leadership lesson. She says: “Along the way you meet different people but it was at Warner Bros. where I learned strength-based management, which means surrounding yourself with the right people in the right positions.
“You can’t do everything on your own, especially if you are a CEO, so you need to craft a team like in an orchestra, playing the right instruments to be able to create a symphony at the end, which is what I have done at Stagecoach.”
After her time at Warner Bros. Entertainment, Sarah took up more flexible consultancy roles at LOVEFiLM and then at Coffee Nation, to spend more time with her daughter. She also went back to school, getting a diploma in counseling and psychotherapy at the University of Hertfordshire. “Becoming a psychotherapist allowed me to understand my own strengths and weaknesses. I learned that perfection is overrated and good enough is okay,” she says.
During this phase of her life, Sarah came across weight-management franchise, LighterLife, where she was hoping to join as a franchisee but instead was offered the job as head of franchising development. Not long after joining did Sarah become CEO of the brand.
From specialist to generalist
Although she had been in leadership roles before, this was new territory for her as she went from specialist in marketing and franchising to a generalist. It was here where Sarah saw the lessons she learned at Warner Bros. Entertainment come into play.
After leaving LighterLife in April 2013, Sarah took some time to think about her future and by September she was appointed as the CEO of Stagecoach. At the time the 20-plus year franchise was undergoing a massive change. The founders were stepping away from the business and it was Sarah’s mission to take the brand to the next level. She says: “I’m an optimist and I can always see an opportunity to build. The lack of funding in the arts in mainstream education has resulted in serious danger of a whole generation of children growing up without art – I see Stagecoach filling that gap by helping children develop life skills through the performing arts.”
Sarah also chose the franchise for its ability to offer self-employment, especially for women. “67 per cent of women have returned to self-employment in the last 10 years due to the need for flexible working and over 80 per cent of our franchisees are now female,” she says. While on a personal note, she took on the mammoth task because she wanted to understand the industry better and support her daughter on her performing arts journey.
‘Evolution not revolution’
So what is next for Sarah and the brand? “At Stagecoach, we named it ‘evolution not revolution’,” she says. “This business has a passionate heart but it was not articulated.” She knew that once she uncovered the DNA of the business, she could unlock its true potential and this lay in connecting with the franchisees.
“As it is about unlocking potential by developing life skills through the performing arts, we named it ‘Creative Courage for Life’. In fact, we trademarked it. Our whole campaign has been built around this single unifying idea and this was a positioning that everyone could get behind. We were finally putting words to the idea,” she adds.
Stagecoach is on a mission to double the size of the business and this has instilled a growth mindset in its franchisees, some of whom have quadrupled their businesses. “We have more than doubled our profit margin and are on our way to doubling the amount of students, too.
“After spending the last six years making sure we have a proven model that has been branded correctly, we are going full throttle to take the brand worldwide. Stagecoach is in eight countries already and we are looking to solidify our presence in Australia, Canada and Germany, which are our core markets outside the U.K. We also have a presence in Thailand and are having conversations in China, the U.S., India and the Gulf,” says Sarah.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Peters is a staff writer for Global Franchise and What Franchise.