By Keith D. Yates
Kevin Nevels began his martial arts training as a child in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1993, but he stopped training a couple years later when his family moved to the small North Texas community of Coppell. It wasn’t until his college years at the University of North Texas that a friend got him re-interested in the martial arts. He found a school that taught the same traditional taekwondo that he had learned as a kid and, soon after, he had earned his black belt.
Nevels majored in radio, TV and film and always thought he would go into that industry after graduation. Instead, he took a job working with his father in the oil industry (it is Texas, after all). However, he continued to train and do some part-time teaching of the martial arts. He readily admits he wasn’t really happy in his oil job and, apparently, his dad noticed that fact as well.
In January 2010, Kevin was running a taekwondo demonstration with his team and his father was a spectator in the crowd. Kevin’s talent and enthusiasm was so evident that his dad approached him afterward and said, “Why are you working for me? You’re so passionate about the martial arts, you should be in that business.”
Kevin had dreamed of running his own school someday and that was the encouragement he needed to start looking for a location. But his wife, Amanda, was eight months pregnant with their daughter at the time and, to put it mildly, she was skeptical. In fact, Kevin remembers she said something like, “Are you insane? We have a baby coming! We have stable jobs!”
Kevin says he was able to point out that they both hated their jobs, and that he not only had a passion but also a talent for the martial arts. So, not only did Amanda support him in his decision, she began taking lessons herself while pregnant.
Today, over six years later, she’s a 2nd-degree black belt and Kevin’s partner in Taekwondo America of Coppell.
Building a Foundation
Their first school was in an old Radio Shack building. It was roughly 2,500 square feet. Even though Kevin admits it wasn’t designed to be a martial arts school, they made it work and it became surprisingly successful.
After about three years, an opportunity presented itself to rent another building close by. Ironically, it was the old video store that Kevin used to work at while he was in high school. They were able to build it out to their exact specifications. Even though it was only slightly larger at 3,000 square feet, they had a lobby, workout area and dressing rooms that maximized the facility and gave them a more professional look.
The school’s enrollment boasts over 90 children between the ages of 3 and 6, another 170 or so school-age kids, and over 40 teens and adults. Their current total active student count is over 365, very impressive for a small town. Although they run their classes for separate age groups during the week, on Fridays and Saturdays they conduct family classes so parents and kids can train together.
Heavy-Duty Community Involvement Is Their Key to Success
“Honestly, when I opened my doors, I didn’t have any business training, but I did know I should be involved in the community,” Kevin admits.
He says he joined the Chamber of Commerce because he thought that’s what new businesses do — and he’s never regretted that move.
“I’ve seen the benefit of being involved in the community through the Chamber. Not only can you get your name in front of the public, but you are giving back as well,” he explains.
From farmer’s markets to parades, to working with the public-school district, Kevin and Amanda are heavily involved with their city. Kevin has been so dedicated he was asked to sit on the Executive Board of the Chamber. He’s also on a committee of business leaders who have come up with more creative ways to reach out to the community.
“That’s really cool,” he says, “I’m helping other businesses to become active in the community as well.”
That attitude has impressed others. Kristi Valentine, the president of the Coppell Chamber of Commerce says, “Kevin is always eager to step-up and lead efforts to gather people in the Chamber and our community at large. When working on committees and on our Board of Directors, he’s always the first to ask, ‘How can I help?’ That’s such a blessing when you run a nonprofit that relies upon the assistance of volunteers.”
“What a pleasure it is to see a couple that were born and raised here in Coppell, come back and open a business here, and quite a successful business it is,” she adds.
“I’ve learned so much by being involved,” says Kevin. “This may sound silly, but, in my daughter’s first-grade class, they were talking about government and told them what a mayor was. So, I told her, ‘I know the mayor. If you want, I can introduce you.’
“Her eyes just lit up and she was so impressed that I knew the mayor,” he says. “I say this with all humility. I have these relationships, these friends, because of my dedication to being involved in the community.”
Speaking of the mayor, Coppell Mayor Karen Hunt says, “Kevin Nevels has become a fixture in Coppell. He’s taken an active role in the Chamber and in Living Well In Coppell. That’s our grass-roots program to encourage citizens toward a healthier lifestyle. Kevin is the perfect example of someone who lives, works and plays in Coppell.”
Kristi Valentine adds, “Early on, I noticed that Kevin and his school were leaders. He instills a sense of family among his staff, his students and their families. You can really tell that those involved with his school have an extended family.”
In that spirit, the school makes sure to be at every community event.
