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School of Rock accelerates growth in Brazil


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School of Rock’s master franchisee in Brazil, Paulo Portela, back row in the red shirt, touts the brand’s blend of music lessons and live performances. With 21 schools open in Brazil, Portela is also spearheading expansion to Spain and Portugal.

As a young student at Tatui Conservatory, 100 miles from Sao Paulo and where his father was also a music teacher, Paulo Portela played the flute in the symphonic orchestra.

Forty-plus years later, Portela shared a stage last fall with Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith as part of a School of Rock event during Rock in Rio, Brazil’s massive music festival in Rio de Janero.

Smith, who later performed when the Red Hot Chili Peppers headlined the festival, jammed with students and even went head-to-head with some of the teen drummers during his guest appearance, opportunities Portela said highlight his broader mission to “help improve the music education quality and professionalism in Brazil.”

As School of Rock’s master franchisee with 21 locations open in Brazil, Portela’s own relationship with music has come full circle following a wide-ranging career with IBM Brazil. It was 2013 and “I had just had a burnout in IBM—I had been an IBM executive for 26 years,” said Portela. Offers to move abroad with the company didn’t fit, and after reading about School of Rock in a magazine roundup of top U.S. franchises, Portela, also an investor in restaurants, made a career change, eventually operating his own school for two years before signing as the master franchisee.

Flea

 Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, left, with a School of Rock student.

“When I went to university, I stopped studying music—and every time I think of that I get regret, I regret it,” said Portela. “So, I think with my music heritage, it’s not just a coincidence that I read about School of Rock in the magazine.” The 53-year-old, by the way, is also a student of his own school, playing bass guitar.

Music education in Brazil is rooted mainly in official conservatories, noted Portela, with some independent enterprises but “very few chains,” and he’s seized on the opportunity to bring consistency of instruction to the market, along with exposure to rock ‘n roll and what he called “the School of Rock method.”

“It’s helping students to develop competencies that are way beyond music,” said Portela. “Helping people become less shy, be more creative, more confident, learn leadership.”

A unique blend of music lessons and performance programs appeals to franchisees and students alike, with deals signed for 16 more locations and more than 3,000 students enrolled across the country. “We’ve become the largest music education business in Brazil,” said Portela, who is also growing by way of conversions, such as that of Brazilian independent music school EM&T in Sao Paulo, with approximately 800 students and rebranding as School of Rock.

Portela also recently signed master franchise agreements to develop School of Rock in Spain and Portugal, where two of his business partners with connections to each country will lead the expansion efforts. Each operated successful units in Brazil and will “benefit from the assets we’ve developed,” said Portela, including systems for the onboarding of new franchisees and an “intense project management phase” to get new schools open four months after a deal is signed.

Paulo Portela

Paulo Portela, far right, is the brand’s master franchisee in Brazil, where he’s also learning bass guitar.

Rock ‘n roll is ‘importable’

International growth has been a focus for Rob Price since coming on board as School of Rock’s CEO in July 2017. With a presence in nine global markets, existing master franchisees such as Portela are driving that expansion, which Price said allows School of Rock to capitalize on the “potency of these operators” while not distracting from domestic growth as the brand approaches 300 total locations. Other new markets include Paraguay and Colombia, now being developed by the existing master franchisee for Chile and Peru.

Rock, said Price, is “the most universally consumed music in the world,” and the School of Rock concept is simpler to execute abroad than many franchise brands because there’s no supply chain and no menu to adapt. “It’s a logistically uncomplicated business,” he said. The company does adjust its marketing imagery to reflect different cultures, and securing the necessary music publishing and video syncing rights is crucial, but “rock n’ roll, thankfully, is importable without freight and ships.”

As they evaluate the potential of new countries and regions, Price and his team look of course for accomplished local partners but also for a strong music culture and established local rock scene.

Rob Price

CEO Rob Price

“We need amazing instructors and gigging musicians to supply talent,” said Price, plus local performance venues. Assessment of that music culture is “organized qualitative analysis as opposed to quantitative scientific analysis,” and includes reviewing data on music consumption and “of course asking our partners to give us a sense for it,” added Price.

As School of Rock also explores expansion opportunities in western Europe, the United Kingdom, Israel and South Korea, Price stressed international growth isn’t just a commercial objective for the brand. “At a time when the world can be so lonely for kids, and for adults, so solitary, we are an antidote to that sadness,” he said.

In Brazil, where the newest School of Rock opened in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, in October, Portela is working to integrate the recently launched School of Rock Method app into operations, something he said benefits franchisees, instructors and students. The app allows teachers to assign songs and exercises between in-school lessons and group rehearsals. Students can even practice playing with a band using the backing tracks provided in the app, along with song transcriptions. “It’s a gamification, the kids love it,” said Portela, and it’s another way School of Rock is innovating to in turn help franchisees grow.

As Brazil emerges from what Portela called a “long period of economic crisis”—a recession in 2015 and 2016 that ranked as the worst in the country’s history—he is encouraged by what improving economic conditions mean for his business. “We’ve only ever operated in super tough environments, but still we were able to grow,” he said. The economy’s had “two sequential years of growth, so into 2020 I expect even more growth for us.

“I don’t see a reason why Brazil can’t have 500 School of Rocks in the country.”

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