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Premier Martial Arts: The Franchise That’s Leading the Pack in the Martial Arts Industry

by Richard Blaine

 

Many martial artists dream of earning a living doing what they love. But when that dream meets the harsh reality of running a business, it can feel like being woken with a bucket of ice water to the face. Declining enrollments, departing students, the never-ending search for quality staff members, and turning just enough of a profit to pay bills and eat, then repeating this process month after grueling month — these things can turn that dream into a nightmare.

Yet a few 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 in a market saturated with everything from cardio-kickboxing gyms to Brazilian jiu-jitsu academies, every PMA school — with the organization’s combination of traditional martial arts and self-defense training — seems to be thriving.

“The main thing is treating your martial arts 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 Type A personalities, so it can be difficult to convince some of them to change. They might be making a certain amount of money and they’d like to make more, but they’re just scared to change and [potentially] lose what they’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.”

 

Roots

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 asked what 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 which just resonated with me when I put that uniform on.”

After earning his black belt, Van Over began teaching martial arts at the University of Kentucky. He opened a class for students there, then tried to launch another one at Morehead State University. When he couldn’t secure space at the second institution, he found a local armory he could use and posted some fliers — and had 30 people show up at the first class.

“A lot of them were kids who had filled these old Pringles potato-chip cans with change to pay for the lesson,” he said. “I tell our instructors now, who grew up in commercial martial arts schools, ‘You don’t know how tough it is to be a martial arts instructor until you’ve had kids pay you in Pringles cans full of change.’”

PMA schools have come a long way from Van Over’s Pringle-can beginnings. The franchises are nothing if not professional in everything from billing and advertising to creating their own line of custom equipment. These are all part and parcel of the hard lessons Van Over learned while trying to make it as a martial arts instructor.

 

Evolution

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. 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 child’s main goal, which is usually 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.

 

Persistence

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 consulting clients who stayed with Van Over through the years because they found 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 follow 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 system 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’d teach 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’ll tell you, 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.”

 

Success

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 the 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 the 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 recalled. “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 well over 100 locations now, and not one of our schools has left us. And 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.”

 

For more information, visit premiermartialarts.com.

 

 

 

CASE STUDY: AARON HENSLEY

BY THE NUMBERS!

Years as a school owner: 12

Years as a PMA school: 12

Studios owned: 4 with 1 in buildout

Students: 650

Average yearly gross revenue: $1.5 million

 

UP CLOSE!

What do regard as your purpose in the martial arts industry, and what is your goal for your business?

“My purpose and goal go together. Martial arts gave me superpowers — tools I didn’t have naturally. It helped me overcome my insecurities and fears, and it pushed me to be the best version of myself. It’s my goal to reach as many lives as possible — to have martial arts greatly impact them so they have the tools to overcome anything life throws at them. To do that, I want to own many schools with an amazing team [whose] sole purpose is to give their all to everybody that walks in the door so they have the superhero feeling every day.”

What do you love about being a Premier Martial Arts studio?

“I bleed green! Premier Martial Arts, Barry Van Over and all the other owners that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of have given me a home and a [sense of] belonging. [It’s] more than just business knowledge and systems — Premier has those second to none. Mr. Van Over has challenged and pushed me to become more of a leader, and with the support of Premier, my vision has been leveled up.”

How has PMA helped your martial arts career?

“Mainly the support and systems so I can focus on getting it done correctly and quickly without having to try to reinvent the wheel. It’s been the best decision I’ve ever made in the martial arts.”

 

 

CASE STUDY: TIM ROOK

BY THE NUMBERS!

Years as a school owner: “We have been open for seven years. My wife and I started teaching inside a daycare [center] and soon grew enough to lease our first location. After outgrowing that school in the first year, we moved to a much larger location. Our family has grown in a similar way since shortly after opening our business in the daycare: We discovered my wife was pregnant with our first child. We now have four kids. Each one arriving has driven me to propel our business forward.”

Years as a PMA school: “We have been with PMA for seven years. We joined just a few months after opening our business.”

Studios owned: “I own two PMA locations. My second location officially opens in September 2019. We are preparing to open our third and fourth in 2020.”

Students: “Three hundred fifty-five members in our main location. Three members in our second location — which hasn’t officially opened yet.”

Average yearly gross revenue: “We grossed just over $500,000 in annual sales for the past three to four years with a goal to reach $600,000 in 2019.”

 

UP CLOSE!

What do regard as your purpose in the martial arts industry?

