By Herb Borkland
Richardson was born in Charlotte and took his first martial arts training there at age 13. But, as is true of every aspect of his highly successful school, he says he opened LMA only after a great deal of study, planning and research.
Location Is Everything!
Charlotte is the most populous city in North Carolina, boasting around 860,000 diverse citizens — 45.1% white, 35.0% black, 13.1% Hispanic and 5.0% Asian. It’s the third-fastest-growing major city in the United States and the nation’s second-largest banking center, housing the corporate headquarters of Bank of America and the east coast operations of Wells Fargo. The NFL’s Carolina Panthers, the Charlotte Hornets of the NBA, and a strong NASCAR All-Star Racing presence are among the local major sports attractions.
Why is all of this so important to a martial arts school owner? Because location is everything.
“I began with demographic research on 64 markets in the United States,” explains Richardson, who has college degrees in Business and Marketing. “I bought reports on the most likely, then honed in on disposable income, concentrations of families, target markets, and available locations within an hour of where I lived, with the least competition.”
Sifting through all this business data also helped Richardson zero in on a name for his school which is both personally and professionally appropriate.
“In this area, people have a higher likelihood of being in a profession that involves management,” Richardson points out. “That’s why we are called Leadership. I chose the name from my own strong skill set and from what my customers care about.”
White Belt Mentality
A naturally inclined martial artist, Richardson began training in 1993. The dynamic atmosphere alive at LMA today comes directly from his own experiences choosing a first school.
“I went to sign up, and the first school terrified me,” he admits today. “Older kids were sparring and beating the snot out of each other. I never even stepped on the mat! Another school I checked out did a boring demo and offered a free year, but I never took a single class. At age 13, I finally discovered the perfect school — exciting, but not intimidating.”
Richardson has spent a quarter of a century traveling the world and training. His mixed martial arts 4th dan is from Master Robert Tucker, his judo 3rd dan comes through the United States Judo Association, while the Korean Hapkido Federation and Renzo Gracie account for his other two black belts.
Why so many styles? A painful discovery about the built-in vulnerabilities of one fighting art versus another inspired Richardson to diversify his own training. This, in turn, led to establishing his school’s boutique-business culture.
“I study four different arts because, as a black belt, a BJJ blue belt whipped me and my instructor both. Afterward, I thought I’d better put my white belt back on. This became my training philosophy. I try to find someone who’s going to humble me. I do this in studying business, too,” Richardson adds. “Which is why I have a Gold Membership with Century and have attended multiple Martial Arts SuperShows: invaluable mentorship! Best place to go.”
LMA offers a classic Little Ninjas program for its very youngest members. But the core youth/adult martial arts curriculum exposes students to a fluid, functional blend of kickboxing, judo, krav maga and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. BJJ is also taught as a stand-alone style, along with an energetic but only minimally impactful no-gi MMA.
“Today,” Richardson points out, “we teach MMA. It’s exciting, [it’s] huge! But we teach it to families. Cage fighting is not us.”
The practical business advantage of offering a full range of styles comes into play after new students learn the solid traditional basics.
“My school offers the equivalent to a liberal-arts martial arts education. You get a black belt, and then it’s time to specialize in higher learning. Students will find an art or skill they enjoy and gravitate to it. They get to take a path that interests them.”
To continue training, students will, of course, need to put a white belt back on. Just as it is for their head instructor, this honest humility becomes a point of pride for all Richardson’s best students.
“At promotion ceremonies, I hand every new black belt a new uniform and a white belt,” he states.
Nuts and Bolts
Also unusual, when it comes to rank promotions, is that LMA proudly makes a point of charging students nothing.
“At Leadership Martial Arts, belt promotions are not for sale,” school literature explains. “Most schools make money from promotions by charging between $50 to $150 for each rank test. By the time you earn your black belt, these costs can accumulate to several thousand dollars. At Leadership Martial Arts, you only cover the material cost of the belt and, if you do your best, we'll tie the new belt around your waist for free.”
The school also requires no registration/sign-up fees, with the exception of After School and Summer Camp programs. What’s more, the literature explains, “because we are a family martial arts academy, we want to make training affordable so you can do it together. [That] is why all family members of adult, youth and Little Ninja students receive 25% off for the second family member and a 50% discount for each additional family member.”
Leadership Martial Arts currently trains nearly 300 students in its 5,500 square-foot facility, which Richardson owns outright. Even putting aside the fact his business involves what he loves most, this ownership itself is a lifelong dream come true.
“Growing up, I always wanted to own my own business. As a boy, it was a toy store, of course,” Richardson laughs. “I grew up working full-time jobs, even in college, where I took a Business Administration degree from Queens University’s McColl School of Business.
“Twelve years ago, I dumped my life savings into LMA. The five-year lease terrified me. Eight years later, we had 300 active members, so I purchased land and built a 5,500 square-foot structure on a main drag where 46,000 cars a day drive by. The building I own is now valued at a million dollars.”
He also believes the key to real-estate success is a buy option.
“A lease-and-then-buy option on a new building allows you to grow business and then have the opportunity to cash in on the equity,” he explains. “Once established, the benefits of property ownership are amazing.”
