Arboretum Music School succeeds by marching to its own beat

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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According to Estervig, who draws an administrative salary and a teacher’s salary, Arboretum’s employee-friendly arrangement has allowed her business to prosper and maintain a sterling reputation.

“Our employees are some of the greatest musicians in Dane County because we give them the most money for their teaching and their skills and their time,” said Estervig. “There’s nobody making a profit off of them, and they really like that. They also get to see their clients are paying a low rate, and all of that money after the bills are paid goes back to the teachers. It really gives them a sense of allegiance to the company, and it gives them pride in working here, and it’s been highly successful. Our retention of teachers has been fantastic, because they really have a say in what goes on here.”

The gift of music

Arboretum Music School’s people-first approach is not limited to its teachers, of course. Not only does the school make monetary contributions to local charities, its students often perform gratis for members of the community. The school’s students perform at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and the UW Children’s Hospital, among other facilities. Once every two years, the school’s faculty also puts on a silent auction and recital for various local charities.

For Estervig, encouraging the school’s students to perform for those most in need of cheering up is a way to give back to the community while conveying to her young charges the value of philanthropy.

“There’s an Alzheimer’s home that we play at regularly, and the people there share with our students how much they loved and enjoyed playing music, and I think that really touches them,” said Estervig. “And a huge eye-opener is when they play at the UW Children’s Hospital and they just see how lucky they are and how privileged and blessed they are to be able to do what they can do. And again, it brightens [the patients’] day, and I think for a child at a young age to see that gives him or her the motivation to continue to do good things in the community.”

Estervig also draws energy and motivation from her students’ growth and progress. Currently, about 270 of the school’s 300 students are children, and seeing the positive impact a music education has on them is a reward in itself.

“You can cite studies and studies and studies showing that music is valuable and it benefits their reading, their math, their spatial skills, and their SAT scores — everything is higher because of the benefits of music,” said Estervig. “But it also influences their imagination, their creativity, and their individuality, and I think that’s especially important for young students as well.”

Some of those students have not only benefited indirectly from their experience at Arboretum but have gone on to establish budding music careers as well. For instance, one Arboretum alum, Luke Thering, is an aspiring jazz pianist who’s produced three CDs. And Kaleigh Prange, another former student, is currently on tour with a Broadway production of Bring It On.

But while seeing some students go on to promising careers is thrilling, to Estervig the most fun part about running the business is seeing her students embrace the journey.

“You get to spend 10-plus years with some of these kids, and you get to see them grow up and mature in front of you, and their confidence grows,” said Estervig. “It’s just incredible. It’s priceless.”

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