Knoxville, Tennessee’s Barry Van Over went from the hills of Appalachia to the forefront of the 21st-century martial arts revolution. Franchising is his dynamic vision for the future of martial arts businesses.
By Keith D. Yates
While people have been practicing martial arts for thousands of years, the ancient disciplines have never been more popular than they are today. Statista is an online statistics, market research and business-intelligence portal that provides access to data from market and opinion research institutions. The last time the company conducted a survey, in 2016, into how many people practiced martial arts, it discovered that almost four million people, ages six and older, were practicing martial arts.
With more than 20,000 martial arts studios operating across the nation and the rise of martial arts in the mainstream, there is reason to believe that those numbers would be even higher today.
One of the reasons why martial arts is so popular is because its practice can benefit a person on multiple levels.
Premier Martial Arts franchise is a rising star in the modern evolution of martial arts industry. With thousands of students enrolled in its 100+ locations across the country, Premier Martial Arts is a well-known emerging brand with enormous growth potential. This makes the company’s brand a wise investment for entrepreneurs with a passion for martial arts, as well as for owners of existing martial arts studios seeking expansion.
Knoxville’s Barry Van Over, founder and CEO of Premier Martial Arts, began his martial arts training at the age of nine in what he says was a “dirty skating rink,” in a tiny town in eastern Kentucky. He says it was literally the area where the Hatfields and McCoys had their fabled feuds.
His dad was a “country businessman” who taught young Barry his business acumen. After enrolling in the University of Kentucky, Van Over became a friend and student of the head of his martial arts organization.
“I’d drive him all over Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee,” remembers Van Over. “This was ‘back in the day,’ and he’d make his money going to all these tiny towns and giving belt promotions every few months.”
Because of that experience, Van Over was able to observe close-up how a variety of instructors and schools ran their businesses — some, of course, more successfully than others. This also created a desire to open his own martial arts school.
He moved to Tennessee for what was going to be just for a summer and began teaching in a racquetball court in Knoxville, two nights a week. But his success soon led to him opening his own school.
However, he admits, “I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. I literally lived in the school, sleeping on a couch in the office. I’d hang my clothes on a pole behind a room divider and showered in the nearby Powerhouse Gym.”
When he saved up enough money, he would check into a motel, so he could sleep on a real bed and watch television for an evening.
A Change for the Better
Van Over says he was about to close his school when he got a call from a friend from his old organization. He told him about a martial arts business-training session happening in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I’m thinking that I’ll go to the horse races and then stop in to see what the training was all about,” remembers Van Over. “In those days, martial arts business consulting was usually done by billing companies. At that point, I was so broke that I was willing to try anything and so I joined them and they began to do my billing.”
Along with the billing came some professional business advice, and Van Over saw his business start to improve.
Flash forward, and I became that company’s biggest client and I ended up as their vice president,” he says.
He began to mentor other school owners and helped to improve their businesses, even as he ran his own now two successful schools in Tennessee.
In 2004, he rolled what had been his private mentoring group into his new Premier Martial Arts, which would become a licensing opportunity for school owners across the nation. They have grown into more than 100 schools in not just the United States but in England and Canada. But his vision has always been for something far greater.
The Franchise Model
As luck would have it, a trademark attorney that Van Over knew introduced him to a man named Alan Thompson. Thompson is a business professional with 30 years experience who rose to the ranks of one of the nation’s most experienced franchisees and franchisor. He grew Steak Out into a national chain and became CEO of Gigi’s Cupcakes.
“But I’m not in the cupcake business, the coffee business or the martial arts business,” Thompson insists. “I’m in the franchise business. Your success as a franchise is dependent on the systems you put in place; in your operations, your training and your marketing.”
Thompson is now president of Premier and he brings his track record of franchise successes to our industry. Because of his many years in commercial real estate, he’s an expert at acquiring favorable retail locations at advantageous lease terms.
“Additionally, we aid our franchisees with our buying power, helping with everything you need to open a school, from mats to equipment to counter tops,” he explains. “But in the long run, we are about building brand equity, which makes our business owners worth a lot more money.”
Van Over says that most franchises in the United States have only five to eight locations.
“Most folks think of the McDonalds and KFCs,” he points out. “But most franchises are small, and there are a lot of them. Many of the retail brick-and-mortar stores you go to are franchises. It’s a proven model for success.
“Running a franchise is, in some ways, more work and more expensive than just being a licensee — at least when starting out,” adds Van Over. “But the advantages are so much greater.”
