When Ed Samane's weight shot up to about 215 pounds in the fifth grade, he became the target of bullies in the schoolyard and his self-esteem plummeted. But Samane knew exactly how to escape his external and internal issues: He wanted to take karate classes.
By mastering karate, Samane not only lost the weight -- he found his life's passion. He went on to earn a black belt, to teach karate in high school and to start a karate business right out of college. But his experiences as a bullied, obese kid added a dimension to Pro Martial Arts Franchise Corp., that sets it apart from the typical martial arts studio. He and his team created an extensive program called ARMOR, which educates and equips kids to protect themselves against bullies and predators. With 13 franchise units open and 44 more in development, Samane hopes to empower kids nationwide.
What were you like as a child?
I was a friendly, positive kid, but I was obese. When I was going through pre-puberty, I started eating a lot and gaining weight between the ages of 9 and 11, and it's a bad cycle -- you eat, you feel bad and you eat more. So even though I was friendly and positive, you have some self-esteem issues when you're that large.
Did the bullying also start about age 11?
Yes, in about the fifth or sixth grade. As you get into the preteen years, cliques start to develop, and that's when you find maybe you don't fit in great. At first it was more of what I would describe as relational bullying -- because you're fat, you're excluded from an activity. That's how it started, then it got into the physical aspects of bullying. Someone calls you fat, you get mad, you get into a schoolyard fight and you get a little bit beaten up -- typical kid stuff. Today hundreds of kids I teach are picked on because they're too short, too tall, because of their skin color or their hairstyle. People don't like different things. My bullying happened because I was obese. It happened a couple of times, and that's why I wanted to learn to defend myself. I felt like I needed to do something. I didn't want to be be a victim of any kind of bullying.
How did you choose karate as the way to defend yourself?
I had friends who went to karate class, and I would go and watch their class. It looked tough, but I was thinking this would be something that could help me get in shape and defend myself against bullies. And back then it was popular -- you had Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in the movies, and those guys always looked like they were empowered. So eventually, through prodding and bugging my parents to put me in karate classes, they gave in and let me try it. They didn't think I was going to stick to it, but I really took to the activity, and in a matter of six months, I probably lost 30 to 40 pounds, and that changed my outlook on life and really brought my confidence level up a lot as a child, which helped me succeed more in my teenage years.
Did you feel an instant connection to karate in that first class?
For me, it was an instant connection. But that first class was interesting. The classes were about 2 hours, and they were very tough -- it wasn't like today where everything is positive and we encourage and nurture the kids. Back then it was "only the strong will survive." So I went in very overweight -- I could barely get through the warm-up. I threw my first kick, and I fell on my butt. It was very difficult for me to lift my leg up. The assistant instructor said to me at the end of the class, "You may want to try another activity. You're a little big to be doing this." The irony of it was that guy did not get his black belt and I went on to get my black belt. My mindset was just to stick it out. I didn't care what the other belts were -- I went in there with the goal of getting a black belt and of changing my life. When I fell, I got back up. I'm pretty resilient.
So karate changed not just your body, but your mindset?
I think those two things -- the mind and body -- are connected, and as you can make these big changes in your body, it also makes big changes in your mind, your confidence, your self-esteem, how you view life. Martial arts has a belt system, so it teaches you about goal setting -- how to achieve goals, how to overcome obstacles. Martial arts really instilled drive, discipline and determination -- these three facets -- into my character.
And did the bullying at school stop?
It stopped within six to 12 months of my starting martial arts classes. One time in the sixth grade, after taking karate, this bully came up to me and said something like "let's see what you know." It could have been a physical confrontation, but I stood up for myself, and he never bothered me again. I think the biggest weapon that a child has is self esteem, and that's one of the biggest things martial arts does for youth.
How did it feel being able to defend yourself against that bully?
I remember it felt great. It felt very empowering. It's like facing your fear. Once you conquer that fear, it has no power over you anymore.
