Monday Interview: Claire O’Connor, CEO of babyballet

Claire O'Connor, pictured at The Piece Hall in her home town of Halifax

A Halifax woman who pursued her passion for child development has grown her dance franchise business – established in her home town – to dozens of operations across the UK and overseas.

Claire O’Connor CEO of babyballet, founded the enterprise in 2005 and piloted it in several locations in West Yorkshire. It moved into its own base in Halifax in March 2006.

O’Connor had previously studied Spanish and Media at university but then began working for her mother, who ran a dance school, where she first picked up the idea of offering dance as well as wider physical, social and mental development to very young children.

Her company provides dancing and movement lessons for children aged six months to six-years-old. Today, O’Connor has 83 babyballet franchises across the UK as well as additional franchises in Australia and Singapore. She has recently signed her first master licensee in New Zealand.

More than 25,000 children a month take part in babyballet classes across the UK.

O’Connor has also been appointed to the Children’s Activities Association – an industry-led, community interest company founded and governed by experts to help parents, schools, nurseries and all children’s activities providers by raising the standard of children’s activities.

She said: “When I was piloting babyballet I wanted to see if it would take off. It was an immediate success – everyone loved what we were doing. So I really wanted to get the classes going further afield but at first I didn’t know how to go about it.

“I looked at how other people managed this and thought the franchise model would be the best way forward, as it gives people responsibility for their business, while maintaining the brand’s standards and identity. People buy the rights to use our brand and syllabus.

“Our head office is still in Halifax, where we have a team of 10, and I’m proud of our roots here. But it’s hard to believe how much the company has expanded. To see so many children enjoying babyballet far and wide is like a dream come true.”

She said it hasn’t always been easy running a business at the same time as bringing up her four children, though stressed she has been fortunate to have a good team around her who believe in the company’s mission.

“You always need to have the right people who are passionate, loyal and hardworking,” she added.

“I’m still heavily involved in the business, though these days it’s more in a strategy and brand development role and as a decision maker.

“Over the next 12 to 18 months we’d like to get more master licensees involved internationally. We want to get additional classes running for even more children, wherever they might be, so it’s an exciting time for us.

“Our potential for further growth is huge, but no matter how big we become we need to maintain the same values, which are about nurturing every child.”

O’Connor said she hopes her own experience can inspire other would-be entrepreneurs to “give it a try”. “If I can do it, anyone can,” she said.