When her mother died, Alessia Gaetana Santoro became the owner and artistic director of New York Academy of Ballet, the school her mom had founded. Here, Santoro discusses the challenges she’s overcome—and how she has expanded on her mother’s vision.
Alessia Gaetana Santoro was always close with her mother, former dancer Susan Olson Santoro. After Susan opened New York Academy of Ballet in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 2008, Alessia—who holds a BFA in dance—assisted in the office and taught part-time. Then, in 2017, Susan was diagnosed with cancer.
When Susan fell ill, she and her only child faced two options: Close the studio or keep it going. “I didn’t want to close, because it’s like my baby, too,” Alessia says. While she served as Susan’s sole caretaker, the two decided that Alessia would carry on the family business. The process they took to establish Alessia as the organization’s new leader can serve as a guideline for other studio owners and future studio heirs.
To increase transparency about how the business was run, Susan right away took steps like printing out the syllabi for the school’s children’s ballet classes. A few months later, she and her daughter met with her accountant, and Alessia signed the paperwork to become vice president of NYAB, Inc.
By the time Susan passed away on April 10, 2020, Alessia had been running the studio for three years. “My mother had been behind the scenes, helping a little bit,” Alessia says, “but I did everything—payroll, teaching classes, cleaning.” Suddenly, she found herself managing both grief and a dance school alone during a pandemic.
“I was trying to update our clients as gently as possible,” Alessia says. “They knew she was in the hospital.” When Alessia broke the news to the NYAB community via email, they rallied around her. “People brought me food,” she says. “Everyone was there for me.”
Transitioning to a New Leader
Entrepreneurs inheriting a business do not have to go it alone, says Jill Hofmans, executive director of the Conway Center for Family Business in Columbus, OH. She recommends joining a peer group through a local chamber of commerce or another community organization. An example is the Conway Center’s Rising CEO group for new and imminent leaders of family businesses, which meets monthly and requires an annual $900 membership fee.
“It’s helpful, whether it’s monthly, quarterly or annually, to touch base with other folks in your position,” Hofmans says. “You learn new things, new technologies, and you learn how other people are coping with similar events.” She also recommends Small Business Development Centers for free advice, coaching and mentorship. “Leverage as many resources as you can to understand the business, including things like how to read a profit-and-loss statement and the difference between gross margin and profit margin.”
Class cancellations due to COVID safety concerns provided Alessia the unexpected advantage of time to grieve at home. When restrictions eased, she returned to teaching. “My students are the sweetest people on the planet,” Alessia says. “My 5- and 6-year-olds were giving me hugs.” But the pandemic also prevented the emotional closure of a traditional funeral. The studio became a place to feel her mother’s continued presence.
“I’m stubborn and my mother was soft-spoken, but dance is where we related to each other,” Alessia says. “The studio feels like her to me.”
Initially, as a first-time business leader, Alessia felt overwhelmed by teaching at the studio while handling the logistics of the school. “I got better over time as my brain absorbed what was going on,” she says.
Estate planning is a key component of succession planning, and it’s never too early to start. Hofmans recommends finding a good attorney who understands not only estate planning but business needs, as the two can differ significantly. She suggests considering the factors known as the “5 D’s”—disability, divorce, departure, dissolution and death—when developing a succession plan. Susan’s early personal and business preparations had helped smooth the transition.
“On the personal side, you can have a will and a trust, but when you fold the business into that, there are lots of technical twists, like tax implications and how you want to position the business.” An example is whether the organization is a C-corporation or an S-corporation, which affects taxation, financing, stock and shareholder requirements.
Alessia learned to prioritize sticking with the budget while gauging when to spend on the right nonessentials, such as a new couch or an extra coat of paint. Tuning in to the importance of customer-service details, she began creating welcome folders for new studio members and received positive responses.
The school’s largest monthly cost is rent, followed by flooring, insurance and labor. NYAB has three faculty members, including Alessia, and two guest faculty members who teach occasionally.
When Alessia took the helm of NYAB before the pandemic, it was already time to move. New landlords meant they would be losing their space. In 2021, the school moved to a new location on the same street.
NYAB’s new home has a 1,300-square-foot dance studio, and the total space—which includes a basement, lounges, an office and a walk-in storage area—is 4,500 square feet. The rent is less than $15 per square foot; a rarity for Poughkeepsie, where the standard is $15 to $30 per square foot. “It was the grace of God that we found this space, because we would have been out of business trying to afford somewhere that was upward of $15 a square foot,” Alessia says.
Building out the space, however, was “a huge expense,” she says. She funded the construction out of pocket. “If we hadn’t had to move, I could have taken that personal money and put it in the company’s bank account, and we’d have been golden.” Instead, she’s been tasked with recouping the financial losses from both construction and COVID closures.
NYAB’s next large expense is its Harlequin WoodSpring floor, which costs a total of roughly $30,000. The school is financing it with monthly loan payments. “For me, that was important because it helps young dancers alleviate and prevent injuries,” Alessia says.
Alessia inherited most of the school’s faculty, though some teachers have moved on to other careers or locations. Due to the high caliber of NYAB’s teaching staff—which includes accomplished professional dancers—Alessia pays above the local market rate of $25 to $30 per hour. Insurance is roughly $200 per month.
The school’s other expenses include cleaning supplies and show production costs, including theater rental, lighting design, the backstage crew and any guest artists.
With the exception of the dance flooring, Alessia follows her mother’s strategy of avoiding debt. Susan had opened the school with her own money. “I think the biggest thing for a new business owner is to make sure you have the funds,” says Alessia. “I don’t suggest opening a business with a loan. It creates a trickle-down effect,” she says, with one loan easily leading to others as expenses grow.
Though Alessia’s aversion to loans is common, Hofmans holds a different view: “Taking on debt is not a bad thing, and it actually can help you in the long run.” During difficult times, a solid credit rating and reputation with your financial institution can be beneficial. For example, earlier in the pandemic, businesses that already had credit from their bank were well positioned for PPP-loan approval. “Build a good relationship with your lending partner. Credit unions are fantastic for this,” she says.
Plans for the Future
Currently, Alessia is working on NYAB’s marketing. “I spent hours making a beautiful website, but now, no one really looks at websites,” she says. “So, I’m figuring out how we want to be presented on social media.”
For a business owner with a modest budget, Hofmans recommends developing a strong SEO strategy to appear on the first page of Google results. “Another option is to start a referral program or word-of-mouth program, because I think a lot of [dance] businesses are referral, more than anything,” she says.
Moving forward, Alessia wants to grow the school and take on an even larger role in helping the local community. Her long-term goal is to create a scholarship foundation, and one of its programs would reach out to underserved inner-city youth. “A lot of them are ridiculously talented, but they can’t afford dance lessons,” she says. “I love seeing the development of Poughkeepsie, but not a lot is being done for the kids.”
She also wants to establish a scholarship in honor of her mother to fund dance training throughout high school for students from single-parent households. “I was raised by a single mom,” Alessia says. “She constantly had three jobs. Single parents really bust their butts, so I want to help them.” Though NYAB currently offers scholarships, its resources are limited.
Another goal of hers is to create a local dance company for professionally trained adult recreational dancers. “Once or twice a year, we would do a storybook ballet with older dancers who have the talent to dance professionally, but life took them in other directions,” she says.
With every plan, carrying on Susan’s legacy is at the forefront. “I want this to be a place where people feel comfortable and at home,” Alessia says. “It’s important to me to keep this going—to continue everything that my mom worked so hard for.”
Lydia Murray is managing editor of Dance Business Weekly, Pointe, Dance Teacher and Dance Spirit.