How Two Instructors Guide Their Students to Black Belt — and Then Retain Them as Contributing Members of the Dojo!
Rob and Kathy Olevsky (author of MASuccess’ “You Messed Up! Now What?” column) took over a struggling school in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1979. Forty years later, they not only have a thriving business but dozens of black belts who are happy to pay full tuition. Learn what they did right — and a few things they did wrong — along the way!
By Keith Yates
It was the late 1970s, and Kathy Kilmartin was a 21-year-old taking karate lessons at the only martial arts school in Raleigh, North Carolina. She caught the eye of one of the instructors, a man named Rob Olevsky, but the dojo had a strict policy against teachers dating students. However, after repeated requests, the school’s owner says Rob could ask her out on a date — but only if Rob bought out Kathy’s contract in case she quit.
Rob agreed immediately, but Kathy wasn’t as eager when it came to dating. Rob had to ask her four times before she finally says yes! It was the start of a lifelong martial arts journey for the two of them.
Rob and Kathy hadn’t been married long when they decided to purchase the dojo. Kathy wasn’t a black belt yet, but she had developed such a passion for karate that she was confident this was the path for them. One of the first decisions they made was to ask the previous owner to stay on and run the school for 10 days so they could embark on a cross-country road trip. They drove almost 3,500 miles from North Carolina to California and then back to North Carolina in Rob’s trusty Datsun truck.
“That turned out to be our first smart decision because we didn’t get to have another vacation for 15 years,” Kathy says.
She remembers that the school, now called Karate International of Raleigh, had only 15 students at the time and was making $1,000 a month — barely enough to cover the rent and utilities, let alone recreation.
Expansion and Retraction
The original building was 1,200 square feet, but the Olevskys soon expanded to 3,000 square feet. Five years later they expanded again, doubling its size.
“Then we moved the school, but it turned out to be a bad location,” Kathy recalls. “About five years later we found our current 8,000-square-foot location.”
Moving so frequently and opening other branches in those early years taught the couple much about running a business.
“I think we did everything possible wrong in those days,” Kathy says, laughing. “We had five locations at one point, and we hired a bunch of people to work with us with mixed results. One embezzled money from us, and there were other hardships.
“We were young and had little kids, and it seemed like we were spending hours driving all over — we basically had no life. After five or so years, we decided it was better for our family to have just one location.”
But 10 years later in 1994, one of their students, a black belt who lived nearby, expressed a desire to open his own school. Rob and Kathy agreed to license their dojo name to him.
“We’ve gone through several phases with that,” Kathy says. “At one point, we had five schools, but now there are two licensees plus our main location for a total of three.”
A Family Affair
The Olevskys’ son Josh started sweeping floors at the school as a 14-year-old. Today, at 34, he runs the main dojo.
“Josh has taught with us for 20 years and has helped us simplify and refine our business practices,” Kathy says.
Although Josh is the de facto manager, his parents still come into the school every day: Kathy in the morning, and Rob later in the afternoon.
the couple’s black-belt daughter Casey — who doesn’t work at the school because she’s vice president for a marketing firm in Washington, D.C. — serves as the social media guru for Karate International of Raleigh. She handles that task so well that several other martial arts school owners have become clients.
“Family business can be tough,” Josh says. “My mom and I butted heads about a lot of things as I was growing into this position. I had the advantage of learning from their mistakes, and those were often lessons that took me a while. We had arguments, but I now run the school in my vision with the guidance of their experience.”
A Simple Tuition Structure
One change Josh convinced his parents to make was the adoption of a simple tuition setup. Students no longer needed a color-coded chart to figure out how much they would have to pay for lessons.
“Everyone over six years of age starts the same: $29.50 for three lessons and a uniform,” Kathy says.
After those introductory lessons, Josh and the front-office staff enroll students into a one-year program that costs $179 a month. When the first year is over, they move up to the Black Belt Club for an extra $30. Therefore, all students are either in their first year or in the Black Belt Club.
“We don’t have to worry about parents sitting in the front lobby, comparing what they are paying for lessons,” Kathy says.
In the Black Belt Club, students may attend an unlimited number of classes, and they can cross-train in any of the arts offered (although they’re encouraged to wait until they reach brown belt before doing so). Students ages three to six have their own classes that use simplified lesson plans, but once they move into the regular curriculum, their requirements are the same as everyone else’s.
Accounting for potential difficulties in their students’ personal lives is a priority at Karate International of Raleigh. When finances are tight, families take comfort in knowing they are eligible for a significant discount.
“After three members of one family enroll, the fourth one is free,” Rob says.
In addition, the school offers scholarships for up to six months.
“We’ve had instances where a dad lost his job, and we make provisions for those special situations — although that isn’t publicized to the general student body,” Kathy adds.
When Rob started teaching, there was just one karate school in the city. Today, Kathy estimates there are 40 to 50 schools in the area.
“But we really don’t see them as competition,” she points out. “It’s baseball and soccer and even lacrosse [that are the competition]. And for the adults, it’s things like CrossFit.”
Because those sports are vying for their clients, the Olevskys strive to make their school stand out. One of their numerous initiatives involves competition. They’ve promoted large tournaments over the years but have retreated from the intense involvement that many schools maintain.
“At one point, Rob had over 1,000 trophies and I probably had 400,” Kathy says. “But when it became, ‘You bring your students to mine and I’ll bring my students to yours,’ and when anyone with a black belt is shoved out there to judge, we decided to take a step back because it almost seemed like we were damaging our students — although we still have a small inner-school event that makes for a fun day.”
Use of Space
Their 8,000-square-foot school is large enough for the Olevskys to run four classes simultaneously.
