THE HISTORY OF M.A.I. - by Robert Devane
My school's guidance counsellor sat me down after the results of my aptitude test came in. I interrupted his career suggestions and told him I was going to be a professional martial artist. I think he was taken aback and he told me he had no information regarding how I go about it. I knew exactly what I wanted to do but knowing and making it work are 2 different things!
Upon leaving school I travelled and competed and trained hard. I taught martial arts on a part-time basis for 6 years but it was impossible to make a full time living without a full time studio. At the start I didn't believe in charging for martial arts classes and I frequently had to pay the hall rental out of my own pocket. I quickly learnt that without profit we couldn't afford equipment or decent facilities. Also, the members weren't as dedicated because they placed no value on the training as it was free. I had to work and spend most of my time doing something else instead of what I really wanted to do. I worked as a security guard and as a doorman to raise the capital needed to open the first club. Raising enough money was no easy feat because travelling to international competitions would always put a dent in my savings. I was helped out a little bit when my car was totalled while sitting at a red light! I received some money because I had 2 torn trapezious (shoulder) muscles from the accident. I turned that bad luck money into a good luck venture.
The hardest part I encountered when trying to set up a full time martial arts studio was the actual acquiring of the property. Nobody wanted to rent their property to a martial arts club. Perhaps they were afraid that we were going to karate chop all the bricks and wood to wreck their building! I never wanted to set up and run M.A.I. on my own. I had a couple of business partners but they got frustrated with the property hunt and eventually pulled out of it. I was so close to completing on several different units before being let down at the last second. I believe I was used to help increase the rental price. This was during the dot com boom when computer companies were growing at a very fast rate. Landlords preferred to rent to computer companies instead of martial arts companies and it was an estate agents dream time.
From properly starting to look for a property to actually getting the first M.A.I. studio took nearly 4 years! I remember viewing the small unit in Clontarf. It was a small garage and it wasn't what I had in my mind. However, the landlord was willing and I was anxious to get started especially after the years of searching. Myself and my brother worked hard during the Christmas of 2000 to get the unit ready and it officially opened in January 2001.
I never for a moment doubted that it would be a success because I had no plan B but I did keep the doorman job going for a while. This guaranteed me some income but working nights and then long days wasn't easy. Before I opened M.A.I. I had attended a FAS business course that helped me to develop the business plan. The business never turned out to be like the business plan but at least the course made me think about every eventuality. The people who ran the course had never encountered a martial arts business before and I don't think they believed it would be a viable business. I was used to people doubting my goals and it just served to make me more determined.
I modelled our studio after the American dojos I had researched and visited but I did have to make a few changes to tailor it to Ireland's needs. There were virtually no full time clubs in Ireland at the time whereas professional clubs had existed in the USA for several decades. One of my disadvantages at the time was my age. People arriving at my club would have a perception that they were going to meet an older man, like Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid! Even though I already had 9 years teaching experience behind me as well as World titles, some people didn't want to train with someone younger than them. Thankfully I looked a bit older than I was and I didn't let it hold me back.
Now, here is probably the most important tip for success. Don't be greedy. When you make a profit, you must reinvest back into your company. This is where so many people fail. Should you buy new clothes, a new car, a new house or a holiday with the profit or should you grow your business? For me it was an easy one. As soon as that little club started to make money, we moved to a bigger and more expensive studio in Dublin 7. The overheads and cost of business were so low in that first studio that I believe I could have personally made a bigger wage if I had stayed there than I am today. However, that was never my goal. Sure it's nice to have money but M.A.I. means more to me than money because it includes my friends, my hobby, my sport and my life.