“I discovered my passion for teaching martial arts when I was 18. Over the years, I have impacted the lives of so many amazing students and enjoy being part of their stories. Truly, though, I have been humbled in my duty to serve our community. So many students have shared stories of surviving violence and abuse. Hearing their stories before and after receiving our training — how it’s rebuilt their confidence — has given me a new purpose. At times, parents praise us by sharing schoolteacher comments like ‘What’s different in your child’s life? I’ve noticed a change in behavior and focus.’ And the parent replies, ‘We joined PMA!’ So my calling is to continue to build leaders in our community one black belt at a time.”

What are your goals for your business?

“My goals are to own five PMA locations in the next three years and 10 locations in five years. Since joining PMA and following their systems, I have grown in my management ability to develop new leaders and prepare them to become managers. I feel a responsibility to help my team discover personal success and create new career opportunities. Our vision is to support our community and seek out new ways to serve our schools, churches, first responders, shelters and the cities we call home.”

What do you love about being a Premier Martial Arts studio?

“I absolutely love the Premier family and support from fellow owners. It’s such a positive atmosphere and helps drive our success. PMA has organized all their resources in a simple easy-to-follow system. Most of all, the ability to train my staff using these resources sets us apart from the average martial arts school. PMA CEO Barry Van Over truly cares about his school owners and their success. He often has dropped everything to help me in a crisis. It’s his leadership that I admire and appreciate.”

How has PMA helped your martial arts career?

“PMA has given me the education and experience [I need] to grow in business and martial arts. Financially, I am able to take care of my family with new opportunities for the future, health care and retirement. In business, I continue to rediscover [that] my potential is higher as Barry Van Over challenges me to push past my comfort zone into new levels of success. PMA has brought in some world-class instructors over the years to train the trainers in krav maga, muay Thai, BJJ, kali and various [other] styles, growing my own depth of knowledge and application in the martial arts. The Instructor Performance College has been the best formal training for me and my staff in classroom management. It keeps us sharp and our ideas fresh. PMA has opened doors that I never knew existed, and I will always be grateful.”

 

 

CASE STUDY: DAVID PANTANO

BY THE NUMBERS!

Years as a school owner: 22

Years as a PMA school: 12

Studios owned: 1

Students: 330

Average yearly gross revenue: $470,000

 

UP CLOSE!

What do regard as your purpose in the martial arts industry?

“My reason for being in the martial arts industry is multi-purpose. First, in a world where mediocrity is becoming more widely accepted and expected than excellence and maximum effort, I feel it is our job as martial arts instructors to almost provide a secondary education to children. [For] the children to shine, they need to separate themselves from the groups of people who accept average as the norm. A sense of entitlement has become epidemic in both children and adults, so we teach classes in a way that makes the student feel amazing about working for everything they get.

“Second, as this world becomes more dangerous, both adults and children are looking for martial arts that are not only practical but also taught in a way that is on a level of professionalism that puts the student and customer first, not the instructor. Training needs to arm a student with realistic skill sets quickly, and the curriculum [needs to be] relevant to the world we live in today.”

What is your goal for your business?

“I want to max out my current location and open two more locations to dominate my area.”

What do you love about being a Premier Martial Arts studio?

“What’s not to love? I always get more than I pay for. How many people can say that about anything they purchase? Complete — and I mean complete — business and teaching systems are provided for us. I do not have to scramble looking for the new trend that will be hot for a season. I remember the old days of trying to find something to supplement the curriculum to keep students from being bored. We are provided with a very unique curriculum that never gets boring, instructor training at least three times a year to keep everyone sharp, an online resource detailing how all classes can be taught, and an instructor resource site with tons of drills and multiple ways of providing an amazing experience for our customers.

“The marketing systems and materials provided for us are on a whole new level, not just limited to printed materials and social media material but a complete digital-marketing service that feeds prospects to our website and keeps working them with valuable content until they decide to take the next step and book a trial program.

“It is a full-service organization. I don’t need to find a website service; it’s provided. Coaching: provided. Weekly meetings to keep us on track: provided. Amazing high-quality apparel that would cost a ton of extra money if I were independent: provided. Access to highly successful school owners that want to bring us up to their level: provided. Ready-made professional commercials that could bring a tear to your eye like a Hallmark commercial or motivate you like a Rocky movie: provided. Branded equipment: provided.”

How has PMA helped your martial arts career?

“I was making only $6,600 a month at the time I joined PMA, struggling to make ends meet. As I write this, I am just coming off of a 10-day vacation in Mexico, where I did not once worry about money. My school was run the entire time by my staff because of the training and systems that are provided through PMA.

“PMA has provided me with the tools and education to give myself and family a lifestyle that I always dreamed of and an unlimited income potential that I never thought possible. The knowledge PMA provides me with helps me make money right away.”

 

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