“We partition off one-third of the floor space when we have the preschoolers, because they can’t concentrate if they see something else going on,” Kathy says.
They also have a separate grappling mat that’s approximately 2,000 square feet, where they teach judo and jujitsu classes.
“We have an entire lineup of weights and workout equipment in the back,” she adds. This includes four treadmills and several elliptical bikes.
“That is one thing that keeps parents coming back — they are getting access to a free health club while their kids do karate,” she says. “They will even guilt each other into working out!”
Still, some parents prefer to use the free wi-fi, cellphone chargers and coffee bar to work on their laptops while their kids practice.
A Mix of Martial Arts
Although Karate International of Raleigh is primarily a karate dojo, students can train and earn rank in other arts, such as judo, jujitsu and kendo. Kathy believes that all stems from Rob’s passion for the arts, and he concurs.
“I am a martial arts junkie,” he says. “Although I started in Okinawan/Japanese karate, I’ve always had a great desire to learn more.”
After he attained his third dan, he decided to join a judo club at a nearby community center. When the student body outgrew the facility, he asked the judo instructor to teach at his karate school. Now, Rob has a fourth dan in judo and is a certified coach under the U.S. Judo Association.
“Rob’s judo teacher was very much into Japanese history and swordsmanship, so they both decided to start taking kendo,” Kathy recalls. “Now, 20 years later, he is also fourth dan in that art.”
Motivating Black Belts
Rob’s desire to never stop learning has become a primary influence in the dojo. He insists that all his black belts continue to expand their knowledge base.
“Putting on that white belt all over again gives [students] a tremendous feeling of motivation,” Kathy says.
That motivation becomes apparent when one notes that the Olevskys have 56 practicing black belts who continue not only to train but also to pay full tuition!
“In many schools, once you make black belt, you get reduced tuition in exchange for helping to teach,” Kathy says. “Our philosophy is that black belts are still students who are learning new things. We have several who have black belts in all four arts because we have encouraged that mentality of constant learning.”
Lest someone think it is easy to earn a black belt at Raleigh Karate, know that every student in every art must go through the entire curriculum of the new style and progress through the ranks from the very beginning.
And that is not the end. Everyone who tests for fourth degree or higher must showcase skills in areas other than their primary art. Just last year, four students earned their eighth dan after spending years studying the other styles.
“It was pretty interesting when we sat down to come up with their training plan for that high of a degree,” Kathy says. “They all went a different direction. One concentrated on self-defense, one on sparring, one on weapons and one on kata.”
Peter Moss, who tested for his eighth degree in November 2018, decided that he wanted to be able to perform an extraordinary number of kata.
“My goal was (to learn) 100 kata, and I’ve actually hit 103,” he says. “It has given me the chance to do different motions and different styles. It was sometimes confusing, but that is the reason I did it — because I wanted the mental workout. I’ve got Alzheimer’s on both sides of my family, and I’ve always been told that mental exercise is one of the best ways to push back illnesses of the brain. Confusion caused by trying to mix all these kata and styles is the best workout you can get.”
At Karate International of Raleigh’s annual November exams, a majority of black belts borrowed a page from Moss’s never-stop-learning book and put on demonstrations — whether they are being promoted or not. They typically practice for the entire year to execute their choreographed musical routines. Their efforts motivate all who see them working so hard. It’s common for young students to get so enthusiastic about the event that they opt to demonstrate team kata, sparring, self-defense, judo, weapons and any other skill sets in which they are proficient.
Kathy pointed out that November is a great time for an all-school event such as this because it keeps students focused on the martial arts just when they are most likely to be distracted with holiday preparations. Her suggestion for her peers?
“Try to do a holiday contest with fitness goals or a prize for referrals,” she says. “It keeps students from the normal tendency to break the habit of training over this time of year.”
At any time of the year, spreading the message that martial arts training can be a key component of success and happiness is crucial at Karate International of Raleigh.
“We’ve tried all kinds of marketing over the years with varying degrees of success,” Kathy says. “We still do things like health fairs and community or PTA events, although we have found that referrals are by far our biggest source of new students.”
On the video front, the Olevskys use an Emmy-award winning videographer who has produced advertising that the school regularly posts on Instagram and Facebook.
“We intentionally have a curriculum that adults like and benefit from while still being fun for the kids,” Kathy says. “Many schools do the opposite: they have a children’s curriculum that they force-fit to the adults.”
Perhaps their solution is why their school is an atypical 51 percent adults and 49 percent children.
“Years ago, we were 70 percent kids, like most other schools,” she says. “That’s when we decided to turn the numbers around by building a facility that appealed to adults.”
Kathy noted that the facility’s teen program is thriving, too.
“That’s the age when a lot of students get distracted and drop out,” she says. “But we have some great adult mentors that help with the teens and the other adults, too.”
It turns out that the availability of those other aforementioned martial arts is also key to reaching the adults in the community.
“We are not a BJJ school or a krav maga school,” Kathy says. “We have a non-competitive atmosphere. Our culture is one of partnership and not opposition.”
“Our approach is [to focus on] very traditional martial arts,” Rob says.
He believes that formula is what appeals to adults and keeps them training, by fostering respect and appreciation for everyone. As evidence, he points to the fact that the school boasts five eighth-degree black belts who active train and teach. The oldest black belt who teaches at Karate International of Raleigh is — amazingly — about to turn 80. With the Olevskys’ proven formula for success, no doubt more students will reach that milestone in the future.
Keith D. Yates is a magazine writer and author who has taught martial arts for 50 years. For more information, visit akato.org.
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