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When It's Time to Leave: 3 Former Owners on How to Find the Right Successor for Your Studio

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If you run a dance studio, you know it's a 24/7 commitment. It's a tough and rewarding job, but like everything in life, there comes time for a change, a chance to slow down or move on to the next life venture. If you're like Danie Beck, who owned Dance Unlimited for 40 years, a former student may want to take over your business—and need your advice. Or, if you're like Deborah Riley, who co-directed a nonprofit dance school, you'll want your school to have a long life beyond your tenure.

Whatever your retirement scenario, your legacy and financial security may well be affected by the successor you choose and how smooth a transition it is for your staff and students. Three studio directors who have recently gone through the succession process offer their stories and advice.


1. If at First You Don't Succeed When Danie Beck decided to sell her Miami-based studio in 2005, her daughter—then a teacher and assistant director at Dance Unlimited—offered to buy it. Three years later, though, she'd changed her mind, after the studio became too much to juggle with her family responsibilities. Because the recession had just hit, Beck worried her daughter would have a hard time finding another buyer. "People are lucky if they can buy bread and milk," she remembers saying. "There's not going to be a line outside the door to buy the studio." When her daughter confessed that she'd have to close the studio without a buyer, Beck bought the studio back.

Shortly thereafter, she approached a student-turned-instructor who had earlier expressed interest in owning her own studio. They struck a deal, and Beck mentored her for two years, working her up the ranks so it would be an easy transition. "It was a training period," says Beck.

Word of Advice Definitely have a written agreement, Beck says, and spell out everything. "Even with my daughter, we went through lawyers," she says. "Whether you sell to your family or a stranger out of state, it's still a business deal. You must have legal guidance."

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2. From Hands-On to Hands-Off After 30 years of being a studio owner, Susan Mendoza Friedman wanted to focus more on her charity organization, Dancing for a Cure. She put up a few ads to sell her studio in Hyannis, Massachusetts, but nothing really came of it. "It was 2008 or 2009—the economy was not great," Friedman says. "Even though I had a really good reputation as the biggest, most successful dance studio on the Cape, it was hard to find the right person."

Then a faculty member who had worked with Friedman for eight years expressed interest in taking over. "She was very knowledgeable of the studio, and we had a great relationship," Friedman says. They talked, and eventually agreed on a price. They structured it as a three-year gradual buyout, with the new owner paying a portion each year toward the sale price while remaining a salaried faculty member. (Friedman consulted with SCORE, which offers free advice to small businesses, and spoke with attorneys before the purchase-of-sale agreement.)

Over the buyout period, she trained the new owner by giving her more tasks and increased accountability—and, consequently, higher pay. "It was very clear what would happen each year in terms of her responsibilities and how much more she would make in salary," Friedman says.

Word of Advice Don't stay on as a teacher after you sell, says Friedman. Despite being advised not to, she included a clause in her agreement stating she could remain an instructor. But that lasted only for two years—she found the urge to get involved in the business side too difficult to resist. "You have to be able to have no say or input in the running of the studio," she says.

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3. Slow and Steady Wins the Race Dance Place, a nonprofit community arts center in Washington, DC, that serves as both a school and performance space, was founded in 1980 by Carla Perlo. In 2003, Deborah Riley, who has held various roles at Dance Place for 30 years, came onboard as co-director with Perlo. The two shared both artistic and executive management and vision of the organization.

When Perlo and Riley began considering retirement, they gave Dance Place's board of directors two years' notice, per their contracts. "It's a huge transition when a founder steps away from that directorship role," says Riley. Six months into their two-year notice, Perlo and Riley helped the board create and set in motion a three-year leadership-succession strategy. Using grant funding, they hired a consultant to lead the strategic planning process. This upcoming season marks the final year of the three-year transition plan—and the first without Perlo and Riley, who retire at the start of September.

If that sounds like a long time to stick around and help out, that's because Dance Place is Riley and Perlo's baby. "We wanted plenty of time to engage in the search process, because we knew it was going to be difficult to find exactly the right person to take the organization into the future," says Riley. "We needed the time to fully absorb making such a drastic change for the organization."

Dance Place worked with an outside consultant to write a job description, receive applications, vet all applicants and help prepare for the interview process. Once the pool of applicants had been narrowed down, Perlo, Riley and staff had opportunities to interact with the candidates. Last spring, Dance Place announced its next director: Christopher K. Morgan, who starts this month, after a month of mentorship by Perlo and Riley. Both Riley and Perlo will receive a modest severance pay, disbursed over two years.

Word of Advice Time is crucial to the transition process, Riley says. Having a lengthy plan helped Dance Place choose and begin to transition to a new director efficiently. "Because we're a very dynamic, densely programmed organization, and we're working as hard as we can to keep up, we knew it would take time to fit in another challenging process," she says.

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