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Arboretum Music School succeeds by marching to its own beat

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The following is the sixth in a series of stories on the 2014 Dane County Small Business Award winners. Our previous installments in this series can be found at the following links: Tweedee Productions, Berntsen International, Banzo, JP Hair Design, and BCP Transportation.

Kristie Estervig was something of a naïf — at least with respect to business — when she opened Waunakee’s Arboretum Music School fresh out of grad school 10 years ago.

But while inexperience is often fatal to first-time business owners, for Estervig the most urgent problem was handling the tremendous growth the school would see, almost from the outset.

“We started with 900 square feet and 30 students, and I had no idea what it could flourish into,” said Estervig. “So when we did our first construction, we were just bursting at the seams, and then to do the second construction, and then end up doing a fourth — it’s frustrating because I could not foresee that. These were great problems to have, but we just couldn’t keep up.”

Two hundred seventy more students and 4,100 additional square feet later, it’s safe to say that Arboretum Music School has hit its stride — and that Estervig has refused to let any of those fortuitous annoyances slow her down. In fact, says Estervig, the school could stand to stretch its wings even more.

“Now we’re feeling that we’ve hit the ceiling, and we’re looking at possibly expanding into a different city as well,” said Estervig, “but in hindsight, I just didn’t plan properly for [the business’s growth]. It just took a lot of time, a lot of energy.”

Of course, the energy she’s poured into the business has paid off handsomely over the past 10 years. Along with the school’s growth have come plenty of accolades. Most recently, Arboretum won a 2014 Dane County Small Business Award in recognition of its positive workplace environment and community outreach efforts.

For Estervig, the award is no doubt an affirmation of the company’s founding philosophy, which puts teachers first and profits second.

Arboretum Music School’s 21 teachers are independent contractors who pay a rental fee to the school, but the school’s overhead and administrative costs remain low, leaving a larger-than-ordinary portion of students’ fees for the teachers.

“The reason we started the business is that when I was in grad school, I taught at three different music schools, and what the customer paid, I received less than a third of,” said Estervig. “I just didn’t think that was right. So we have a way of going about it that, every month, our employees get to see where every single penny goes, and they get the profits back to them.”

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