After the murder of both of his parents in childhood, Fred DePalma turned tragedy into triumph when he discovered the martial arts. Today, he and his wife, Robin, own eight thriving schools in Arizona. Through his desire to help his employees become successful school owners, he cultivated a mastery of staff development.
By Terry L. Wilson
Taking Care of Staff
From the beginning of Fred DePalma’s multi-school martial arts career, his primary goal was to take care of his staff. Even at the young age of 18, when he opened his first location, the fledging school owner realized the importance of taking care of the people who would take care of him.
“From the minute I opened my first school, I was all about developing and training the staff,” DePalma says. “And in return, they take care of the students. All too often, a school owner will take care of the students first, without giving much thought to the needs of their staff.”
“Of course, the students are very important for the school owner. But, as a school owner, it should be staff first, and for the staff, it should be students first.
“It’s important to make time to talk to your staff. Listen to what they have to say, and take the time to train them properly. Guide them through the process and help them set goals. I talk to my staff all the time, advising them about finances, how to save money and how to invest that money wisely.”
One Mega-School Vs. Smaller Multi-Locations
At one point in his career, DePalma ran a mega-school supporting a very large student base. He eventually streamlined his class size and added additional schools.
“I don’t run large mega-schools anymore,” says DePalma. “I did that once with 600 students. But I like the way we’re doing it now, with eight schools, much better.
“We have three employees at each of our locations: one full-time and two part time. The full-timer is usually the head instructor and school manager. The part-timers are an assistant instructor and a person to work the front counter. These individuals are usually in high school or college.
“The part-time people are paid minimum wage. In Arizona, that’s $10.50 an hour. Our managers are paid a salary and commission that comes out to between $55,000 and $105,000 a year.
“Our schools are open full time Monday to Thursday from one to nine p.m. I like to say, ‘The work we do from 12 to four o’clock allows us to teach from four to nine.’ So, the managers will come in with a list of duties they need to do in order to prep the school for that day’s class.”
Develop Your Staff One Step At A Time
DePalma has 36 years of experience as an instructor and 33 years as a school owner. In the process of opening eight successful locations in Arizona, he has been dubbed a “master of staff development.” In addition to his teaching skills, DePalma receives accolades as an innovator and motivator in how he prepares his staff for a career of their own as school owners.
“I always think that martial art instructors should be the best people in the world at staff building,” says DePalma. “The process is simple. Let’s say we have a brand-new white belt in class for the first time, be it a kid or an adult. We take the time to teach him or her how to punch, how to kick, and to do it again and again until he or she is good enough to get their first belt.
“We teach karate students one step at a time. I’ve never been to any martial arts school where the instructor teaches a new white belt from the black belt curriculum. They teach white belt techniques to white belts so they can work their way up. And that’s how we train our potential school managers: one lesson at a time.”
DePalma says that some martial art schools make the mistake of hiring a black belt staff member who’s a good teacher, but is still a white belt in management skills. This potential staff member needs to learn new skills as a manager, just like he or she needed to learn various skills leading them to black belt status.
“So, when you’re grooming your staff on how to run a school, you must train them from step one just like you would a white belt.”
Eye Witness to Murder
The horrific events of Fed DePalma’s early childhood could have sent his whole life into a deep tailspin. Both of Fred DePalma’s divorced parents were murdered, at different times, and he witnessed his mother being killed. It says a lot about the man that he was able to change his trajectory, self-admittedly, by discovering the martial arts.
Tragedy #1. He and his four siblings were living with his single mother in a rough Connecticut neighborhood during the first homicide. Fred was only two years old.
“When I was little, very little, about two years of age, I watched my mother get stabbed to death,” DePalma says bluntly. “It was Easter. My grandparents had given my mom enough money for her to buy us kids some shoes. My mom’s boyfriend came over; he wanted our shoe money.
“Mom refused to give him the money. He got angry and they argued. Then, in front of all five of us kids, he pulled a knife and began stabbing her.”
DePalma’s mother ran for her life as the assailant continued his attack, going from room to room. It ended in the front yard when the mother of five finally succumbed of her wounds. She had been stabbed more than 50 times.
