Saturday, June 9, 2012

Master Lee, Black Belt Martial Arts Center!

BBMAC Owner and Chief Instructor
Master Lee
As readers know, I like to connect with interesting people and explore their story. Usually the people I talk to have a Pittsburgh connection. However, this interview is with an individual closer to where I live now, in Kensington Maryland. I had a chance to spend some time with Master Robert Lee, the Chief instructor and owner of Kensington’s Black Belt Martial Arts Center (BBMAC). I could just TELL you that this is an inspiring individual, with great life lessons about setting goals and doing what it takes to achieve them; knowing what’s important in life; and the value of a positive outlook.  But Master Lee's story speaks for itself. Here’s our conversation.
Monte: Thank you for spending time with me today! The first thing I’d like to ask about is how you got started in Martial Arts. What made you decide that it was something you wanted to do?
Master Lee: I grew up in Riverdale Maryland.  I had a younger brother and a younger sister, I was 17 years old, and I had a rough childhood with bullies. So my sister bought me an introductory program at the local martial arts school. My dad always wanted me to take it, but I didn’t even know what martial arts was! I remember going down to the Jhoon Rhee Karate School, which was the only one in the area.
I remember the first class in a small room, this was 1977.
Monte: how many kids were in the class?
Master Lee: Just two, my brother and myself. I remember the instructor demonstrating a kick. He had me hold a target and actually kicked me across the room and against the wall! I thought, this was amazing. So, my thought was to learn how to use this against the people that had been bullying me but it became more than that. It wasn’t just self-defense, it was building confidence in myself, and getting in better shape, and just feeling good about myself, and that I could do anything once I put my mind to it.
I had always been told that, ”you’re always too small, you’re not strong enough,” but this was a different type of program that made me believe in myself.
Monte: It sounds like you were very goal-oriented, even at a young age.
Master Lee: I was very goal oriented.  My dad, when I was ten years old, he told me, if you want to drive, better save your money and buy your car, your own insurance.  So when I was 11 I started cutting grass. By the time I was 16 I had enough money to buy a car, I got a 1977 Volkswagon Beetle. I was the only one of all my friends that had their own car, and paid for my own insurance.
So, I was really driven at a young age to focus on what goals I wanted to accomplish, both short term and long term…but the martial arts really changed everything. When I got my black belt, I took a bold move. I was 18 and got a job at the post office. That was my dream job back then and I finally got in. I was making good money - $25 hour, that was good money back then. And…I quit!
Monte: Why was working at the post office your dream job?
Master Lee and Program Director
Miss Marilyn Lee
Master Lee:  It was stable. But I said, “this isn’t what I want to do.” So I quit. I remember my dad saying, “what are you doing? After a week or two you quit?” but I went to my instructor at the Jhoon Rhee school, Chuck Bittle, and I told him I wanted to be an instructor.
So I started being an assistant in the classes, and the kids weren’t paying attention to me back then! But I finally I had a job interview with Grand Master Jhoon Rhee.  You sat at a table, all the instructors and all the program managers from all twelve of the Jhoon Rhee schools were there, you had to stand up in front of everybody and they interviewed you. I was shy, I would never get up in front of a crowd. I don’t know how I did that. I talked about myself and why I wanted to be an instructor, and my first job was working at the switchboard, not actually teaching at the school.
I remember thinking, “great, I have a job…my pay was $600.00 a month, still living at home which was great, but I was just answering the phones, not teaching any classes. They said if a position at one of the schools came open, I would take that position. And when I look back, I realize that was great training, learning how to answer the phones, talk to the customers, it’s part of the business.
I remember after a few months, there was an opening at the Kensington school. The instructor there, Dan Magnus, said, your job is to be everybody’s friend, be part of the team. He guided me very well, and we’re still friends to this day. And that was my beginning, in 1980 at the Kensington location. I took over the school ownership in 1989.  The owner of the school, he was starting to let go. It was either sell me the school, or I was going to go off and run my own thing.
Monte: So in just 8 or 9 years, you moved up from someone who was just trying to be everybody’s friend, to a highly respected person in the school who they could trust to take this over.
Master Lee: what convinced them that they could trust me to take over the school was our numbers. Everybody is judged by your number of students and how much you are grossing each month, and our school was the highest grossing Jhoon Rhee school of all of them.  So it was offered to me and I took it.  I look back, and I may have done it a different way, but I was inexperienced back then, and I bought the school in 1993, changing it over to the Kensington Martial Arts Center. We moved to our current location in 1994. We had a student count of around 150.
Monte: And how many do you have now?
Master Lee: About 525. I feel very lucky. We talk about this a lot. It’s all about customer service and showing that you care.  We try to push the students to do the best they can and make sure they reach their goals.  That’s what martial arts is all about.  The punching and kicking they’ll learn as they grow into it. You can’t expect fantastic things right at the beginning. It’s like a tree. It takes time to grow and develop, it’s the same thing with the students here.
Monte: You know, I’ve noticed that you guys almost never advertise, that it’s mainly word of mouth.
Master Lee:  If you have a good product, and you’ve been in the community as long as us, you know word will get out. I have students that come in here from when I used to teach, and some of their kids are coming in here now. We’re getting second generation family members coming back to classes now.
Monte: Have other martial arts centers grown at the same pace, or is this kind of a unique story?
Master Lee: No, there are some, quite a few throughout the country. We’re not loud or flashy, we associate with those kinds of schools that have the same philosophies and ideas that we have.
Monte: Is this a phenomenon in the United States?
Master Lee: The martial arts business is one of the most popular and easiest to get into. There’s little overhead…but if you open a school and have the wrong kind of instructor, it’s not going to work.
