We want to grow a business that cares about teachers, students and parents
Small Business Inside Track Paul Shorte, Artzone operations director
Artzone operations director Paul Shorte and art director Gillian Blaney- Shorte, who founded the art school 12 years ago.
Artzone was established 12 years ago by married couple art director Gillian Blaney- Shorte and operations director Paul Shorte. Its tutors teach 2,000 students every week in 25 primary schools and community centres in Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow and Meath. Artzone also has a dedicated art studio in Rathfarnham, Dublin.
What sets your business apart from the competition? We try to take a quality focus to everything we do, from the equipment we use to our teachers, administration and marketing. We run art parties in people’s homes and ship art party boxes to people who can’t make it to the studio, which is a dedicated art space for art parties, adult art classes, animation and fashion classes.
What was the best piece of business advice you’ve received? We were always obsessed with trying to compete with black- market classes or sponsored, cheaper classes but Local Enterprise Office Dublin City’s Eugene Groeger advised us to ‘take the quality that was obvious in what we do and tell people about it’. So we developed our messaging around telling people about the qualified aspect of our teachers, about our portfolio development and the equipment we use and within a year the parents were starting to tell others. It gave us confidence to say: ‘Yes we are a bit more expensive but it’s all about quality.’
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business? Chasing business. We got approached by a lot of people and in the past we were flattered that someone wanted us to do something. We’d be afraid that if we didn’t do it the opportunity would be offered to someone else and in the recession the cashflow was important. But often, in winning that type of business, we were doing it on little or no margins, it takes a lot of time and energy and it actually doesn’t do anything for the business. Now we have developed a pricing model which tells people how much everything costs if they want to avail of our services. There are other contracts that we don’t win now and then we just move on.
And major success to date? We used to say it was just surviving the recession but actually in doing so we changed our operating model completely. We used to run public classes in about 25 parish centres and just one school. Analysing the model during the recession, we realised the school was the most successful venue. We then developed a school partnership programme whereby, in return for our after-school classes, we offer the school teacher-training, art teacher in residence and art fun days. This is great for the school but it’s also good for our business – it’s a steadier income. The students stay with us throughout the year and tend to come back each year.
Who do you most admire in business and why? Both myself and Gillian admire the values of Jack Welch, [former] chief executive of General Electric. We want to grow a business that cares about its staff, the teachers, the students and parents. We like Welch’s ‘tell it how it is’ approach to business and his ability to own up to mistakes.
We met Bobby Kerr recently and, although he is a tough negotiator, we found him to be very personable. You almost want him to be successful and that’s got to be admired. Based on your experience in the downturn, are the banks in Ireland open for business to SMEs? We have been pretty much self-funded from day one but when we hit hard times in the recession Bank of Ireland came up with overdrafts for two payrolls. You’ve got to tick the boxes and make it easy for them to look after you – they are not in the business of taking risks. It gave us huge breathing space to concentrate on the business until it took on legs. What one piece of advice would you give the Government to help stimulate the economy? There should be some incentive that looks at the size and the target percentage of a business that would make taking on extra staff easier. They also say that we are an enterprise- friendly country but they treat self-employed people like pariahs. There is no real incentive to be successful. They should encourage small businesses to reinvest their profits and grow their staff rather than taxing everything. I think Ireland should be an education hub where people come from all over the world to learn about things like animation, and art.
What’s been the biggest challenge you have had to face? In 2008 I had given up a lucrative job to join the business full- time and we had just spent about €80,000 on expansion plans for September 2008. The newspapers were full of doom and gloom for the first few weeks and then the phones stopped ringing in late July 2008 and only two of the eight planned new venues came on board. We had an expectation from 2007 and it was well down. We were lucky that business picked up fairly quickly about three years ago.
It’s a challenge taking the time to concentrate on strategy and making growth happen. In the next year we’ll be focusing on R&D and making sure that any projects we develop can be used across many workshop environments rather than on one-off projects.
What’s your business worth and would you sell it? The business is very important to us, we are profitable and it’s close to Gillian’s heart. It’s something that we are very committed to and that we’d like to grow. At the end of the day we’ve committed a huge amount of time and energy to it and a financial payout someday wouldn’t upset us. At the same time it wouldn’t upset us if no one ever approached us. It’s successful in its own right. In conversation with Ruth O’Connor