“What’s really disturbing to me is how many martial arts instructors somehow feel they must “take a vow of poverty” to teach quality martial arts. The reality is the better you do at developing your students and creating a quality school the easier it becomes to make a living comparable to professionals with similar levels of training in any field.” – Grandmaster Stephen Oliver, 8th Dan
This month Martial Arts School Owner interview one of the martial arts most outstanding individuals, 8th degree black belt, president and founder of Mile High Karate, Grand Master Stephen Oliver. From the outset of our meeting I realize it is more than just a lifetime’s commitment to hard training and technical excellence that has enabled Grand Master Oliver to achieve so much in his career that has spanned well over thirty years. Perhaps it is the real passion that he has for providing high quality instruction to his students while providing an opportunity for his school owners and staff to make an incredible living and even going as far in his marketing campaign to boldly state that ‘that each and every Black Belt ever developed at Mile High Karate has said the experience was not only worth $1,000,000.00 but literally was priceless!’ Or is it his unwavering commitment to community projects such as Chuck Norris’ ‘Kick drugs out of America’? The answer is that Grand Master Oliver’s success cannot be attributed to one particular factor in his career. He combines with ease all the savvy marketing and business techniques available to any business person, at the same time demonstrating the true attributes of a traditional martial arts instructor. So whatever stage you are at with your teaching there is something to learn from Grand Master Oliver. He’s become the leading consultant in the field through his school owner’s coaching program and his Mile High Karate schools are busy expanding internationally through Regional Developer “Master’ franchises.
After graduating from high school Master Oliver moved to Washington D.C to take up further studies at Georgetown University, and to help pay for his education began teaching at a branch of the Jhoon Rhee Institute. However, it soon became clear that the way martial arts were being taught needed change. ‘During the 1960’s and 1970’s in the United States the martial arts appealed most to a lower class of people who were primarily focused on fighting more effectively. Back in Texas and Oklahoma the contact rules in competition were really open to flexible interpretation.’ It was clear to Grandmaster Oliver that if he was to open up his knowledge of martial arts to a wider audience, and build a sustainable martial arts school business he needed to curtail the ‘blood and guts’ attitude that had come to dominate the art in that early period. Over the years from his early teaching days at the university ‘both the percentage of students graduating to Black Belt – and, their abilities when they get there have improved dramatically and also our students tend to be more highly educated as interested in the wider range of developmental benefits that the program offers.’
It was during this early period at university that Grandmaster Oliver began looking into the idea that his passion for the arts really could become his living. “In the early 1980’s I was finishing up my college degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. I was a branch manager for the Jhoon Rhee Institute (which had 9 locations in Washington, D.C.). I thought I was going to go on to an MBA at Harvard or Stanford University then a career in a big corporation.” When finishing up at Georgetown Grandmaster Oliver courted several of the worlds most recognized businesses such as Proctor & Gamble, IBM, and several Big Banks such as Chase Manhattan based in New York City. However, after thinking about that path as a career and looking at what he could earn out of college- he decided to put together an extensive business plan and move to Denver, Colorado to open a chain of martial arts schools. “My model was really the Jhoon Rhee Institute and when I moved I opened five schools in 18 months – with only about $10,000 in capital. I knew I was ridiculously undercapitalized but just did it anyway.” Following his passion for the arts was something that would pay off in a big way and by the age of 25 he was the head of a million dollar operation.
He is however, the first to admit that over a thirty year career in the martial arts is hasn’t been all plain sailing. “I clearly encountered many obstacles over the years. My biggest crisis was back in 1989 when I basically lost about 70% of my staff and went through a protracted divorce at the same time. It all coincided with the biggest economic collapse in the Colorado economy ever. That took several years to dig out of – and, led to me going back to get my MBA which was more for an emotional break than it was to really learn more stuff on how to run my business. Additionally, just the fortitude of character to pull through all of that and become highly successful again was an incredibly valuable experience.” Yet through it all Grandmaster Oliver never lost sight of the passion and the drive to be innovative in the martial arts with his Mile High Karate school chain. “We have done several things that I believe are unusual. First, many of the organizations that try to expand nationally and internationally focus on one, sometimes two areas of the business but fail to really combine all of them.” Adding that; “with my schools we’ve managed to support the individual schools by getting their billing, their accounting, and their payroll done for them by someone else.”
Another key foundation of Mile High Karate is providing focused training programs on all three critical success factors that each school must focus on:
1.) Effective internal and external marketing systems
2.) Structured pricing systems and presentation processes to effectively enroll and upgrade students – much of it supported with automatic processes or incredibly effective sales tools
3.) Effective instructor training systems combined with scientifically and structured curriculum to ensure the highest possible quality of students. At the same time Grandmaster Oliver remains totally focused on instilling the core values and philosophies in the growing Mile High Karate chain, “the over-all culture of the organization is very important.
We really work to make sure that all of our staff and black belts are working interdependently. It’s very important for everyone to always be “a product of the product” focusing on both high physical skill as well as achieving the highest level of mental and emotional mastery. We really focus on having every instructor and member of the organization always exhibiting the highest levels of integrity and success motivation.”
During my time with Grandmaster Oliver, it was clear that apart from being a very talented martial artist and instructor, he is an individual that believes the path to success is through constant learning. Although fortunate to have had a university education and the opportunity for further formal training in various business disciplines, he firmly believes that anyone with the drive for further self improvement can achieve it; adding that “most formal education is about learning how to learn, not so much about learning anything specifically that is helpful as an entrepreneur or as a teacher. Over the years I have been very focused on continuing to pick a subject matter and either formally or informally educating myself to a very high level in areas that are practical and necessary for my continued success not just as a business person but as a martial arts school owner.” Building one of the USA’s most successful chains of martial arts schools has not been easy, and it has required some tough decisions along the way combined with sharp business acumen and he is quick to add that “I often get a reputation of focusing on the money -but that is not accurate.
We’ve developed an incredible martial arts organization with Jeff Smith and many other high quality Black Belts in the leadership hierarchy making sure we have the best possible Black Belts and provide a situation where school owners and their staff can equal or exceed their income opportunities from any other endeavor.” Indeed the reality for Grandmaster Oliver is that the better you do at developing your students and creating a quality school the easier it becomes to make a living comparable to professionals with similar levels of training in any field.