One can only imagine the shockwave that must have engulfed the five young children as this nightmare played out before their very eyes.
DePalma’s parents had been divorced prior to the attack. His father had been living in another state, and was either unable or unwilling to help the now motherless children.
“My dad had already moved away at the time of my mother’s murder,” DePalma explains. “He was remarried and living in Utah and we were in Connecticut. My dad really didn’t want to have anything to do with the five of us. So, my grandparents took all of us in to live with them.
“My grandmother is my mother’s mother, and her husband, my grandfather, had no kids of his own. Way back in the day, he had married a divorced woman with kids and, in those days, that was greatly frowned upon. I’d heard that his family disowned him because you just didn’t do that back then.
“So, here’s a guy that never had any kids. He brought up my mom, then turned around and brought up us five grandkids, too.
“We weren’t a wealthy family whatsoever. We lived in Bristol, a lower-income area of Connecticut. Both grandparents worked full time, my grandfather in a factory and grandmother for the phone company. They did that to take care of five extra kids.”
Tragedy #2. With the memory of their mother’s death still hanging over them, another tragedy befell the DePalma clan about eight years later.
“My dad was murdered when I was in the fifth grade,” DePalma states, once again bluntly. “He was shot and killed in California. He was a truck driver. He and his partner were both murdered; it was a professional hit. We don’t know much more about it, because his records are still sealed.”
After Another Low-Blow in Life, Martial Arts Come to His Rescue!
DePalma did have one positive thing in his favor as a kid. He was athletic. So, to help put those earlier nightmares behind him, he got involved in playing football. But even here, life dealt him another unexpected blow. He broke his kneecap during a game. So severe was the injury, it resulted in the loss of his right kneecap.
But in the strange way that life works — like when one door closes and another opens up, as they say — the knee injury turned out to be a blessing.
It was during his recovery from that injury when fate intervened in a potent way — thanks to the TV show, Kung Fu Theater. The weekly show broadcast those wild old “chop-sockey” movies made cheaply in Hong Kong — notorious for their butchered English-language dubbing and whacky subtitles. Nevertheless, the martial arts action was fantastic. The fancy footwork and exotic kicks exhibited by the kung-fu thespians mesmerized the sidelined gridiron hopeful.
DePalma’s doctor advised him that performing kicks was not the best thing to do for a guy with half a knee. But DePalma had been bitten by the martial arts bug and it was an itch he just had to scratch.
“After six months in a cast, I asked my grandmother if I could take a karate class. She said no,” he explains. “So, I ignored her, jumped on my 10-speed and peddled to a school that was about 20 miles away to check them out.
“I took the free class they offered and I loved it. I went home, told my grandmother what I’d done and that I wanted to take karate. This time she said, ‘Okay.’”
Fred DePalma’s involvement in the martial arts, he says, actually took shape as an escape route.
“The street where I lived in Bristol was a dead end that ran between two other streets. It was a rough place that always had some kind of police action going on. There were muggings, shootings, drug deals; it really wasn’t a safe place. Because I lived in this very rough neighborhood, most of the time I had to fight just to get home in one piece.”
“So, by taking martial arts at a young age, I had someplace safe to go. My first week into karate, my instructor, Greg Silva, took me to a karate tournament. I sparred against older competitors who all had years of experience on me, but I took first place.
“I was hooked! I thought this was the coolest thing in the world. I’m punching people and not only am I not getting arrested, I’m also getting a trophy for it!
“If it weren’t for tournaments,” DePalma says emphatically, “I probably wouldn’t have made a career for myself in martial arts.”
That was his first major turning point; his date with destiny.
Little did DePalma know that he would eventually rise to master rank, create an amazing lifestyle for his family and train his staff to become future school owners.
A Surprise Bankroll
Before DePalma could wear a karate uniform as a full-time professional instructor, he chose to don a set of dress blues by enlisting in the Marine Corps.
After his hitch, the discharged Leatherneck had a very welcomed surprise for his homecoming. Thanks to the integrity of his grandparents, DePalma would soon have enough money to open his first school.