Basically, Richardson sees two options available to school owners. Either grow through horizontal integration — by renting new spaces – or through vertical integration, where you become supplier and landlord to yourself.
His staff consists of “three retired gentlemen after-school van drivers,” two full-time office staff, and a 35-member Leadership Team composed of advanced students who train monthly in professional skills. Three programs are offered for those students who are looking to grow into leaders. First is the Way of the Floor – how to run a class; second, the Way of the Office — “What I went to college for,” Richardson quips. “To be good at both class and office.”
Ultimately, these two courses lead to the third, a Head Instructor program.
“From their ranks,” Richardson predicts, “will come the top students who will open our second and third locations.”
Retention is one of Leadership Martial Arts’ most striking successes.
“One year, I averaged out retention, and I was double the national average. There are variables, of course. For example, a student who attends camp every summer, but doesn’t continue during the year. How do you count them?”
Both an obvious indicator and likely major cause of this exceptional customer loyalty comes from urban demographics. LMA’s student body is a seamless blend of half children and half adults.
Richardson observes, “Diversity on my mat is almost as many women as men, and almost every age and race imaginable. Our beginners speak six different languages! Mats are the one place where people get along great. Our local pastor is a top area grappler, but, seeing him spar, you’d never realize who he was.”
Serve the Community through Local Schools
“I began with hundreds of pages of a business plan,” Richardson acknowledges. “Today, there are several manuals, including 78 systems for the office, marketing and ongoing instruction. A systems-based school is always being refined.”
With such a superbly thought-out operation in place, the big question is, what kind of marketing sustains it? Richardson has enjoyed record-setting achievements, such as signing up 56 new students in one month and 16 in a single day. How is this accomplished?
Richardson is very clear in his answer:
“My two biggest recruitment tools to hit those record numbers have been through community-service projects, in the form of after-school enrichment programs and fundraisers I’ve done with the local schools,” he states. “I’ve found that the more I give back to the community, the more the community has supported us!”
The key to beginning to serve the community?
“Break into the [academic] school system,” Richardson says emphatically. “The best method for getting in is making it not about me but about them. I ask them, ‘What do you need? How can I serve you?’”
The answers are often unexpected. One principal complained that there was no money in their budget for snacks for teachers during meetings. So, Richardson spent $90 on snacks and was promptly invited back to do an enrichment program and a back-to-school session, because that’s what that school wanted.
Eight Ways to Help Academic Schools
“Every one of these is different,” Richardson points out. “I have a list of my own suggestions as to what I can do for them.”
1. Classroom bully talks: A program which boasts a 70% reduction in school-wide bullying, and includes posters loaned to the school and a parent-education letter.
2. After-school enrichment programs: Fundraisers built upon a five-week after-school martial arts enrichment program at your school for $35. It includes a free martial arts belt, and 100% of the net proceeds go back to the academic school.
3. Staff appreciation days: These events provide a mini-buffet in the break room, a self-defense course, and a staff team-building day.
4. Fall and spring festivals, PTA days and other events: LMA good-humoredly assures academic schools that events “are always more exciting when people in pajamas are breaking boards!”
5. Student leadership awards: Given during a morning or afternoon school assembly. Students receive a framed award and get to break a board in front of their peers.
6. “PE Teacher for the Day:” An event which suggests schools “drop the dodgeball and give your Phys-Ed teacher a helping hand. It a way to learn valuable martial arts life skills from a black belt and credentialed Charlotte-Mecklenburg School volunteer.
7. Free homework folders: These folders, which students take home, are provided with the school’s logo on the front and the LMA logo placed “as a proud sponsor/partner” on the inside of the folder.
8.Major fundraisers: LMA also raised $10,000 by offering a $99 Summer Special, including uniforms and all-summer training at school. Fifty-six newcomers signed up, and the students had so much fun that half of them went on to train during the school year for $119-per-month fee.
“Social media from students was powerful,” Richardson emphasizes. “And how do you think it made me feel, delivering a check to a principal who broke down in tears because she was so grateful?”
Are these all original ideas?
“Many of these suggestions I make to schools come from other successful school owners,” Richardson acknowledges. “But, in my experience, ‘How can I serve you?’ is the most powerful [lead-in] question.”
Love It to Grow It
At the core of all LMA’s systems and strategies is a single emotionally powerful ambition which is explained at the school’s online site.
“You'll forget your exercising as each class brings new and exciting challenges,” it reads. “Class curriculum and structure are built to capture your attention. The first step to learning the martial arts is learning to love it, which is why our average student retention rate is more than double the national average!”
If the first step to learning the martial arts is learning to love it, Richardson infectiously shares and spreads his passion. He has special events just for his own students. One of the perks for his top grapplers comes in the form of training once a year at Renzo Gracie’s New York school, which mixes his pupils in with real MMA fighters.
“We took 16 people last time,” Richardson brags, “and trained for a week. Some of us have gone eight and nine times.”
Expanding LMA to new locations depends on Professor Richardson developing the staff and putting resources in place. So, opening a new location just makes good business sense.
To explain, Richardson like to quote Woodrow Wilson: “I use not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”
Herb Borkland is a veteran black belt and freelance writer based in Front Royal, VA. He can be reached at [email protected].
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