He points out that their model is to run a highly efficient, small school with a very small staff (even just one person), including proven income generators and built-in branding and marketing.
“A small footprint, a 1,400- to 1,600-square-foot space, enables our franchisees to be in the best shopping centers in the best part of town, all at a reasonable rate,” he says.
Premier locations aren’t behind warehouses, but next to the towns’ most popular restaurants and coffee shops, and are modern and spotless environments. Their teaching methods and specially designed curriculum add to the efficiency and have proved to keep overhead low and profits high.
Not Just a Black Belt
“In many ways, this is the opposite of a traditional martial arts school,” explains Van Over. “While our franchisees are passionate about the arts, they are not necessarily the head instructor but the CEO of their own business.
“Premier coaches their franchisees on how to sell their services to the community. They aren’t always on the mat, but out selling and promoting. They grow their reputation and business by building referrals from local school systems to sports leagues — and with innovative and community-focused programs. Premier is a major brand in the industry and that gives you instant credibility,” he says.
John Liles is a good example of that. He had a very successful school in Lubbock, Texas. When he opened his second location, it was an instant success because of his reputation.
“When I opened my third school 350 miles away, no one knew who I was. It was only because of the Premier brand that I was able to have over a hundred students in less than a year,” Liles says.
Indeed, the professional marketing support that Premier is noted for beats the individual, mom-and-pop-type competitors in most communities. That’s why you don’t see Premier schools going out of business.
Van Over doesn’t intend to put down the independently owned schools. But he says this often poses long-term problems for the owners, especially if they don’t have the business skills needed to grow and remain relevant. He has seen so many schools operated by very talented martial artists who continue to struggle or go out of business after a few short years. He believes this is bad for our industry as a whole.
“Being a part of a nationwide franchise gives you so many more opportunities for things you might never think of, such as small business loans,” Van Over says. “Now, we’ve got those established systems in place for finding and negotiating lease agreements, hiring and training the best teachers, marketing in your specific community, as well as the opportunities to scale up to multi-unit ownership.”
It’s Not the Impersonal Mega-School Approach
Of his concept, Van Over points out, “It’s all about simplicity. Our model is the small, almost boutique-type location. Yes, some successful schools are huge. But then, you need huge staffs and have to have a huge maintenance budget to go with it all. I’d rather have two or three sparkling-clean locations in a five to 10-mile radius.”
Research has shown that smaller schools generate income similar to larger schools and are easier to maintain and manage.
“That way, we can serve the community we are in, instead of the whole metropolis — and moms are only going to drive so far,” Van Over explains.
Indeed, Premier has many multi-location owners. Like James Cox, who’s looking to open his third school in Abilene, Texas, and Aaron Hensley, who will be opening up three new schools in North Augusta, South Carolina.
Hensley says the Premier owners are all like-minded, even though they may be separated by distance.
Obviously, we keep up with each other via social media, but when we get together it’s like a big family,” he says. “We help each other out with not just business but personal things.”
All the Premier owners agree that Barry Van Over is someone who cares about not just their businesses but them as individuals, too.
Multiple Revenue Streams
Because Premier has been in business for so long already, the company has figured out the best ways to maximize the profitability of their franchisees. That includes membership upgrades and renewals, merchandise sales, private events and birthday parties, plus additional classes for things like women’s self-defense, fitness kickboxing, yoga and educational programs for children such as Bully-Proof.
“We saw a wave of people beginning to enter the martial arts world after 9/11,” says Van Over. “The world continues to be a dangerous place and the martial arts continue to be in demand. I had a recent women’s self-defense class in Knoxville where more than 60 women attended. Premier has already designed programs and curriculum that lets a new franchisee jump right into providing what people are already clamoring for.
“I take an enormous amount of pride in helping entrepreneurs realize their dreams of being successful businesspeople. We have been working for a very long time to get everything in place for the rollout of this new direction,’ he explains. “We’ve heard from virtually all our licensees that they want to be a part of this exciting, new program.”
As an outsider to the martial arts, Alan Thompson observes, “This brand is really strong already and I see this as a way to help these operators make a lot more money.”
The Premier Martial Arts franchise model is certainly poised to grow. It will be interesting to see if it indeed turns into the wave of the future martial arts industry.
For more information, Go to premiermartialartsfranchise.com.
Keith D. Yates is celebrating 50 years as a black belt and is the longest, continually-teaching martial arts instructor in the state of Texas. He can be reached through his organization’s website at www.akato.org.
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