Bobby and Charlene Lawrence operate Utah's largest chain of karate schools — 19 locations teaching more than 2,200 active students. Their four children and 20 grandchildren have grown up in the martial arts business. Read how their fascinating, family-oriented approach has built a martial arts empire and influenced tens of thousands of students in the Beehive State.
By: Keith D. Yates
Once, Bobby Lawrence was a public school teacher, athletic coach and attorney. While he was busy working in the corporate world, his wife, Charlene, turned their martial arts hobby into a one-school business. Today, they run the largest chain of karate schools in the entire state of Utah, encompassing 19 different locations. They are all Bobby Lawrence Karate Schools, some of them licensed. But the husband-and-wife team, who’ve been in the martial arts business since the 1980s, oversee the chain’s operations.
And it isn’t just the two of them. Their sons and even grandkids (they have 20!) are school owners and actively teaching black belts.
They didn’t set out to have a licensing empire. But their family approach to the martial arts inspired their students and others to emulate their student-friendly system. The Lawrences love what they do and it shows up in how they manage their multiple locations, 60-plus employees and more than 2,200 students.
Furthermore, the Lawrences don’t do anything small. From the top of Utah to the very bottom, you’ll find a school bearing their name. Their inter-school tournament is the largest karate competition in the state.
They are also prominent advocates of the Martial Arts Industry Association (MAIA) and can give testimony on how to tailor a business to the community. Obviously, Utah is a family-friendly state and their style fits right into the culture.
Here’s how these once-traditional, old-school martial artists made the transition to a unique, family-first operation that has influenced tens of thousands of students.
MARTIAL ARTS SUCCESS: How did you folks get started in the martial arts?
BOBBY LAWRENCE: I started in high school in Las Vegas. I
wasn’t big enough for football and was looking for some other
athletic activity. I found an Ed Parker kenpo karate school that fit
the bill. When I was a sophomore in college, I met Charlene and
she wondered why I wasn’t involved in many college activities in
the evening. I told her I practiced karate.
CHARLENE LAWRENCE: Yeah, we had started dating and I
couldn’t figure out why he was always busy in the evenings. When
I found out, I was like, “What’s karate?” I went to watch and decided
if I wanted to be around him, I needed to join, too. That was
the start of our big adventure.
MASUCCESS: When did you make black belt?
BOBBY: I got my black belt in 1977. I graduated from high school
in ’72, we met in ’74, and got married in 1976. We moved to Utah
so I could attend a graduate program in history at BYU [Brigham
Young University]. That’s where I earned my black belt rank.
MASUCCESS: So, when did you start the martial arts business?
BOBBY: That was quite a bit later. I had graduated and was working.
After our youngest son was in kindergarten, Charlene decided
she wanted to do something different and went to work for the
city. But soon, she said, “I’m going to turn your teaching into a
martial arts business.”
MASUCCESS: When was that?
CHARLENE: That was about 1988. Bobby had been the director
of the martial arts program at BYU and I was at home raising the
kids. Once our youngest went to school, I said, “I think I could run
a karate school.”
So, with Bobby’s encouragement, I opened the school in Provo,
Utah. The thought was, let’s just have a nice school, me, Bobby
and the kids. We didn’t plan on it going big. But what eventually
happened was some of our black belts liked the way we worked
together as a family and wanted to do the same thing.
BOBBY: I actually had no idea she was such a smart business
person. She just liked people and she was really good at it. She
would teach the early classes and I would come in and teach the
advanced classes in the evening. We soon decided there was nothing
else we’d rather do.
MASUCCESS: Where was your first school?
CHARLENE: It was in downtown Provo, and the rent was really
cheap. We were there about three years.
BOBBY: But then, Charlene found a building in Orem, which is
where we currently are. She actually bought this building in 1993.
CHARLENE: My thought was, we needed to get out of the basement
and I was only looking for a place to rent. But I found this location on
State Street and I thought, “Man, it’s for sale and I think I can afford
it.” Someone told me it used to be a grocery store, but it was most
recently a motorcycle place. We had to knock down walls and paint it
and, in those days, we put in carpeting.