At what point did you know that karate was not just a personal interest, but a path toward your future?
I started assisting instructors when I was in high school, at about age 16, and got my instructor certification when I was a freshman in college, at 18. By that time I wanted to open a karate school, but the path in my family is that you go to college, so I got my bachelor's degree in business, worked as a consultant in the martial arts and fitness industry, then opened a karate school shortly after.
Did your business bring something to the industry that had been lacking?
In 1991, martial arts was still very much of a cottage industry, with instructors running the schools. I understood that businesses are run not just on people and personality, but that you need strong systems and business fundamentals to create a viable entity. When I opened my first dojo, I put marketing, billing and financial systems in place, and it was heavily focused on customer service, so my business thrived. The average karate student stays for a few months, whereas our students were staying 18 to 24 months. We were filling up the studio until there wasn't room for more students, then opened another and another, and it took off like that with multiple locations, because we always focused on the customer: the students and the parents. My whole philosophy is if they're giving you a dollar, give them two dollars worth of service.
Why did you decide to franchise your business?
Most schools are heavily loyal to a particular style, such as karate or kung fu, where our focus is not style, but has always been helping youth and servicing the customer and implementing solid business practices. So we've taken the style component completely out of it. My franchisees are businesspeople who want to work with kids, to help kids, and we help them hire the technicians -- the instructors and managers -- to teach our system. They're not loyal to a style, but they're loyal to helping youth in their community and upgrading an industry. It's a different paradigm -- we're selling to businesspeople, not karate people.
And part of your franchise program is dedicated to anti-bullying and predator prevention?
That's a key differentiator in what we do. We have a strong program, called ARMOR. It's a passion of mine, that kids don't become victims of bullies or these sexual predators. My goal is for our franchisees not just to make money, but to make a difference at the community level, and to prevent these types of abuses.
Through these programs, have you met any bullied kids that remind you of yourself as a kid?
I meet a lot of students with a lot of different issues. Yes, some are overweight, and of course I have empathy because I was one of them. I have kids that get picked on because maybe they have a certain learning disability or dress differently or are more artsy. My instructors and I try to work with those kids and coach and educate them, so their self-esteem doesn't get affected. We want them to believe, "it's okay, I can get through this, I can conquer this, I'm fine the way I am."
There has been a lot of attention paid lately to both the issues of childhood obesity and bullying. Do you think these problems have gotten worse since you were a kid?
When I was a kid, we at least played outside, and there were a lot of outdoor activities. Today it's less physical, more technology-based. Both parents are working, everybody is busy, people are eating fast food a lot more. Childhood obesity is a lifestyle issue, and what we need to do for the student is change the mindset, educate them and have them buy into the healthy, active lifestyle.
Bullying has gotten worse as well, and I'll tell you why: Before when you were bullied, you would go home and be okay. Today kids don't get a break because of cyber bullying. It's tougher now, because it never stops. We try to educate kids on physical, verbal, relational, cyber bullying -- all components of bullying. It's a very extensive program. My franchisee in Colorado worked on this program for years with the district attorney out there, and then our team spent six months laser focused on developing this program to launch it nationally. There's a lot of meat to the program, including safety tips and self-defense techniques that will not get a child into trouble, like deflect and escape techniques.
Did what you went through as a kid help you not only to form this program, but give you the determination you needed as a business owner?
Yes, it definitely shaped how I am today. I tend to look at obstacles as opportunities. It's through problems that your character is molded. You are a summation of your experiences -- good, bad or indifferent. In the end, you can't erase that piece of your life -- it stays with you, and you have to turn it into a strength.
Name: Ed Samane
Company: Pro Martial Arts Franchise Corp.
Location: King of Prussia, Pa.
Founded: Opened first karate studio in 1991, started franchise in 2008
Employees: 9 corporate employees, 25 franchisees
2012 Projected Revenue: Over $1 million systemwide