The movie might be 18 years old, but Jack Black’s turn in “School of Rock” still enjoys popularity in South Africa, where a brother-and-sister duo have set out to bring music education to one of the continent’s most populous countries.
“It’s very, very recognizable in South Africa,” said Keith Taeuber of the movie loosely based on the franchise’s founder. “It leaves you with a feel-good vibe and you can’t help wanting to get a piece of that action yourself.”
Taeuber and his sister, Leigh Spaun, opened the first School of Rock in South Africa six years ago, and the success of their location in the Cape Town suburb of Claremont prompted the duo to sign a master franchise agreement to open at least eight new locations across the country. To hear them tell it, though, there’s opportunity for many more.
“Forty locations is the vision,” said Spaun, who added they undertook a market survey before the COVID-19 pandemic and prioritized 14 city center locales within the major cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban. Those cities all have “vastly different demographics,” added Taeuber, and the school’s offerings will reflect that.
South Africa, he continued, “has 11 or 12 official languages, different cultures and sub cultures within those cultures.” Their ability to incorporate what he described as an “African flavor” into the music and performances means their schools can adapt as needed while tapping into the local knowledge of their sub-franchisees.
Taeuber, a self-taught musician who plays bass guitar, saxophone and piano, and who before launching School of Rock was managing a large farming operation in South Africa, said he decided to “follow my heart, follow my passion.” He looked into starting his own music school before discovering the franchise through an internet search.
“We were both ready to skip out of the corporate world,” said Taeuber of he and Spaun, whose career was in media, sales and publishing. “We said, if we opened a rock school in South Africa, what would that look like? And then we discovered the School of Rock model and it was a perfect fit. We saw a massive opportunity.”
During a visit to the corporate office, which at the time was in suburban Chicago, Spaun said she “saw a business that had soul and heart,” and its mission of building confidence and inspiring students resonated with her. “We heard the same sentiment from other franchisees. We met students and parents and heard stories of how literally School of Rock saved their lives,” she said.
When Spaun and Taeuber opened their location in 2015, leasing space within the Standard Bank Galleria next to Cavendish Square, a large shopping center, the concept quickly took off, they said. “Within the first year we recognized we could have more than one location,” said Taeuber.
Then in August 2020 they moved into a larger, more prominent space to accommodate weekly lessons for about 300 students and, once their franchise expansion plans were firmly in place, serve as their South African headquarters. “With COVID, people weren’t willing to go back into a mall setting,” noted Spaun of another reason for the move.
The duo opted to sign a master franchise agreement rather than open more of their own locations because School of Rock is “a very hands-on business,” said Taeuber. “It’s a business that requires personal attention.” He said they’ve been able to demonstrate growth through the pandemic and after—he credited School of Rock’s quick implementation of virtual programs—and pointed out the demand is there from parents looking for activities for their kids. “Parents are keen to find things for their kids that add value,” he said.
Music’s ‘universal appeal’
Of the system’s nearly 300 schools, about 50 of them are spread across 12 countries, including Spain, Brazil and the Philippines, with agreements signed last year for Ireland and Taiwan. Tony Padulo, hired in 2017 as chief development officer and also overseeing international growth, said School of Rock benefits from the “universal appeal of music,” especially rock music, with the likes of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Queen and Led Zeppelin enjoying worldwide fame.
“Bringing School of Rock into international markets or cultures … it’s a far easier concept to transport than my experience in food, for example,” said Padulo, who spent 10 of his 22 years at Dunkin’ Brands leading international development.
While the need to replicate recipes or adapt menus to dietary differences doesn’t exist for School of Rock, there’s still a need for strong systems, even as franchisees eventually work in music from artists native to their countries. “Franchisees don’t deviate from the program for the first year or so,” said Padulo, and the core curriculum is consistent, with recommended show packages to conclude each of three “seasons” throughout the year.
When evaluating potential international markets, Padulo undertakes a process of analyzing the music industry to understand its acceptance of rock and how that music is performed. “Are there venues? Do music tours go there?” are some of the questions he asks, and before signing a master franchise agreement Padulo will travel to the market and spend several days touring the area with the prospective franchisees.
“It’s not inexpensive,” he said of this process, “but it’s building the foundation with the franchisee in the market.” Padulo also uses the time to analyze the area’s business environment and gauge retail activity while also helping franchisees identify what he called “pockets of wealth” where parents can afford to pay the monthly lesson rate.
“We’re a premium product,” he said, and in the U.S. the average is about $315 per month for lessons. “In international markets, we price according to the cost of living but we still price at a premium level.”
In South Africa, which Padulo visited in early 2020, he said he was surprised by the number of pockets of wealth “and you could see those pockets were distinguished and distinctly defined.” That knowledge helped him work with Taeuber and Spaun to prioritize cities for their development plan. International franchisees must operate their own school for at least a year before adding additional locations or signing a master deal.