It’s almost 6,000 square feet and, being on such a busy street,
people just started coming in as soon as we opened. Then we started
teaching Tae Bo and that brought in even more kids because the
moms really liked the Tae Bo [workout].
MASUCCESS: And you have many more locations now, correct?
BOBBY: We have several, yes. We own this building [in Orem] and we
have locations in Spanish Fork and Herriman. We had one in American
Fork that we just sold to our son, Dallas. Besides the three schools and
the one owned by our son, we have 15 other locations in our organization.
CHARLENE: The son that we just sold the school to actually now has
three schools and our other son, Justus, has two.
MASUCCESS: So, it is a real family affair?
BOBBY: One of the great things about karate is that the whole family
can do it. We used to go to tournaments and every one of us would
compete — mom, dad, the kids. We’d all go to Wyoming or hop on a
plane to Las Vegas or California.
CHARLENE: We always called our school “The Family Farm.” Back in
the old days, kids grew up doing what their parents did and worked
side-by-side. That doesn’t happen anymore. But for us, it did. We’d
teach together and our children grew up knowing the business and
how to teach and communicate with people.
We are so proud of our children. We could never have imagined
that life could be this good running karate schools with our family.
The tournament years were really fun when the kids got old enough
and we’d climb in our van to compete in tournaments. Bobby was an
amazing coach to all of us and he coached our oldest son, Justus, to be
a seven-time world-champion fighter.
BOBBY: I remember Char always emphasizing what is important to
parents. The respect and the discipline that martial arts instills in kids
is invaluable to parents. That’s, I think, the impetus that she had to
turn this into our family business.
MASUCCESS: It must be heartening to see your kids carrying on the tradition of teaching karate.
BOBBY: We are definitely proud. And I should add that we have a granddaughter, Keiki, who is a black belt and teaches in our main location in Orem as well. But of course, we are also proud of the other schools who are run by our students who wanted to go out to start their own locations and teach. Again, we never anticipated growing so much. We never set out to offer a business opportunity to anyone.I think what happened is people saw how Charlene and I worked together as a team. We made it so successful they just wanted to do the same thing. They began coming to us to ask how they could do it. We just said we would help them and they could use our name.
MASUCCESS: So, this is a licensing arrangement?
BOBBY: Yes, licensing, not a franchise. I want to give them the freedom to do their own thing and to run their business however they want to. But they do teach my style, which is a kind of mixture or blend — which is what everyone in the business seems to be doing now. But our base is still kenpo. So, we have eight in Utah county, some in Salt Lake county, and a couple in St. George down in the southern end of the state. So, there is a Bobby Lawrence Karate School practically all the way from the top to the bottom of Utah.
MASUCCESS: Some of the schools are pretty close to each other. Is there a problem with one cannibalizing from another?
BOBBY: The fact there they are close is actually a good thing. Pretty much wherever a student signs up, that [location] is their school. We hardly ever have a problem with a student playing one instructor against another. What helps is we are a tight group. We all market together and regularly meet to train and help each other. We are about to have our monthly meeting where we’ll go over things like how to do a certain kata and exchange ideas. That is a neverending process to get everyone marching to the same drummer.
MASUCCESS: How many students do you have total in all 15 schools?
CHARLENE: More than 2,200.
MASUCCESS: Do all the students pay the same tuition?
BOBBY: Because it’s not a franchise, I don’t dictate that amount of control. I do set guidelines, of course. But, because there are physical differences between each facility and in their demographics, each instructor can do it however he or she wants. They run their own specials and have their own events, and so forth. I have to say that the licensing model has worked really well for us.
MASUCCESS: How do you do your testing for rank promotion?
BOBBY: I’ve divided the state into five regions, and we do regional
qualifying tests for black belt ranks. Then, we’ll do a big black belt
testing of close to 90 students going for first degree or higher. We do
this in conjunction with our semi-annual tournament. It’s the biggest
tournament in the state, even though it’s just our own inter-school
CHARLENE: We have to rent the event center where they hold concerts
and such. We mark off 18 rings and we have 500 to 600 entrants.