Monte: How many instructors did you have when you first started?
Master Lee: Just me. I did everything – answered the phones, taught the classes, cleaned the school, I was a one man show.
Monte: When did you hire somebody?
Master Lee: Not until I bought the school. Just one person part time.
Monte: You have a great staff. Each brings something very unique to the classes.
Master Lee: They’re all long-term students.  Instructor is the hardest position to fill. They have to be on the floor, represent the school…All the instructors that come on the floor are home-grown. They have to know our system and our curriculum, and the feel of the school. So everyone is from within.
Monte: Is the curriculum something you develop individually, or is it standard?
Master Lee: We always change the curriculum. Usually my son, the other Master Lee, is the one that handles all that.
Monte: But the belt system is standard?
Master Lee: The way we go through the belts, white through black, is standard.
Monte: How have things changed since you got started?
Master Lee: It’s not as rough now. There was no one under ten years old. Very few women. Very few men over forty. It was common to see someone with a bloody nose then, or something sprained, because of the contact. There was no equipment, no head gear…so if you made contact, it was bone on bone. The equipment didn’t come into play until 1981 I think.
Monte: Is self-defense still the prime motivating factor for people?
Master Lee: No, goals have changed. People don’t come in here for hard-core self defense. And we let them know right up front, we’re not that kind of school. We’re not going to beat you up.  Adults come in mainly for conditioning; the kids come in for a wide range of reasons.  Maybe it’s their confidence, the character building, getting along with other kids…self defense has really become the least part.
Monte: Was it harder then to get a belt?
Master Lee:  People would test for their belts and they would fail.  Now we don’t expect perfection right away, but when you reach the black belt, the quality should be what it was when I tested. But the approach getting to that point has changed a little bit.
Monte: Then, if you didn’t make it would you get to try again?
Master Lee: You’d get to try again the next month.  It was different then, you failed. Now we call it, “didn’t pass,” which is less negative.  But you were kind of embarrassed in front of the whole student body. It doesn’t help the student.
Monte: Your thinking is progressive. You were thinking in these terms before others were, it seems.
Master Lee: what opened my eyes up was probably in 1990, going out to Sacramento, visiting a friend's school, just watching his operation. It just opened my eyes up, how friendly it was, and I saw kids in the program and I realized, this is what I want to do! I had never been to a different school since 1977.  You were taught not to do that, it was a competition. You couldn’t go to others schools, and they wouldn’t let you in because you might try to steal their secrets.
That was one of the reasons that I broke away from my instructor. We just clashed.  He was more old school. But I wanted to do it differently. It was my business, if I wanted to increase my numbers, make my program more appealing to the community, I had to make some changes.
Monte: Is that part of why you changed the name of the school?
Master Lee: Yeah. I remember he had a competition. We asked all the students to write down what they thought the name of the school should be.  Black Belt Martial Arts Center came out of that. We always wanted to get the students involved in our school.
Monte: And when you got your degree, you did it in a year, right?
Master Lee: I loved training,When I wasn’t training, I was stretching, practicing my forms and combinations. I set a goal. I used to go to every Black Belt test, watched how everyone performed, because it gave me an idea of what I wanted to look like. Back then, if you were really good you could skip a belt which is what I wanted to do. I was very fortunate. There were 36 people that tested, I was one of the six that passed, but I put a lot of effort and training into it.
Martial Arts came easy to me. Maybe the confidence that my instructor gave me helped out.  I was always an athlete, but was always told I couldn’t do it. The Martial Arts let me excel, from the sparring to the forms and combinations to the self-defense to the board breaking.
Monte: what is your actual level of Black Belt?
Master Lee: Seventh degree Black Belt. There are ten levels of Black Belt. When you reach the level of fourth degree you’re called a master. When you reach the level of eighth you’re called a Grand Master. Then tenth degree is the highest level.
Master Lee, Miss Marilyn, and Head Instructor
Master RJ Lee
Monte: Are you still working for your eighth degree?
Master Lee: Yes. I am eligible next year.  But we don’t approach our instructors. They let us know when we’re ready. So if it happens, it happens! 
Monte: What’s it like to come to work every day and see your family there? 
Master Lee: I feel very fortunate that I have a place to come to where I can relax and enjoy. I never planned for my kids to be here – wasn’t in the cards, you could say. I wanted them to go to college, and develop their own careers, and I wasn’t going to push this on them. There are a lot of long hours, but the reward is great. But, my son wanted to come on board here almost nine years ago, and my daughter too. It’s great to have them around, I get to see them grow as adults.
Monte: But just…personally, as a father, what’s it like to just come in and see them every day?
Master Lee: You never know how your day is going to go. I live my life to the fullest and I appreciate my time I have with them…and I see them every day…
Monte: Have you thought about what you’d do if you didn’t do this? It sounds like you haven’t!
Master Lee: Nope….I wouldn’t know what to do. I’ve been doing this since I was 17. I’ve been doing this for 32 years here, and I feel like we’re a fixture here, and we’re not going away!
Monte: What’s something on your bucket list that you still hope to do at some point?
Master Lee:  Just spending more time with my family. As I’m getting older – I’m going to be 52 –
Monte: That’s not that old! That’s my age!
Master Lee: I know! But no, there’s nothing on my bucket list. This is it.
Monte: Where do you see the school five years from now?
Master Lee: I see us expanding. Our staff is growing, and I’d like to give them opportunities to open their own school, their own Black Belt Martial Arts Center, and I see us expanding in that area.
Monte: I think I’ve asked all my questions.
Master Lee: This was good. You got me a little emotional there talking about my kids!
Monte: It was great. Thank you!
Master Lee: You’re welcome!


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