“This weekend will mark our seventh year of participation in the Oakfest [celebration],” Kevin explains. “We’ll do demonstrations, give away handouts, and let kids take photos with our Kung Fu Panda character. We do the Christmas parade and the 4th of July parade, and we’re getting a Power Rangers costume because the movie is coming out soon.”
School District Inroads
Because of his involvement with the Chamber of Commerce, Kevin has also been able to work closely with the public schools in his city. According to him, this is another way to give back to the community.
“Our school district has a business-relations department, where they look for ways to get businesses more involved with the schools,” he says.
Kevin has spoken in the local high schools in their “business incubator” program — not about the martial arts but about how to start and run a business. He’s excited about being able to counsel teenagers about bringing their ideas or products to market.
He’s also been active as a mentor to kids that perhaps never had one before in their lives.
“I went to school here and I met my wife in Coppell High School,” he points out. “So, I’m very happy and proud to be able to contribute back to the kids in my community in some small way.”
Speaking of kids, Kevin and Amanda have specific ideas of how to teach children and teenagers. Amanda says that some schools are hesitant to take really young children, like three- or four-year-olds, but she seems to have a way about her that the tiny tikes love.
“I get on the ground with them, at their eye-level,” she says. “I’ll even hug them when appropriate. That helps me connect with them, helps them to trust me and it allows them to bond with one another, too.”
Obviously, being a mother of young children herself, Amanda can relate to the kids and to the parents.
“It does help that I’m a mom,” she says, “I know what those moms are going through if they tell me their kids aren’t listening or are being disruptive.”
The Nevels offer a trial class for the little children.
“Sometimes parents are hesitant about how their kids will respond,” Amanda points out. “And it also gives us the opportunity to evaluate the child to see if he or she is ready for group learning. Sometimes we have to say that they aren’t quite ready and that maybe we should revisit it in a few months.”
The parents appreciate that honesty and usually do come back again, she says.
As far as older kids go, Kevin says, “I know a lot of martial arts schools will lump teenagers in with adults and call it good. But I’ve found that giving middle-school-age kids a class of their own reaps great benefits.”
They have about 80 kids in their 6th–, 7th- and 8th-grade program. His teaching style is slightly different for this age group.
“I’ll let them talk a little bit more,” he says, “I want them to enjoy the class and each other’s company.
“In our industry there is so much competition for this age group,” Kevin adds. “We often lose them to soccer, football, band practices. I’m not saying that we’ve solved the problem, but our kids are happy with our program and with their friends.”
Kevin says they just had a “retro-video” night at the school.
“I found a lot of my old Nintendo and Super-Nintendo games,” he explains. “We have a projector and big screen and the kids played for hours. They were the winners of our school supply drive, so we had free pizza for over 45 teens who just had a blast.”
Forging an In-School Community
Kevin points out that their in-school community experience is just as important as the community outside the dojo walls.
“As much as I’d like to tell you that kicking and punching keeps everyone involved and committed, it doesn’t — as anyone in this industry knows,” he says.
So, they’ve developed a number of ways to build that sense of community and family within the school.
“I mentioned that pizza party we did,” he says, “but that’s just one of the many events we’ll hold for our students.”
Because there are several other Taekwondo America schools in the region, they are able to partner together to get discounts on tickets to special events.
“We get families together and go to the Frisco Rough Riders baseball games [the Class AA affiliate of the Texas Rangers major-league team], and we go ice skating at the Star Center [home of the NHL Dallas Stars].”
Members of the Black Belt Club can also try out for the demonstration team.
“Our organization’s team competition will be in Orlando in January,” explains Kevin, “All the kids are really looking forward to it and working hard.”
He says that, last year, he actually took two teams to the competition. One was comprised of all adult-women students.
“They didn’t compete directly with the kids,” he says. “It was more of an exposition, but it was really cool. They all came out in walkers, but then kicked their walkers away and started doing real martial arts. It was one of the hits of the event.”
One of the other things that Kevin believes helps foster a sense of in-school community is getting his student body and, especially, his leadership teams involved in fund-raising for various issues. For the past three years they have raised money for breast cancer research.
“Rather than donate to big charities like the Komen Foundation, we focus on smaller groups. The money goes more directly to individuals rather than large organization salaries,” he explains.
“One of our instructors lost his wife to cancer. He and his daughter still train at our school, so we’ve been able to connect to their favorite charity,” Kevin says. “And one of the staff members at a sister school was recently diagnosed with cancer. We’ve been raising money for her, even though she doesn’t know it yet — although she will by the time this article comes out,” he says.