And there are probably 1,500 spectators.
BOBBY: The team sparring is really popular. One of the highlights is always
the demo team competition, where each school brings in a team
and they do demos to music.
MASUCCESS: How did you get involved with the Martial Arts Industry
BOBBY: Our oldest son was a tournament champion who fought all
over and he knew one of the former consultants with MAIA. That’s
when we were introduced to the organization and became an elite
member. I have worked with [MAIA Executive Director] Frank Silverman
and all those guys. It’s been a great association.
MASUCCESS: How has MAIA helped your business?
BOBBY: I think MAIA has brought a level of professionalism to the martial arts that never existed before. There were a few coaching services, but they didn’t have the financial backing or the professional vision that MAIA has. The organization helps all their members with business concepts and new marketing ideas.
MASUCCESS: How so?
BOBBY: For example, each of our schools has a branch manager whose responsibility it is to bring in new students. For us, some of the most successful [marketing] methods are things like birthday parties and School Talks.
CHARLENE: There are tons of little parades all over Utah. We are always represented there and we have a booth in the carnivals, too. Any event that we can go to, we are there.
MASUCCESS: How does it work with the public schools?
BOBBY: It’s harder to get into the public schools these days, so we’ll talk to individual teachers to set up a School Talk. Whenever we have belt promotions, the kids have to fill out a form ahead of time with questions like, “Have you been doing your chores? Have you been respectful of your parents? How are you doing in school?”We have the school teacher fill out a part of the form. Then, we can ask the teacher if he or she would like us to come in a give a School Talk. We do a show-and-tell and talk about what martial arts can do for you. Some schools let us hand out fliers, but others won’t.We learned this from MAIA: that you should point out how karate can improve a kid’s focus. We’ll give a pass to the teacher that she can present later to the student who shows the most focus. That student can come to the karate school for free lessons.We try to be partners-in-education with the teachers and the schools. It helps that I’m a former school teacher myself and can relate to the challenges they face. There are many more challenges today with more diagnoses of autism and the problem of obesity.
MASUCCESS: What role does word-of-mouth play in small communities?
BOBBY: That is definitely one of the best ways to get new students. But I have to say it is most effective when the instructor really cares for the students. Because it’s not just about the martial arts, but about what the arts can do for the student and for the whole family. I think that is the challenging thing that we face. It’s so easy for the instructor to get distracted by different things when running a martial arts business, like paying bills, rent, taxes. Do you want to be a tournament champion, or maybe a cage fighter? Those are things that can take you in the wrong direction.
You can’t buy into your own public relations. Of course, a karate
teacher feels good when a student does well in a tournament or
performs well, but this business isn’t about the well-performing
student. Some students may not be the most gifted athletes. But
when the parents see they have the same opportunities as all the
others, then they are happy.
MASUCCESS: Any other words of advice for someone wanting to
open a martial arts business?
BOBBY: You have to keep up with the times. When dealing with
kids, you have to treat them differently than adults. That was
hard for me to initially accept. I was very close, and still am, to the
highest-ranking people in traditional kenpo. I was even one of the
pallbearers for [American kenpo founder] Ed Parker, Sr.’s funeral.
Some of them will look at what we’ve done and how we are so
successful and perhaps think we have sold out the “old ways.”
That’s the camp I used to be in, too. That’s where Char had to
help me understand that students benefit in different ways and
that I had to modify my approach. I now see that the value of the
martial arts is in more than strict adherence to the old, hardcore
ways. Those, frankly, are hard for the modern American consumer
to buy into. And, of course, my kids have helped me see that as
MASUCCESS: Again, it seems like it is all about family for the
BOBBY: Love of family, yes. That’s what Char is so good at. I’ve
often said that she and I are the best team. We’ve worked hand-in-
glove for so long. For us, it’s all about helping future generations.
CHARLENE: That’s why we have been successful. When people
saw our four kids coming in to help us teach and they observed
our family dynamic, they’d say, “I want our family to be like yours.”
That love for each other, and for the martial arts, just kind of radiated.
It has been a blast — and the best thing in the world
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