“When I got out of the Marines, I learned that my grandparents did something that was wonderful beyond words,” he says. “Because my mom was murdered, they received Social Security money to take care of us kids, but they never took a penny of that money for themselves. They put it all into individual savings accounts for us. So, when we all turned 18, we all had a savings account.
“My share came to $32,000. Because I was the youngest, I got the most money. I took part of that money and bought my first karate school from my instructor. That was in February 1986 in Connecticut. It was a little 18-by-20-foot school. Then, in June, I moved into a 6,800-square-foot facility. It was the same year the second Karate Kid movie came out, so that was good timing for me.
“It was the desire, the motivation and determination and my don’t-quit attitude that drove me to make the school bigger. Even though I didn’t know anything about business or marketing at the time, I kept aligning myself with the right people.
“I stayed very tight with my instructor, Greg Silva, and watched and learned as he became one of the largest schools in the country. I joined EFC, [Educational Funding Company], and that aligned me with a lot of people I never would have met otherwise. I was disciplined enough to sit back, be quiet and learn from the people who were running successful schools and programs.”
A Great Personality Beats a Great Roundhouse
DePalma uses SWAT (Special Winning Attitude Team) as a 24-month instructor-training program.
“Most karate schools have a SWAT or Leadership program,” DePalma says. “We have a self-maintaining staff-development program. This is where people of various ages and ranks will come in and help out several times a week.
“We give them a card that has a task they must accomplish. A basic assignment is where they must introduce themselves to five people. That would be their task for the day.”
Another task, DePalma explains, may be as simple as holding the door open for someone, or to talk to three students and ask them about their outside interests.
These simple, common-sense chores are part of DePalma’s process to see how wannabe school owners interact with the public.
“The tasks we assign have nothing to do with teaching a class. Too often, when you put somebody on the floor to teach, they suddenly become a karate master. They’re screaming commands like a marine drill instructor, expecting everyone to respect them right off the bat. But respect must be earned, not demanded.
“So, instead of turning people into instructors, we first turn them into good finders. The SWAT program helps us wash out people that might not become good instructors. Our instructors have spent many years devoted to training in the art of kenpo and other martial arts. This diverse background gives them a certain level of expertise that qualifies them as teachers and also as mentors.
“Through extensive testing, certification and staff-training, our employees have attained mastery in teaching kenpo. Along with that knowledge, they know how to enjoy sharing their skill while passing it on to their students.
“We look for personality,” he emphasizes. “Of course, they must have some martial art talent, but we’re looking for an individual that relates well to others, too.
“Some of the best NFL and NBA coaches are not professional athletes. Just like someone that’s a great black belt, he or she may not make a great head instructor. I can hire a purple belt with a great personality and one day turn that individual into a black belt. But, I can’t change the personality of a black belt.
“We have a black belt pool of more than 200, but we’re not selecting future school owners just from that group. We’re looking at our entire student body. Our goal is to find certain individuals who fit a specific personality trait. That is who we want on the floor teaching karate classes. And, that’s the same trait we want someone to have when working our front counter as well.”
Being presentable is also a must on DePalma’s criteria for success. You’ve got to look sharp to be sharp, to make the grade on his management team.
“Does that mean we only hire good-looking people? Of course not,” DePalma explains. “A person doesn’t have to be a professional model to be presentable. You don’t even have to be in the best physical shape to be presentable. Just don’t be a slob; you must take pride in yourself. Make sure you always wear a clean gi. Dress properly when you’re out and about, and never wear your pants down below your underwear, ever.”
Remember, it was point-fighting in tournament competition that initially inspired DePalma’s continuing interest in the martial arts. Today, he’s a retired national champion with over 700 trophies and awards to his name. But he has a different answer when asked what his greatest martial arts accomplishment is.
“I feel the best knowing that I am sharing part of me, my martial arts, with others,” he says. “Every time I hand a new belt to a student, from the youngest white belt to the highest black belt, I feel I’ve accomplished my goals through their achievements. It’s not about what I’ve done. It’s about what we can do for them.”
Terry Wilson is a multiple-Emmy Award-winning TV host, writer and producer based in San Diego. He may be contacted at [email protected]
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