She was working out of her garden shed 18 months ago. Now Caroline Redman Lusher is the businesswoman behind one of Britain’s biggest brands. Here, she reveals how her Rock Choir has been the making and almost breaking of her.
With a business built firmly on helping people fit in, Caroline Redman Lusher found it funny recently to discover that she, in fact, does not.
The entrepreneur and businesswoman behind Rock Choir, the chain of 132 choirs with 8,000 members nationwide, which was the subject of ITV’s four-part documentary The Choir That Rocks in June, just doesn’t fit the criteria.
Take the numerous awards she’s been nominated for recently – including Entrepreneur of the Year at the Orange Business Awards. "The judging panel have been going ‘wow!’ but I never win. It’s not your normal business, it’s not about the money, turnover, profits and percentages. We just don’t fit the standard model," says the 37-year-old, tucking her long legs under a table at the Kensington Roof Gardens hotel (she’s almost six feet tall).
‘Fit’ is something she’s struggled with since setting up Rock Choir in 2005 – though ‘struggle’ is not a word many would associate with it. Today Rock Choir is not only a successful business but a UK phenomenon. It invites everyone, regardless of individual talent, to join their local choir and have fun ‘rocking out’ a variety of pop songs each week.
The outcome has been anything but amateur though. Over the past six years, Rock Choir has grown to become a truly professional act – playing Wembley, the Hammersmith Apollo and even releasing two albums over the past year.
Redman Lusher is the driving force behind all this – choosing the songs, working out the arrangements and overseeing the choir’s expansion. But that’s just for starters. Last year, when the business’s money was tied up in a variety of local theatre bookings, she sold her house in order to finance them playing their biggest venue yet - Wembley.
“The lack of sleep, the emotional issues, no time to step back and look at it... Something has to change” It was the big question The Choir That Rocks hinged on – would she fill the 10,500 seats with Rock Choir members’ friends and families or risk the financial fall out? She achieved it – but far more interesting were the stories the documentary told of her members. They spoke of the organisation giving them a new lease of life, that they felt happier and healthier taking part in the singing sessions each week and that Wembley had been a goal to work towards.
Doing a TV programme was a scary experience for Redman Lusher though. "Everyone wants to put Rock Choir into their own box," she explains. "What I’m trying to create is a lovely, welcoming and warm environment for people. For a TV show, their agenda is ratings. So, with no editorial control at all, were they going to wreck the six years I spent building that?"
In fact, they did the opposite. After the first episode, 23,000 people logged onto their website, crashing the server, and 8,000 people emailed with membership inquiries. With Rock Choir’s new season about to start next month, the number of choirs has risen to 200 thanks to thousands more members signing up. If the programme showed the joy of taking part though, it didn’t cover how much work goes on behind the scenes to pull something like this off. "There’s a perception that we’re a massive commercial set-up to have done what we’ve done," she reveals, "but it’s not like that at all."
In fact, until 18 months ago, Rock Choir was run from Redman Lusher’s shed. Today, they have rented premises and a close-knit team of seven (four full-time, three part-time), which includes her father (accounts) and husband (recruitment and training). And life is more hectic than ever.
"I keep thinking it will calm down, but it’s actually gotten bigger and bigger. We say ‘Well, we don’t know how long it will last, so we should just take advantage of everything’. But it has got quite serious. The lack of sleep, the emotional issues, no time to step back and look at it. There’s no time to even just go out for dinner and not talk about Rock Choir," she admits.
Redman Lusher couldn’t and wouldn’t step away from it now though. She says that every entrepreneur understands her dilemma. But there’s much more to this than just business. Because, while she may be making the dreams of her choir members come true with sell-out concerts and album deals, she’s also achieving her own dream at the same time.
Growing up in Solihull, she could have walked into a job at BA given her father was a chief pilot there, her mother worked on check-in and her sister is cabin crew. But she only ever wanted to be a pop singer. By 15, she had achieved Grade 8 on the piano and violin, going on to gain a music degree from Salford University before moving to London at age 21 to ‘make it’.
She lasted there four years. Working as a resident lounge singer at the Hyde Park Hotel amongst other establishments, she found the experience ‘lonely and isolating’. So when her father visited and couldn’t hide his shock at how unhappy she was, she took his advice and left.
Joining her parents who had moved to Farnham in Surrey, she took a job locally as a music teacher. "I had to go through a big process when I left London, being very depressed about it. I thought ‘I am not the kind of person who fails...’" It’s ironic then that, stepping away from her own singing dream, would make them come true. Because it was there that she discovered her love of choir directing, and where the seeds for her Rock Choir were sown.
Fast forward ten years, and Redman Lusher admits she’s now at a cross roads. Having put her life and soul into the company, and delighted in her members’ growing happiness and wellbeing, her own health has seriously suffered.
By Barbara Walshe
“There’s a perception that we’re a massive commercial set up but we’re not like that at all”
A jaw infection from overwork and stress has resulted in frequent emergency hospital stints in recent years. Meanwhile, working with her family means Rock Choir is a constant topic of conversation, and it’s the same when she goes home to her husband at night. “It’s a disaster from a personal point of view,” she admits. “Something has to change.”
She has just hired 12 choir leaders to join the 22 she currently has. And she has her fingers crossed that the uplift in membership following the ITV programme will pay for the additional back office support that is now crucial.
But when that happens, will Redman Lusher take it any easier? She’s already planned the next two years of Rock Choir, which will see them put on even bigger and bolder events. She also has a solo album and book deal on the table, and is even in talks about taking the concept overseas.
She says that having Rock Choir perform at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony would be the ultimate. But I’m not entirely convinced. Regardless of the time and stress involved, there will always be another ‘ultimate’ challenge for Caroline Redman Lusher because she thrives on it. And, for that, for choir members are grateful.
Find out more about Rock Choir by calling 01252 714276 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
By Barbara Walshe
© Copyright Coutts 2012.