Many martial artists dream of earning a living doing what they love. But when that dream meets the harsh reality of running a business, thing scan start to go wrong in a heartbeat. Declining enrollment, departing students, the search for quality staff members to help run the school and the pressing need to earn enough to stay open every month — these can turn the dream into a nightmare.
Yet many school owners are running businesses that not only survive but also succeed beyond all expectations. At the top of that list of success stories is Premier Martial Arts.
With more than 100 schools in the United States, as well as branches in Canada and Great Britain, PMA stands as one of the world’s largest and most successful chains of franchised martial arts schools. And ina market saturated with everything fromcardio-kickboxing gyms to Brazilian jiu-jitsu academies, every PMA school — with the organization’ scombination of traditional martial arts and self-defense training — seems to be thriving.
“The main thing is treating your martialarts school like a business and not a hobby,which is what a lot of guys still seem to do,”said Barry Van Over, founder of PMA. “But many of us martial arts instructors are TypeA personalities, so it can be difficult to convincesome of them to change. They mightbe making a certain amount of money andthey’d like to make more, but they’re justscared to change and [potentially] lose whatthey’ve got.
“But you have to be willing to make a dramatic change to get a dramatic improvement.It is easier now to convince people because we have the proof that this works.PMA has one school owner who recently grossed $90,000 in one month. We have another who once did $127,000 in a month.It shouldn’t be all about the money, but the money is a sign you’re firing on all cylinders.It shows that the students are happy and renewing with you. It’s an indicator of how things are going.”
Van Over began his martial arts journey like many others: He got interested in karate as a child after watching some neighbors breaking boards in their front yard. He askedwhat they were doing and soon found himself visiting an old skating rink where the karate classes were held.
“I remember being in this dirty bathroom at the skating rink,putting on a used gi yellowed with sweat that one of my neighbors handed down to me,” he recalled. “But there was something whichjust resonated with me when I put that uniform on.”
After earning his black belt, Van Over began teaching martial artsat the University of Kentucky. He opened a class for students there,then tried to launch another one at MoreheadState University. When he couldn’tsecure space at the second institution, he found a local armory he could use and posted some fliers — and had 30 people show upat the first class.
“A lot of them were kids who had filledthese old Pringles potato-chip cans withchange to pay for the lesson,” he said. “I tellour instructors now, who grew up in commercialmartial arts schools, ‘You don’t knowhow tough it is to be a martial arts instructoruntil you’ve had kids pay you in Pringlescans full of change.’”
PMA schools have come a long way fromthose Pringle-can beginnings. The franchisesare nothing if not professional in everythingfrom billing and advertising to creating theirown line of custom equipment. These are allpart and parcel of the hard lessons Van Overlearned while trying to make it as a martialarts instructor.
After college, Van Over moved to Knoxville,Tennessee, and started teaching karate on racquetball courts. He eventually found a warehouse in which he could open his own school. At first, the business went nowhere.
In fact, a year and a half in, he was living in his dojo because he couldn’t afford an apartment. Van Over admits to having personally made every mistake he now tries to teach other instructors to avoid.
“I had 135 students, but they were all broke like me, and I was only charging $35 a month,” he recalled. “I’d run an ad in the local newspaper with me wearing no shirt and breaking a stack of concrete. But you do that and you get what you’re asking for — a bunch of meathead people who want to break concrete with no shirt on and have no money.”
That’s the exact opposite of the image that PMA franchises project nowadays. As in many martial arts schools, the majority of PMA students tend to be children, and instructors are coached in how to interact with youngsters as well as their parents — who often have different goals. To their credit, most PMA instructors learn how to satisfy the parents’ wishes, whether it’s for a child with poor attention to become more focused or for an aggressive child to became more disciplined. At the same, the instructors strive to satisfy the kid’s main goal, which may be just to have fun.
All are lessons Van Over gleaned throughout the years he spent building his business. At first, like many instructors, he needed advice just to stay afloat. He turned to a martial arts consulting company, which taught him new methods for running his school. He did everything they recommended, adopting their marketing strategy and changing his curriculum and belt-ranking system. He quickly became their biggest success story, with one of the largest schools in the nation filled with 600 students. A second facility followed soon afterward.
Van Over eventually opened his own consulting firm, teaching others all his hard-earned lessons. Even with his two hugely successful schools, sometimes it was difficult to get his instructor/clients to follow his game plan exactly. “Some people think they can borrow just a few of the ideas we use and be as successful,” he said. “But it’s like making a cake and leaving the eggs out because you don’t want them. You’re just not going to have the same cake that someone who puts in the eggs will have.”
