By Peter Saunders
Ellie Reynolds is both the joint franchisor for Helen O’Grady Drama Academy in Canada and the owner/operator for its classes in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). As such, she appreciates the need to balance a national franchise expansion strategy with the local challenges of connecting with both schools and non-profit organizations to get her company’s drama lessons to children in a fun and convenient context.
On her earlier entrepreneurialism
I started my career when I arrived in Canada from Ireland 27 years ago. I’ve always been highly entrepreneurial.
To begin with, I launched a plastic recycling company. It was the first of its kind in North America, with the capability to accept post-consumer waste plastics from blue box recycling programs and then to turn those materials into a new, finished product: plastic lumber.
From there, I continued my career within the consumer packaged goods arena as a marketer, helping bring brands to life for top-tier organizations like Maxell and Fujifilm.
Eventually, I wanted to work on my own. I started up a consultancy, Ellie-Corp, to help grow other people’s businesses.
On bringing the system to Canada
I recognized a need for a self-development program for children. When my own kids were attending school here in Canada, there never seemed to be much in the way of programs that would prepare them with life skills like self-esteem, confidence, articulation and social skills.
Also, unlike in the past, children today are spending a great deal of time in a ‘thumb war,’ interacting through mobile devices rather than in person. As a result, many of them lack core competencies in communication, speech and empathy.
So, I decided to review the market and see what concepts were available. Finding nothing within Canada, I continued my search globally, which is how I came across the Helen O’Grady Drama Academy franchise system.
Helen O’Grady was an Australian actress and trained teacher who felt children in general could benefit from drama lessons. In 1979, she rented a hall in a suburb of Perth and began to offer lessons in the afternoons, with the goal of helping her students develop not only acting skills, but also—and more fundamentally—their enthusiasm, positive approach to life, energy, self-esteem, verbal communication skills and effective social interaction.
The idea quickly proved popular and grew as a franchise system, first across Australia, then overseas in New Zealand, Malta, South Africa, Zambia, Singapore, India, Japan, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, the U.S., Ireland and the U.K.
Nigel Le Page, who introduced the system to the U.K. in 1994, licensed the international franchising rights from O’Grady in 2009. He remains the international licensor to this day.
When I found out about it, it seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I called the head office in the U.K. and communicated with franchisees around the world to find out more. In 2013, following long meetings and discussions about how to introduce the system to Canada, I became the joint franchisor for the country.
One of the first steps was to Canadianize the business from a legal perspective. I consulted with a lawyer and developed new documentation. It was an extensive and expensive process. We also developed a localized website, www.helenogrady.ca.