Balancing the Art with the Business
By Christopher Stollar
Charlie Webb, 7, (center) practices tae kwon do with fellow classmates at Martial Arts America on Wednesday. The studio is moving from its Main Street location to a building in the Gateway area with a larger studio space in May. SAM KARP / The Springfield News
Starting work at night, they bow, tighten their belts and fight men, women and children until the sweat falls from their faces.
Bill Xiaihos and Gary Martin are the martial arts masters -- and businessmen -- of Springfield. While both have observed an increase in students and revenue, the masters daily battle the balance between teaching an ancient art and running a business in a capitalist world that demands efficiency.
"The primary motivation can't be money," said Bill Xiaihos, the second-degree black belt master of Eastgate Kenpo Karate at 4404 Main St. in Springfield. "But it's always a balance. We need to provide a valuable program to our students to not sacrifice quality while keeping the doors open."
Xiaihos has taught at Eastgate Kenpo Karate for four years. At age 15, he began training under other masters at the school, and he received his black belt nine years later. Xiaihos's 140 students meet regularly, up to six times a week, learning the art of grappling, kicking and weaponry.
Over the years, Xiaihos has watched his studio expand, but he strives to keep the art alive. The master requires all of his students to meet set standards of form and technique before advancing to the next belt. Xiaihos worries about schools that care primarily about money, testing their students once a month and churning out black belts within a year.
"It's greed," Xiaihos said. "Like any industry, you see the good and the bad. Many provide outstanding service, but I know people who are not able to manage (the balance). Quality and consistency suffers as a result."
Jesse Soto, a 19-year-old brown belt instructor who has studied at Eastgate Kenpo Karate for about 10 years, respects his master's philosophy of business.
"At Kenpo, you won't see black belts until they've been training for six to 10 years," Soto said. "(Xiaihos) is very good at ... the business side of it, affecting all personalities and types."
The parents agreed with Soto.
"A 6-year-old black belt doesn't mean anything," said Lisa Gagnon of Springfield. "Here they have to work for it. The quality is excellent."
Cory Earley, a first degree blue belt from Springfield, also appreciates his instructor's teaching.
"(Soto) is a really good instructor and good at everything," Earley said.
Two blocks down the road lies Martial Arts America, home to Master Gary Martin.
As a student, Martin primarily trained under Tae Hong Choi, a grand master from Korea who taught at a school in Portland. With a fifth-degree black belt in tae kwon do, a first-degree black belt in karate and more than 25 years of training, Martin now teaches 553 students in three different studios, including one in Eugene and Harrisburg.
Like Xiaihos, Martin has also watched his school grow. The increase has prompted Martin to relocate his Main Street studio to a larger building in the Gateway area by May 3. Martial Arts America held its final class at 4660 Main St. Wednesday night.
While capital has expanded, Martin believes the rising pressures and financial demands have not distorted the art. The master requires all of his instructors to receive education in training and an internationally certified black belt before teaching.
The students themselves must meet set time and skill requirements before advancing to a new belt. Their parents must also attest to their grades and attitudes at home. A student will typically receive a black belt after four years of consistent training.
"My goal is not just to make a high quality black belt," Martin said. "I look at character ... (Martial arts) is more than just kicking and punching. It's about improving confidence, self-control and humility. You can't do that in six months."
Martin believes that the time, skill and character requirements ease the tension between art and business.
"It's possible to maintain high quality and be able to manage our business effectively and efficiently," Martin said. "People assume we're a belt factory because of the number of students. But we have systems in place that ensure we can have a lot of people on the mat while maintaining high quality."
The parents praise Martin's philosophy of business.
"I've been impressed with the teaching," said Nancy Alaneda of Springfield. "The brown and black belt (instructors) are good. They have to pass criteria first. (They) teach respect and fun with encouragement."
The students have also found value in the classes.
"(Martial arts) gives you more self-confidence during tests," said Eric Thompson, a 14-year-old brown belt from Springfield. "The instructors are very good. They push you hard."
Andrew Arens, a 13-year-old brown belt instructor from Springfield, agreed with Thompson.
"I love the fact that it's not easy," Arens said. "It's not very fun if it's easy."
With comments like these, neither Master Martin or Master Xiaihos could imagine teaching any other art -- or running any other business.
"I've never looked at what I do as a job," Martin said. "It's my life ... Martial arts changes lives. It does things for people that nothing else has ... I love seeing a 10-year-old kid come in, having trouble with school and problems with peers and completely change. I can't think of anything else a person could do that would be more rewarding."