All the PMA schools, many of which were originally operated by consulting clients who stayed with Van Over through the years because they found that his full program worked brilliantly, follow the same proven model. From the beginning, students at each school are given a certain organizational structure, and they use a rotating lesson plan that includes elements of traditional karate and kata training, kicking concepts from taekwondo, weapons training, fighting skills that borrow from muay Thai and self-defense based on krav maga. Instructors have the freedom to include separate classes in other arts, like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, if they wish — as long as the main lesson plan is taught to those looking for a belt ranking in the PMA system.
Just as important, all the schools implement the same effective marketing and administrative practices. According to Van Over, marketing and having a qualified staff are two of the most important things a martial arts school owner can do to further his or her success, yet he still sees many instructors from outside the PMA family make those the first two things they cut when they get into financial difficulty.
A key component of PMA’s marketing strategy is making the program appealing to kids and their parents. To that end, Van Over has developed a number of mini-classes like Karate for Concentration, which teaches children to use martial arts to develop focusing skills, and Bully Proof, an anti-bullying class. To maximize the student base, these aren’t taught just inside PMA schools; they’re delivered to public schools, as well.
Van Over learned long ago that networking with local public schools, going in and giving demonstrations and lectures, then inviting the kids to come by his school the next Saturday for a follow-up lesson, was a fantastic marketing tool.
“Whenever we’d do this, we’d sign up maybe 50 percent of the kids who showed up the following Saturday,” he said. “Once, when I was working as a consultant for a martial arts school in Plano, Texas, a number of other instructors came by to see if what we were doing really helped improve business. I did a public-school seminar and invited all the kids to this martial arts school the next day, where I [taught] them to break a board. They were supposed to have some thin wooden boards there so even the little kids would be able to break them, which makes them feel good about themselves and develops their confidence. But the boards weren’t thin enough, so with some of the kids, I had to take their little heels in my hand and help them break the board by ramming my wrist into it. I had a giant knot on my hand by the end of the day. But we had 90 kids that showed up for that class, and 66 of them signed up for lessons.”
Van Over is quick to emphasize that success isn’t just about the number of children schools can sign up. It’s about empowering all PMA students through martial arts. For children, that might mean taking an 8-year-old boy who comes from a broken home and having the instructor serve as a father figure for him. It might mean taking an out-of-shape girl and getting her to enjoy exercise. For adults, it might mean taking a lonely 35-year-old who walks in off the street looking for social acceptance and making him feel as if he now belongs to a tribe that wants him there.
“As school owners, we don’t necessarily know what people are going to come in looking for, but we do know we can make their lives better if we do this right,” Van Over said. “PMA is a service company, and we have a service mentality. The school owners service the students and their families at the schools. I, as head of the company, service our franchise owners to make their lives easier. This is not like other martial arts organizations where all the admiration and adulation go up to the top to a grandmaster. I’m here for our franchise owners, not the other way around.”
The franchise owners obviously appreciate the support. Originally a licensing program, PMA decided a year ago to switch to a full franchise system. Every one of the 68 affiliated schools came with Van Over, opting to become fully franchised branches. Needless to say, a 100-percent retention rate is unusual for any organization that switches to a franchise system. But those who had been part of the PMA system obviously appreciated the results. Since then, the organization has grown to 120 franchises.
Those new franchise owners include martial arts instructors who have converted their existing schools to the PMA model, as well as non-martial artists who believe that owning a PMA school is a sound investment. In return, PMA provides training in its business model and teaching method. For those investors who have no martial arts experience, PMA helps them recruit experienced instructors, vetting potential teachers and then placing them in a training program so they can teach the full PMA system.
Most owners still come from the ranks of existing school owners who decide to go the conversion route, though. And for many of these struggling dojo owners, the turnaround has been remarkable.
“One of our guys, Tim Rook, was teaching out of daycare centers, teaching 40 or 50 kids all week long and making nothing,” Van Over said. “He called me and said he wanted to become part of Premier. Now he has one school with 400 students and just signed a lease on a second location. So what we’re doing here really does work. We’re in well over 100 locations now, and not one of our schools has left us. I intend to keep growing Premier as long as I can keep servicing all our schools the same way I’ve been servicing them since 2004.”