x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

In life and on stage, the show goes on

This drama school owner is racing against time to make her business work before her debts catch up with her.

Anna Cronin spent Dh40,000 to set up her company, but high venue costs and advertising rates have eaten up profits.
Anna Cronin spent Dh40,000 to set up her company, but high venue costs and advertising rates have eaten up profits.

Drama school owner is racing against time to make it work Whether I've had plenty of money or nothing at all, I've always valued every dirham and don't spend extravagantly - probably because I grew up in poverty. My father worked as a manual labourer in England, so there were six children being raised on one low income and, sadly, with poverty comes hardship. I married my husband at 21. He was two years younger than me and still studying.

Quickly, my finances changed for the better. We lived off his student grant and my income as a civil servant and things really improved once we were both working. My husband worked in marketing in Saudi Arabia and when he relocated to Dubai we rented out our gorgeous five-bedroom house and joined him in the mid-1990s. But our marriage broke down and I moved back to the UK in July 1997 with the children.

It was scary supporting the family at first. Although my husband was supposed to make contributions, that didn't always happen so I had to rely on myself. Thankfully, during my time in Dubai, I trained as a Montessori teacher, so I was able to earn an income and be there for the children. But there were times I'd be counting pennies out of a jar, wondering what I could make the children for dinner.

Things slowly looked up. I remember scraping enough after a year to take the children on holiday to stay in a caravan park on the Isle of Wight, and the sense of achievement was enormous. The next year was a package holiday in Tenerife and a year after that a villa with a pool in the Algarve. Then I saw an opportunity to take on a franchise of a performing arts school in the UK called Stagecoach. It was a complete lifesaver and meant I could work from home and provide extracurricular activities for the children on the weekend - something they'd been used to when they were younger.

I made £30,000 (Dh165,000) a year, yet still managed to build up debt on credit cards and overdrafts. So when I sold the business last summer, after deciding to move to Dubai to set up a similar business here, most of the money went towards debt. And because I'd downsized our home many times to make ends meet, I left behind a tiny two-bedroom flat. I'd visited the UAE several times since leaving, because my middle daughter moved here to work and I saw a gap in the market for extracurricular activities. My company, StageAbility (www.stageability.ae), offers dance, drama and singing classes in either a three-hour session for older children or 90 minutes for four to six year olds.

The idea is that they learn three disciplines in one session a week, but getting the business off the ground has been hard. To set up, I spent Dh40,000 on a licence, visa, office and sponsor and Dh70,000 on my one-bedroom apartment in the Greens - pretty much taking everything I had. I charge Dh1,950 for a 12-week term for older children and half that for the younger children, but I'm still not breaking even and I was hoping to have opened sessions all over the Emirates by now.

The stumbling block has been the huge amount venues charge here. In the UK, I paid £120 to hire a venue for seven hours; here I get charged almost the same for one hour, and some locations take up to 50 per cent of the fees - so once I've paid my teachers, the venue earns more than I do. Coupled with the high advertising rates, it's been an expensive start-up. I'm now surviving on a £10,000 overdraft from a UK account and two credit cards each with an £8,000 limit, which will be maxed out in a few months.

I wanted to work here for five to 10 years, build up a successful business and then return home with a nest egg for my retirement. But I might have to go home sooner because I've been scuppered by costs. The crunch time will come in October, when I have to renew my apartment lease and trade licence. If I haven't earned a certain amount by then, then I may have to pack my bags and that could mean returning with up to £50,000 of debt.

But because of my previous ups and downs, I feel things will go up again. My summer workshops are full, so I'll make money then, and I'm doing a direct marketing campaign at the end of the summer to promote next term's classes. In the meantime, I live a very frugal lifestyle, walking everywhere and only taking a taxi to the classes on a Saturday. My daughter is even paying my du bill, repaying £500 she borrowed a couple of years ago.

I'm not an extravagant spender but, like anyone, I like little treats here and there and it's hard living a frugal lifestyle here because everything is very expensive. My daughters are now 30, 27 and 22, have all been to university and can stand on their own two feet financially, which I'm extremely proud of. I'd love to help out, but they've always known that if they want to have money they need to work hard and they certainly do.

I'm going to keep on hoping I can make the business work in the time I've got left. I've met so many people who have supported me with random acts of kindness or generosity that I believe it is possible. But if it fails, then at least I did it. Life is about trying new things and I've certainly given it a good go. * As told to Alice Haine