We had only been in that little studio in Clontarf for 9 months before moving to the bigger location in Dublin 7. I didn't know if we really would generate enough new business to pay for the extra costs. This time I didn't do a business plan and I'm glad I didn't because I may not have gone ahead with the move if I had known the real cost of it! The classes built up nicely and by this stage I was very lucky to have the help of Declan Kidd and several other people to back me up. Just when things were starting to go well, I had the opportunity to go to America. I tried to put people and systems in place to run M.A.I. as I was unsure if I was going to return. M.A.I. wasn't ready to be run without me and after 6 months I returned to a business that was floundering badly. I wondered if I would be able to get things going again. Thankfully, within only 3 months we were back up to scratch and I had put a deposit down on a bigger rental unit within the same building! Again, I didn't do up a business plan because I knew we couldn't afford the new unit! M.A.I. continued to gather momentum and more instructors were needed. As we were still a young club, we had to employ martial artists from outside of our club. This did and didn't work and it's now our policy to only ever employ from within.
The secret to M.A.I.s success is that all of our instructors are very committed. They are committed to helping the students get better and they are committed to continue to train hard themselves. Their energy and enthusiasm is very motivating plus they lead by example. Another secret is that we have never stopped striving to improve our service and our teaching methods.
We continued in that 2nd unit in Dublin 7 for 4 years 9 months. The landlord refused to renew our lease beyond that because they were paranoid about tenants rights. They guaranteed us an alternative unit but as time got closer to the end of the lease, it looked like we would be left high and dry. We invested and bought a very cool industrial unit in Dublin 15. The plan was to rent it out and if we were left stuck for a unit at the end of our lease then we would use it. We ended up not renting it out and we gave it a go ourselves. It slowly built up but it was achingly clear that if we lost our club in D.7, most members would not travel to our D.15 location. It was back to the drawing board as the end of the lease neared.
By a stroke of luck, a brand new unit became available across the street from the old D.7 club and it was perfect. Even as a bare unit it felt like a martial arts studio from the first day we walked into it. I had to remortgage my house to fund the sale and acquiring the mortgage was very difficult but it was all worth it. We moved into the new unit on January 2008 after a hard slog over the Christmas period trying to get everything ready. The fact that we were handed the unit without any water supply or electricity added to our problems and costs but we eventually got on top of things.
We felt the recession start at the end of 2007 but we still pushed forward because even during a recession people need to keep fit and healthy as well as feeling secure and safe in the knowledge that they can defend themselves. We wish to grow organically as our members improve and become instructors.
Martial Arts Incorporated is without doubt Ireland's leading martial arts club with 2 full time locations and hundreds of members who compete in Karate, Kickboxing, Ju-Jitsu and MMA. Obviously its great to be the market leader but unfortunately being the market leader means that we are public enemy number 1 to other clubs. Since M.A.I. began we have had much competition and imitation. The amount of full time clubs has dramatically increased. This doesn't intimidate us because we understand that even though we may be at the top of the martial arts industry in Ireland, we are still a small growing company. We are just as hungry now to continue to improve and develop. M.A.I. has improved the whole martial arts industry in Ireland both directly and indirectly.
M.A.I. has grown so quickly and so successfully because of a few simple reasons:
• 2 superb fully equipped facilities
• Classes for everyone
• Highly trained and dedicated instructors
• Constant reinvestment back into the clubs
Another couple of points about the instructors. There are full time instructors and part time instructors. The full time instructors are true professionals and don't moonlight at other jobs. All instructors take care of everything from teaching to cleaning. They all compete and continue to train hard and to improve. They are amazing motivators and they genuinely want to see and help their students to achieve their goals. Their work ethos goes beyond their job and M.A.I. is many things to them besides a job. Lastly, everyone is treated equally including brand new members who are always greeted like old friends. There is no hierarchy as the emphasis is always on building people up and not breaking people down.
M.A.I. is now 10 years old and I can't wait to see what the next decade holds in store. We aren't concentrating on building the club. We are concentrating on building the members. There have been many people who have helped Martial Arts Incorporated to grow so a big thank you to all of them including all the behind the scenes people. Thank you to the instructors for their dedication and loyalty. Finally, a big thank you to all M.A.I. members for their constant support.