Your Name and Age:
Freddie Underwood, 36
Principal/Franchisee at Stagecoach Performing Arts Trowbridge and Frome
I’m married to Chris – he works in the business with me – and we have a little girl called Gigi, who’s five. People often think that’s an odd choice of name for a child, but me and Chris actually met on stage, acting in a theatre production of Gigi, so it only seemed right to give her that name! We live in Corsham, which is just outside Bath.
Before owning my Stagecoach franchise, I was a full-time performer and director – I even set up a professional theatre company whilst studying for a post-graduate acting diploma. I ran that for a few years with three friends. We toured around London and it was an amazing experience, but we eventually went our separate ways. I got my own agent and spent about four years as an actress based in London, doing everything from touring shows, pantomime and even radio work. But I knew my heart was always in live theatre. I walked past a Stagecoach school one day, it had teaching jobs advertised and my friend said: ‘Oh look, there’s a stage school, you should apply!’. I immediately knew it was somewhere I wanted to be and it just made complete sense. The format of being able to inject my own creativity into a classroomas teacher was very appealing. I got the job and, after about a year, I was ‘Stagecoached’ – I started to live and breathe it. I was working for these very inspirational franchisees but it was simple – I wanted to be just like them.
I launched Stagecoach Trowbridge in 2009 and expanded the franchise to launch Stagecoach Frome in 2018.
I started teaching for Stagecoach in 2005 and it didn’t take much time at all for me to realise I wanted a franchise of my own. From then on, I was looking for the right moment. I saw that Stagecoach Trowbridge was available as a territory and, after meeting with head office, it was a fairly quick process to get my application approved. I think it helped to already be involved with Stagecoach – they recognised my passion and we went from there.
I think, ultimately, there’s something really rewarding about starting something up yourself that makes a real impact on people’s lives. Every time you get praise or a good word from a parent or student about how significant a change you’ve made on someone’s life, it makes it all worth it. We have over 200 students and 10 teachers and it’s a real group effort. Gigi now comes along to the Saturday classes too, which is really handy for me, as a busy working mum.
As a Stagecoach Principal, you have to run your business and manage your team which means you can’t be a teacher too. I can fill part of that creativity void when managing the shows we produce.
A real benefit of developing my Stagecoach business to this point means both Chris and I are able to take back some of our other roles we love. As a Principal, I don’t teach my students but being my own boss allows me to have more control of what my schedule looks like – I still teach drama three days a week at a local school. Chris is a really active member of the local amateur dramatic society.
When we first opened in Frome, the school didn’t expand as quickly as I’d hoped and so we closed it, bringing the students back into our Trowbridge school. Even with your best market research efforts, sometimes you can’t predict what your customers would prefer – in this case, we have to get the day, time and venue combination right for our parents. At the time, closing the school felt like a failure but actually it was an essential learning experience. Adding other elements in to your market research, such as focus groups, on top of analysing demographics means we now have a very successful school in Frome.
Chris left his performing career to work in administration but he was unfortunately made redundant on the day we found out we were expecting Gigi. By then, my franchise was already well-established, so he came on board and supported in the operations of the business. He’s an equal partner in the business now and runs Stagecoach Frome. Through this journey, he’s been able to rekindle his love for performing and we’ve had to learn a new work-relationship dynamic.
Being my own boss with Stagecoach allows me to work from home for the majority of the week. My schedule is flexible enough to manage my work-load around Gigi and her various activities. She might only be five, but she has a better social life than me!
I can’t imagine anything worse than living the life of an actress again now! I loved acting in my twenties – it was exciting, it was risky and it was very varied, but now I’m settled in my own home with a family, I feel like I’ve got roots. Stagecoach has been the most significant change in our lives and, truthfully, it really offered Chris a second chance. We’ve met our financial goals in terms of security and the business has so much potential, it will meet our goals for financial independence in the future.
I’m a real believer that you should never say never. In life, it’s always good to have change and consider the possibilities in other opportunities. I wouldn’t want to be running a business I wasn’t passionate about. At the moment, I still have that passion for Stagecoach and will run the business as long as I feel that way!
I have thought about it. In the long-term, my franchise might provide a pension fund when I come to sell – in the very distant future! – but there’s also this sense of considering who I might pass it on to when I’m ready. It’s commonplace in the Stagecoach network for schools to get ‘passed on’ to existing teachers when the time comes to retire or move on to pastures new. I’ve had some very early consultative conversations with my existing teaching team, but in the most casual sense.
I don’t think I’ve had it yet – I think that comes down to myrestless sense of ambition though! There’s always scope for more. I never want to lose that sense of ambition. I have big plans for the future.
We’ve had over 1,000 students come through the doors in 10 years which is one of my greatest achievements. In the short term, Frome is our next adventure – I’m hoping to double the size of my class to 50 students by the end of 2019. All of my schools run on a Saturday – it’s really important to me that my Sunday’s are left free for family time – but I’d like to look into adding more sessions and really maximise on those Saturdays eventually.
In terms of the bigger picture though, I’d like to think in five years’ time, I would have increased the number of schools I can offer and be running those at a healthy capacity. It goes without saying that I’d also like to hold the top spot as the preferred choice for performing arts education in my area.