Building Future Leaders
Kevin and Amanda believe strongly in helping to develop future leaders.
“Our Leadership Team just participated in a fundraising project called ‘Relay for Life,’” explains Kevin. “We conducted a board-breaking event where people could donate five dollars or whatever amount and then come up and break a board. That gets our leadership excited about giving back and gives them a real sense of community as well.”
The school has about 30 instructors on a Leadership Team and another 30 underbelts on another such team. They hold special leadership events on Friday afternoons and Kevin says they divide the time into two main sections.
“The first one I call ‘what we teach,’” he says. “We’ll focus on the curriculum, things like how to run drills and how to keep the student experience exciting. The second part is ‘how to teach’ and concentrates on leadership characteristics.
“Keeping our leadership strong is a huge thing for us,” claims Kevin. “That keeps our school strong as well.”
Jennifer Lantz is a mom whose 11-year-old son is on the Leadership Team. In fact, she and her husband and one other son are all students at the school.
“One of the things that has impressed me is the level of involvement in the community that Kevin and Amanda maintain,” Lantz says. “They hold an annual school supply drive, donate to the local schools’ PTOs, host self-defense courses for organizations such as the girls’ cross-country team, and so much more. So, when they talk to the leadership team about being leaders in the community as well as in taekwondo their actions match their words.”
Accepting Help to Grow
It might sound like the Nevels have always had a tremendously successful business plan, but that’s not so. They were doing well for a new business, but realized they could do better.
For help, Kevin says they went to the Martial Arts SuperShow for the first time in 2014.
“We had heard about it and were curious to see what other schools were doing,” he remembers. “We heard Frank Silverman talk about the five ways martial arts schools make money and we were doing, like, only two of them. Because of our lack of business background, we were primarily focused just on tuition and special events, like testings. We had some retail, but we really didn’t spend a lot of time on it. And honestly,” he adds, “upgrades was like a bad word to us. We pictured it as a way to charge more without providing much more of anything.”
But after the event, Kevin and Amanda decided to sign up for the MAIA Elite program. Mike Metzger was assigned to be their consultant.
“We told him how many students we had and how much we were making and I remember him saying, ‘That’s not so good, you should be doing much better!’
Metzger took them under his wing and suggested several things they could try.
“The new things did work, but, honestly, we were still on the fence after the first year,” admits Kevin. “We just weren’t sure how well it was paying off for us.”
So, at the 2015 MASuperShow, Kevin sat down with Metzger and explained how they were feeling.
“I’ll never forget how he responded,” Kevin recalls. “He said, ‘If you will listen to me, just try this pricing structure to see if it works for you. Give it a year and, then, if you’re not satisfied with the results, go back the way you were doing things before — no hard feelings.’”
So they did. Kevin claims that they made an extra $15,000 in that first month, compared to their income from the previous year). “And that was in July, which is one of the slowest months of the year,” he says. “That blew us away and changed forever the way we operated.”
Kevin admits he was concerned with how the student body would respond to a new pricing structure, but says it wasn’t a problem at all. They upgraded the existing students to the new Black Belt Club pricing and instituted a basic program for the brand-new students who wanted it. The basic program was for two classes a week. But if students wished to upgrade, they could come to unlimited classes, do the weapons training, participate in the demo teams and even attend the leadership training.
Advice to School Owners
What advice would Kevin give to other instructors who dream of being school owners someday?
“If you don’t have business training, you have to reach out to those that do — and then listen to them,” he emphasizes. “The SuperShow is cool, in that you can actually talk to others to see what they’re doing. Then, you can try the things that you feel align with your own goals and values.
“The MAIA program in general and the MAIA Elite program specifically have been amazing for us. The trust we have built with Mike, our consultant, has been really beneficial,” Kevin points out. “It took us a while, but when we took that leap of faith with him, it took our school to new levels.”
Another thing Kevin and Amanda stress for new and existing school owners is to be committed to your community.
“When we opened our school, I knew I wanted to give back to the community I grew up in,” he says. “It’s a small town of about 40,000 and everyone knows who we are. Our reputation is important to us. I’m proud to say that, from the Chamber of Commerce to the public-school system to the moms at soccer games, they think of us as the ‘karate’ guys. At least, that is my goal.”
Kevin and Amada Nevels are well on their way to achieving that goal, because of their tireless work within their community and their dedication to their students.
Keith Yates of Garland, Texas has been training for over 50 years and writing about martial arts for some 36 years. He’s one of the nation’s most published martial arts teachers/authors. You can reach him at www.akato.org.
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