Merging with another studio to create a bigger and better school

“Three years ago I was burning out, not making any money and the rent was killing me,” says Larisa Dahabi, owner of the former Mount Pleasant School of Performing Arts in Mount Pleasant, SC. “I knew something needed to change.” She reached out to Ann Bebergal, owner of the rival Academy of Dance Arts and brought up the idea of joining forces. “Ann said she’d hate for me to close my doors—but she should have loved that,” says Dahabi, because the two studios were, at the time, in direct competition. While studio owners may join forces for a performance or community event, combining their operations for much more is rare. Yet faced with rising operating costs, space limitations or dwindling enrollment, some find it makes sense to legally merge with their nearby competitors to create a bigger and often better school.

Today, Bebergal operates the Academy of Dance Arts while Dahabi runs the school’s performing company, and both are satisfied with the results of the merger. But as they’ll tell you, it’s not an easy task—merging requires careful planning, communication and negotiation.

Ann Bebergal and Larisa Dahabi

Academy of Dance Arts

225 students

Mount Pleasant, SC

When conversations about merging began in 2009, both Bebergal and Dahabi were skeptical. But as discussions continued, they found that their strengths as individual studio owners were complementary. For instance, Bebergal’s school concentrated mostly on training, and Dahabi had a successful performance program. Ultimately it was decided that the school would continue to run as Academy of Dance Arts under the direction of Bebergal, while Dahabi would run the Mount Pleasant Performing Arts Company.

Bebergal’s space was large enough to accommodate the extra dancers, and they added more classes to the schedule to keep class sizes small.

The two directors discussed every idea, but there were differences in their teaching styles that had to be ironed out. “I teach slowly and meticulously, focusing on technique and analysis of the basics,” Bebergal says. “Larisa tends to go for more complicated combinations, challenging their memory. She likes complex and fast. So I teach most of the young dancers slowly. But when the advanced girls take my classes, they get a chance to break down the movements to their basic content.”

Dahabi agrees about their differences. “I think that it actually enhances the dancer,” she says. “They become better prepared for dancing and adjusting in the future.”

Shannon Riegling and Cathy Smith

Shannon’s Progressions Dance Studio

200 students

Florence, KY

When Shannon Riegling was looking to grow her All About Dance studio, she was intrigued with the idea of merging with Progressions Dance Studio to make it happen. “I was looking to move to something bigger, and Cathy wanted to concentrate on teaching. And that’s how our conversation started,” Riegling says.

The two met after Riegling placed an ad in the local paper expressing a plan to move to a larger location. Smith responded, thinking it was the perfect opportunity for her to scale back and eventually sell her business but still be involved as a teacher and co-director in the meantime.

Recognizing that the transaction was going to be complex because complete ownership would transfer to Riegling, they each found someone to represent their interests. “I used a consultant, and she used her husband and they negotiated everything, which I think is the smart way to do it,” Riegling says. “It wasn’t just a merger, so we all sat down together to make sure we weren’t overstepping each other.”

Today, the studio is known as Shannon’s Progressions Dance Studio and operates out of a newly remodeled facility that includes two large dance studios, a dance retail store and a waiting area. Faculty members from both studios were retained, and the bigger space allowed new classes to be formed.

But there were sticking points. For instance, Riegling ran her themed recitals with parent volunteers, while Smith was used to a more polished performance run exclusively by faculty and staff.

Another major difference revolved around scheduling. All About Dance had primarily offered combination classes (such as a ballet/tap), while Progressions Dance Studio conducted classes for each discipline. Ultimately, though, Riegling held final say, and Smith conceded to the scheduling and recital changes. But Riegling makes a point to listen to her co-owner. “One tip I can offer is that if you’re going to do this, you really need to establish who is going to make the final decision from the get-go,” Riegling says. “But we take each other’s advice and do what’s best for the studio. It all works out.”

Lise Houlton

Dance Institute

200 students

Minneapolis, MN

Ballet Arts Minnesota and Minnesota Dance Theatre merged in 2006 to become the Dance Institute, the official school of Minnesota Dance Theatre, but not everything went as planned.

At the time, one organization was a school, and the other a company and school. The two rented space in the same building and competed for the same students and accompanists. They were always negotiating and dodging each other for use of sublets.

“Throughout the discussions that preceded the merger, we found great common ground in our belief systems, and our mission statements were similar,” says artistic director Lise Houlton, who enlisted the help of an arts consultant to mediate the process. “Having a merged faculty and accompaniment brought a spirit of collective energy to the building.”

Problems arose, however, when the new board voted not to fund Ballet Arts Minnesota’s outreach program that gave youngsters the opportunity to perform in Minnesota Dance Theatre’s Nutcracker Fantasy. This led to the departure of Marcia Chapman, Ballet Arts Minnesota’s original director, and two teachers. Most of the students remained, but it took some time for the dust to settle.

Houlton believes things could have been different and advises taking extreme care when discussing finances. “Look closely at the financial situation. Make a map and make sure there is a strong collaboration,” she says. “Ours could have been a kinder, gentler attrition, as opposed to people leaving after the fact with some heartbreak.” DT 

 

Keith Loria is a business writer based in Virginia.

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