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The School of Rock owner Heather Riley with National Director of New School Operations Larry Wisowaty in the lobby of the San Rafael location, July 18, 2022. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

How this Sonoma County entrepreneur followed her passion, opening a Marin County music school

By Cheryl Sarfaty for The North Bay Business Journal

Heather Riley wasn’t expecting to find her life’s passion when she took a temporary gig to help a local music business get up and running.

But after contributing her administrative expertise to help a pair of new franchisees open the School of Rock in Santa Rosa, it was game on.

Today, Riley is the franchise owner and general manager of the School of Rock in San Rafael, which opened in May, marking the third school in the North Bay. The other is in Vacaville.

“I have been a business owner before, but that was in insurance,” said Riley, a Petaluma resident. “For a decade I was an insurance agent, but nobody leaps out of bed in the morning and goes, ‘Yay, insurance today!’”

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School of Rock San Rafael group practice

The Music Business

The Philadelphia-headquartered School of Rock, which launched in 1998 with a single school, is now an international franchise with 310 locations and growing, said Chief Development Officer Anthony Padulo, who is based in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Of those 310 schools, 247 are in the United States, of which 44 are company owned. Riley’s franchise store is No. 306.

While traditional music schools teach students how to play their instrument of choice, the School of Rock combines private music lessons with group rehearsals and live performances for both children and adults.

The company’s growth strategy is to open more schools in the future, but at a measured pace, Padulo said.

“We’re a medium-sized company, so we're not looking to grow 100 schools a year,” he said. “Our philosophy is to grow 35 to 50 new schools a year domestically.” Over his 44-year career in franchise development, Padulo has overseen franchise expansions in a variety of industries, including Baskin Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts, BP Oil, BrightStar Care and Re/Max.

School of Rock has schools in most major U.S. markets, Padulo said, including in the San Francisco and Southern California markets, though he sees more room to grow within the state.

Passion and Determination

Riley, 59, certainly had the business chops to take on an industry that was new to her. Over the span of her 40-plus years in the business world, in addition to the insurance sector, she worked in sales and distribution, marketing, human resources and apartment-community management.

Now she works in a former restaurant building visible from the 101 freeway. She opened her franchise with 90 students — including herself, a bass guitar player — and has ambitions to raise that number to 500.

The School of Rock offers a free trial lesson for interested students with the goal of converting them into clients, who pay a one-time sign-up fee of $99, Riley said. Monthly costs range from $149 to $449, depending on the level of instruction, rehearsals and performances. The students perform live shows three times a year, she said.

Riley’s passion and determination as a business owner is palpable as she speaks about her School of Rock journey.

“I did not know how important music is to me personally until I started working at School of Rock and started seeing everything in action,” she said. “And that's when I understood it's really, really important to me.” Riley had prior singing experience but started learning to play bass guitar shortly after the Santa Rosa school opened.

All About the Timing

After helping open the Santa Rosa school in early 2019, Riley hired on full time, then soon after learned about a new franchise opportunity in San Rafael. She paid the $49,500 franchise fee and left the Santa Rosa shop in mid-2020.

"I was trying to find funding during the height of the first year of the pandemic, so that was a bit rough,” said Riley, a U.K. native who became a U.S. citizen 10 years ago. “I had no idea how it was going to go.”

Riley reached out to the nearby Small Business Development Center to help secure a $539,000 SBA loan, she said.

“And I put in well over $100,000 of my own money. That's where my retirement and savings have gone — into this,” Riley said. “Fortunately, I hit 59½ as well earlier this year, so when I needed more, I was able to access it without getting dinged” with government penalties for early withdrawal.

The total cost to open the school amounted to about $750,000, Riley said, of which $80,000 went into installing sprinklers. The cost to retrofit the building, including permit fees and signage, totaled $465,395, she said. The building passed inspection by the city of San Rafael on April 20 and opened May 2.

Because Riley’s business was unfolding at the height of the pandemic, she knew it wouldn’t be easy to find investors for her venture.

“We’re too small of a business for investor groups,” Riley said. “It is a passion-based business, but nobody who didn't know me was wanting to put any money in a business in 2020.”

Then she got a little help from her friends.

“By the end of the year, I had five friends who, in addition to the loan, also put some money in,” said Riley, who is the primary owner at 77%.

From learning to investing

One of those investors is Paul Kubin, a physician assistant in the urgent care unit at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa.

In late 2018, Kubin was looking for a place to learn guitar and met Riley when he went to check out the School of Rock in Santa Rosa as it was being readied to open.

He joined the school and developed lasting friendships with his bandmates along the way. That led to his interest in becoming a first-time investor when he heard a franchise was underway in San Rafael.

Paul Kubin, investor in School of Rock San Rafael, singing
Paul Kubin learned to play guitar at the School of Rock in Santa Rosa. He subsequently invested in a company franchise. (Photo courtesy Paul Kubin)

“When I talked to Heather about the opportunity, she came prepared,” Kubin said. “I don't think she had planned to sell me on it, but she came with a whole presentation and could project-out for me what it could look like and was able to answer all of my questions.”

It turned out he needed little convincing.

“It kind of felt like a no-brainer investment to me,” Kubin said. “To be involved in something that you enjoy and is good business, I think that's really unusual.”

Student and teacher

Riley has 10 employees so far; most are part-time musicians with other jobs. Her youngest staffer is 18-year-old Manaf (Manny) Alnabulsi.

He knew exactly what he was signing up for, having studied at the School of Rock in San Jose for four years starting at age 8.

Alnabulsi, a psychology major with a minor in music production at the College of Marin, got wind earlier this year about the forthcoming School of Rock in San Rafael and made a phone call.

“Heather picked up the phone and we talked a little bit and set up an interview,” he said, adding he interviewed at her Petaluma home and gave her a guitar lesson. He got the job.

“Really, it was a lot of karma that came my way. I’m absolutely blessed with this job,” he said. “It feels very gratifying to go in there to work with the kids and teach them the same thing that I love to do every day.”

Minding the school

Riley, who is seeing for herself the challenges that come with recruiting, said all employees will get paid vacation after two months on the job, a 3% matching simple IRA, and receive their normal pay when the school is closed over the winter holidays between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2, 2023.

“As far as I'm concerned, as a business owner, if I look after the crew, they will look after everything else,” she said.

And, as it turned out, Riley looked out for herself.

“As much as I’ve worked for other people, I'm best wired to work for myself, but in service of others,” she said. “And this is just unbeatable.”

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