by Julie Holt Lucia
Better at choreographing than accounting? Let a financial whiz handle the numbers.
Raise your hand, studio owners: how many of you decided to open a dance school becaushttps://rheegold.com/let-a-financial-…ndle-the-numbers/e you love accounting? Anyone?
Most studio owners are passionate about dance and teaching, not accounting or financial planning. “The dance side” of the studio, as we are wont to say, is what we love, and live for. “The business side,” however, is what we grudgingly plod through because it allows us to do what we love. From daily accounts receivable and accounts payable, to monthly account reconciliations, to marketing, to data entry, to preparing annual tax returns—the business side requires diligent attention if we want our studios to succeed.
So, what if we hired someone who was as passionate about the books as we are about dance? It would be the best of both worlds—and it’s possible. The owners of three studios who operate this way were willing to share their tips on working with a business manager, or director, or advisor. No matter the title, these folks take the financial bull by the horns.
A business manager’s role
What distinguishes a business manager from an office manager? The biggest difference is that a business manager’s role extends well beyond the day-to-day operations of the studio. For example, at Florida School for Dance Education in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, business director Brenda Lougheed’s tasks run the gamut: she not only handles the daily front desk duties, she maintains the payroll, accounts receivable and accounts payable, and prepares the studio’s financial statements and tax returns. She also lends her budgeting expertise when the owners plan for special events and productions.
“The dance side” of the studio is what we love, and live for. “The business side,” however, is what we grudgingly plod through because it allows us to do what we love.
“Three of us own the studio together,” explains director Michele Zehner, whose co-owners are Lougheed and assistant director Maria Konrad. “Maria and I knew that we did not have great heads for accounting and business, so we felt that Brenda would complete the picture.”
Lougheed agrees that her role as business director helps round out the studio. Her degree in accounting, along with her love for the arts, makes her a perfect match for the school’s business needs. She is able to act as a liaison with the directors, instructors, customers, and vendors. “[The directors and instructors] are not burdened with parental concerns or account issues, allowing them to focus on the instructional aspects of the business,” Lougheed says.
Similarly, Steppin’ Out Studio of Dance in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has three co-owners. One is business manager Kris Laughlin, whose background includes 26 years in banking marketing. Laughlin typically works behind the scenes (the school has front-office staff as well), managing the financial and administrative tasks. Her duties include monitoring accounts receivable and accounts payable, maintaining the school’s website, communicating with parents, and editing music.
“My marketing and business management skills were a good match for this work,” says Laughlin, who fell in love with the dance world at her two daughters’ first dance recital in 2004. She started volunteering in the front office soon after and became a co-owner in 2010. “I make about 20 percent of my former salary, but I’m far happier.”
Steppin’ Out’s studio director and principal owner, Beth Berry, considers Laughlin to be one of the school’s most important assets. “I am so blessed to have [a business manager] with an MBA and an extensive background in banking,” Berry says. “With her values and shared vision for the studio, we make a great team.”
Things are structured differently at Tonawanda Dance Arts in Tonawanda, New York, where Melanie Boniszewski is the sole owner and director. Her husband, Kevin Boniszewski, has been handling the business affairs of the studio for 17 years, although not as a paid employee. His role is more business advisor than decision maker, overseeing the “big picture” of the finances while allowing Melanie to focus on the details. He studies the studio’s monthly income and expenses, budgets for the slower summer months, and considers which investments should be made.
“I learned very early on after I purchased this business that I would need someone to help with the business end of it,” Melanie says. “Doing the financials is not my strength or my favorite thing to do. [Kevin] gives me all the financial information I need to know before I make final decisions.”
Pros and cons
As with any job, business management at a dance school has its benefits and challenges. At Steppin’ Out, one of the challenges is geographic. Berry has one residence in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the school is, and one in Los Angeles, California, where she oversees her daughter’s acting and modeling career.
“She is very involved in most aspects of the studio,” says Laughlin, “but having Beth in California is tricky sometimes. Other than when she’s here on visits, it’s communication by phone or email.”
For the Boniszewskis, the challenges are twofold: planning for the lean summer months at Tonawanda Dance Arts, and working on the business at home together.
“Planning for the months when revenue is scarce is tough,” Kevin says. “As for working with your wife, a family business is just that. Sometimes you would like to turn it off at home, but that cannot always be done easily.”
At Florida School for Dance Education, Zehner and Konrad believe that Lougheed is the perfect complement to their artistic endeavors—and Lougheed loves her role as business director—but sometimes there are unavoidable communication hiccups.
“Sometimes people get left out of the loop,” particularly since the school is still growing, Zehner says. “We do have a weekly meeting, but things come up and the information may not make it to all of us.”
Still, all parties agree that the benefits of having someone dedicated to the business dealings of a studio outweigh the challenges. Berry, for example, appreciates the security it offers as well as the savings to the school’s bottom line. “It is reassuring for me to know that I have a committed and knowledgeable person handling the finances and assisting me in marketing,” Berry says. “Many studio directors may feel they cannot afford a business manager, but I actually save money because I give my outside accountant minimal work to do. Whenever I have a business or finance question, all I need to do is ask Kris.”
Konrad believes that having a business manager allows her to work more effectively and efficiently. “The model we have with a business director allows my students to know that I am here solely to do what I do best,” she says. “They know there is a separation that allows us [teacher and students] to connect artistically, and what is occurring financially/administratively is left out of the classroom or rehearsal hall.”
Konrad and Zehner also agree that Lougheed’s business expertise helps them focus on being creative, instead of getting weighed down by financial concerns. They might think an idea is off the table because of high costs, but often Lougheed will find a way to make what they want to do—creating a new work or restaging a ballet, for example—possible within their budget. “I take great pride in using my financial background to solve financial and budgetary issues,” Lougheed says.
Melanie Boniszewski recognizes that one of Kevin’s biggest contributions to Tonawanda Dance Arts is advising her on how to spend money wisely in order to get a proper return on an investment. With his guidance, she says, they have proved the old adage “You have to spend money to make money” to be true. “We spend quite a bit of money on advertising,” says Melanie, “and we track our advertising to make sure that it is working, to see where it is working best.”
Kevin also ensures that they spend money in ways that boost Melanie’s knowledge and skill as a teacher and business owner, like having her attend continuing education classes and business seminars. Spending money on those things has motivated Melanie to try new things—such as improving the school’s social media presence—and in turn, made the business more successful.
Recommendations for studio owners
If you’re going to hire a business manager who has a presence at the front desk, it should be someone who’s tough enough not to get pushed around, suggests Zehner.
Lougheed is adamant that those in a position like hers should have a strong financial background, and goes even further, saying that “it is essential that a studio have a business director, preferably someone who is not an instructor and who is focused on the operations of the business and its marketing and growth potentials.”
The Boniszewskis feel similarly about their business model. Whether the person is paid by the studio or not, says Kevin, you’ll want to know that he or she is trustworthy and works well with others, because handling the finances is such a vital role at any business.
Laughlin makes the point another way: “Studio owners can survive in this business without business skills, but they may not succeed long-term. Artistically inclined owners should spend time doing what they love—dancing and teaching.” She has helped Steppin’ Out grow through her business oversight—monitoring the budget and collections, and helping develop new student opportunities, such as short-term classes at local afterschool programs.
“Let someone else, who enjoys the ‘administrivia’—like me—do that part,” she says. “It works for us.”
It just might work for you, too.