Duke - The Fuqua School of Business

Feature Story

Connecting Disciplines: Rocking Music Education

After being laid off from a private equity firm, Tony Reilly (Daytime MBA ’96) finds his niche in a new venture — School of Rock.

Tony Reilly

With no previous music experience, Tony Reilly becomes a successful School of Rock franchisee and learned to play the guitar.

October 19, 2011

By Tim Candon — This article was originally published in the Team Fuqua alumni magazine.

Tony Reilly is saving rock and roll one kid at a time. He operates three School of Rock franchises in Connecticut, and plans to open two more. These schools are music education centers with an immersive, performance-based approach to inspire, motivate, and create more confident musicians. Students range in age from 7 to 17.

“It’s really amazing to watch the students,” says Reilly (Daytime MBA ’96). “Some of the kids are absolute beginners, and you get to watch them grow. Parents go bananas seeing their kids play the music they grew up with. It’s so different from the work I used to do.”

Reilly previously worked for a private equity company, but he lost his job after the economy began its downward spiral in 2008. Looking for work, he answered an ad for a School of Rock franchise rep. While the position had been filled, School of Rock had been purchased by a private equity company, and they were looking for franchisees. They wanted to grow from 60 to 300 schools in five years.

“It was strangely serendipitous,” Reilly says. “We were in an area they wanted, and we jumped in.”

Reilly and his business partner, Stephen Kennedy, took control of an established school in Fairfield, CT, and saw enrollment leap from 80 to 180 last fall. They partly contribute the increase in enrollment to aggressive local marketing and a building renovation. They have since opened a second school in New Canaan and a third in Shelton. They’re in the process of opening two more schools.

This isn’t Reilly’s first foray into a start-up, though, and he finds that his background is a good fit for the innovative School of Rock.

Reilly was an entertainment writer in the early 1990s, most notably at Premiere Magazine, which afforded him interviews with Hollywood luminaries such as Robert Redford, Billy Crystal, and Ashley Judd. He found his way to Fuqua in the mid-1990s, looking to support his creative instincts with a proper business education.

“I believe you can go anywhere with an MBA. At Fuqua, I learned a lot and quickly applied it to my own business,” he says. While he was a student, Reilly launched a specialty magazine called Chance, which focused on all the elements of casino gambling, including show and restaurant reviews.

“It was hard, a lot of work, and I vowed I’d never do a start-up again. But necessity, interest, and my skill set match what it takes to start things,” he says.

As the travel industry dried up in the early 2000s and advertising revenue followed, Reilly, like many in the media world, had to find a new line of work. With his intimate knowledge of publishing and his MBA, he went to a private equity firm and specialized in media acquisitions until the next economic downturn forced his latest career reinvention.

“Every job is a sales job, no matter what you do. Having those skills can translate to anything,” he explains. “Going to the School of Rock was kind of a fluke, but the school’s model works.”

Not only is Reilly inspiring the next generation of potential platinum-selling rock bands, he’s practicing what he preaches. He’s learned how to play guitar and bass, and he’s done some singing, too.

“We bring fun back to learning music. We’re a for-profit business, but we offer something unique. And that was compelling for me. It’s fulfilling and a lot of fun,” he says. “I have a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a baby. You become more aware of educational opportunities as you have kids. When I started, I saw it as something I’d love my kids to do. I’d love to get them involved when they’re older.”

Rock on.