From odd phone call to ousted CEO—25 days of discord at School of Rock
Illustration by Jonathan Hankin
On June 6, rabble-rousing blogger Sean Kelly says he received a phone call from Craig Tractenberg, a prominent franchise attorney with Fox Rothschild in Philadelphia, who allegedly threatened to expose negative personal information about Kelly unless he deleted blistering criticism from anonymous franchisees about School of Rock’s CEO Dzana Homan.
Kelly refused, filed a formal ethics complaint against Tractenberg with the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and started blasting away at Tractenberg on his blog, unhappyfranchisee.com. He says he received only one reply for comment—from Sterling Partners, which owns School of Rock—saying Tractenberg did not act on their behalf.
By June 30, CEO Homan was ousted and the alleged hardball tactics of Tractenberg were exposed, as was the extent to which aggressive management and attorneys can scare their franchisees into silence. (Homan did not respond to multiple requests for comment. When reached in early July, Tractenberg said he could not comment.)
Meanwhile, Stacey Marmolejo, a franchisee of School of Rock since 2005 who supported Homan when she was named CEO in 2014, went on the record to Franchise Times to outline what she describes as bullying, and also praised Kelly for helping the franchisees “oust” Homan.
“She was THAT vindictive,” Marmolejo wrote, referring to Homan, “that we were fearful she would find a detail for which to put us in default, which she did to several franchisees who crossed her. It sounds stupid, I’m sure, that business-owning adults can be that fearful, but in this case I can assure you it is true.”
‘My skin is so thick’
“It blew me away. I was floored,” Kelly says about the phone call June 6, and Kelly’s not the kind of guy who’s easily surprised. “I’ve had every attack on me. My skin is so thick,” he says. Kelly is 57, based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and for 20 years of his career he helped sell franchises for brands including Auntie Anne’s and McAlister’s Deli
Ten years ago he started blogging, and his initially mostly positive blog soon became overrun with negative complaints from franchisees. “I started unhappyfranchisee.com as a repository just to move that content somewhere,” he says. “So I started standing up to these guys. And after a while, you can’t be in it a little bit, you know?”
Kelly said he’s never been threatened by someone as prominent as Tractenberg. “Obviously a lot of franchisors have called their attorneys and said what can they do about this?
But he was kind of the first guy out of the main Legal Eagle establishment to call,” Kelly says. “Right off the bat, I baited him: What possible relevance does my divorce record have to do with School of Rock?” he asked, especially since he wasn’t divorced.
“I’ve been married for 36 years to the same woman,” he says with a laugh, then detailed other personal information that Tractenberg said he would reveal, but which Kelly said was either factually incorrect or else already in the open, like Kelly’s bankruptcy filing a decade ago.
He says he told Tractenberg, “It’s not secret, I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t have attorneys, but I do have a big mouth.”
Did Kelly have a recording of the phone call? He said he couldn’t confirm or deny, then became cheeky: “I’ll quote James Comey,” the fired FBI director. “I took contemporaneous notes. And then I’ll quote Trump and say, he better hope I don’t have a recording.“
He sent a screen shot showing an 11-minute call from Craig Tractenberg on June 6, and when I called the number, Tractenberg answered. I asked him to comment, and he said, “I’m sorry, I cannot comment. I don’t want to say anything about that.”
Paying the big bucks
Tractenberg, a founding partner of the Nixon Peabody office in Philadelphia until jumping to Fox Rothschild last year, is a 14-year recipient of the Franchise Times Legal Eagles designation and a member of its Hall of Fame. Elizabeth Sigety, a partner at Fox Rothschild, wrote in her nomination of Tractenberg this year: “Vast experience in franchise litigation including international dispute resolution. Very involved in publishing and teaching.”
Harry Rifkin of Rifkin Law in Baltimore, a franchisee attorney who has faced off against Tractenberg, confirms Tractenberg’s high standing. “He’s a very well respected, nationally recognized franchise lawyer,” Rifkin says, but that doesn’t mean Rifkin is a fan of Tractenberg’s practices.
“It does not strike me as bizarre knowing Mr. Tractenberg,” Rifkin says, referring to the phone call Kelly says he received. “If this is an angle he can use to get his client what he wants, he will do it." Many attorneys would do the same, Rifkin says. “I’m not one who holds necessarily lawyers in high regard. I don’t hold this lawyer in high regard. He’s the same cut,” Rifkin says. “His justification is my clients are paying me the big bucks.”
David Zucker, chairman of the board of School of Rock, did not say why Homan was terminated, but said via email "we appreciate the many things she accomplished" during her three-year tenure, adding "we look forward" to new CEO Rob Price's leadership. He declined to say if Tractenberg is still representing School of Rock, and said "no one at School of Rock or Sterling Partners authorized or was previously aware of any phone calls" made to Kelly by Tractenberg.
As for Sean Kelly, if he ever wonders, as all journalists do, whether his work has any impact, in the School of Rock case the answer is a decided yes. Still, the fighting takes its toll.
“I don’t do it because I enjoy it, because in the end it’s not enjoyable,” Kelly says.
“When I was writing positive stories for franchisors I was driving a Suburban with the deluxe package and now I’m driving an old Odyssey that my mechanic is keeping going just by sheer will, maybe to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.
“That’s not fun. It’s not fun having your family suffer from it and not quite understand,” Kelly says. “But on the other hand, if I don’t do it, nobody’s going to do it.”
Beth Ewen is editor-in-chief of Franchise Times, and writes the Continental Franchise Review® column in each issue. Send interesting legal and public policy cases to firstname.lastname@example.org.