He made a career out of kung-fu fighting

Plus: Krispy Kreme heads to NYC — but Charlotte?; City ranked #1 in the country in hiring outlook; $4,000/month Elizabeth apartments include "pet spa"

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He watched martial-arts movies at age 16. Today, he runs one of Charlotte’s oldest karate schools.

Small-business Spotlight: An occasional series on Charlotte entrepreneurs and the businesses they are building

Michael Price wasn’t all that interested in the martial arts until age 16, when he watched a series of kung-fu movies one weekend. He started training, learned the business side, and today runs Charlotte Martial Arts Academy, a $500,000-a-year business with 250 students.

He has hit some rough patches, going deep in debt when he started. And the challenges of attracting students and combatting skyrocketing rents force him to be more nimble than Bruce Lee. But at age 50, Price is still passionate about the martial arts – and he found a way to convert that passion into a full-time career that’s lasted more than three decades.

The school he runs near Clanton Road and South Tryon Street with his wife, Mary, hits its 20-year mark in October. In his own words, Price explains how he wound up owning and operating one of Charlotte’s longest-running karate schools – and the economics of a business that depends on getting busy kids in the door.

Back when I was 16, in Colorado, we only had three channels on the TV set. So I spent a weekend watching a kung fu movie marathon — all kinds of crazy movies from Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee: “Master of the Flying Guillotine,” “Enter the Dragon,” “The Octagon.”

They happened to catch me at a time where I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I pulled out the Yellow Pages, and I just started dialing karate schools.

On attending his first karate class: I’m as nervous as you can get. I’m terrified. The instructor’s name was Michelle, and she was gorgeous. I was 16 and gangly and awkward and nervous. She’s teaching a self-defense technique, and the next thing I know, I got too excited about demonstrating how good I could be, and I ended up punching myself in the face. I broke my nose and had to leave class. They splinted my nose.

Why he returned after that rough start: I went there every day. I liked the respect. Everybody was treated the same. There was an atmosphere of respect and discipline and focus. Everybody was equal once they put on those white uniforms. There was no “I’m better than you,” “You’re better than me,” “You have a fancier car.”

Price says he was drawn to the martial arts because of its focus on discipline and respect.

Moving up, starting to teach karate, view to the future: I started to go to the staff meetings and listening to the business side of the martial arts. I realized that at that time, in 1987, the guy who owned these had five locations, and he was making over $2 million a year gross. It was insane.

I thought to myself, “Wow!” These guys were paying me $4.25 an hour. Talking to some of the other guys at the other locations, they were making $35,000 a year as a 22-year-old. I’m thinking, “This is the life!”

How he met his wife and business partner, Mary: I broke the cardinal rule of martial arts. And that is you don’t date your clientele. I started teaching her son when he was 10 at an after-school club. Then I convinced Mary to join the karate school. And when she was a student, it was all over. We convinced her to leave her job to come to work in the karate school as the business manager.

In 1996, a friend told them to come to Charlotte to help run a karate school he owned. But when they arrived, the friend was going through a messy divorce, and there were no jobs for them: We expected to walk right into a full-time job for both of us. We rolled in and had nothing. We lived off credit cards. Mary went to work at the Olympics in Atlanta. I started teaching a Little Dragons classes for 4-year olds at the KinderCare in the area.

After a while, the friend’s ex-wife, who owned the karate business, gave him a shot: She gave me a part-time job at one of her locations on Independence and Idlewild. I worked there for about six months. And then she pulled me over to the main one, which was on Kings Drive, on the opposite side of the shopping center from Mama Ricotta’s. It was called “Martial Arts America.” She kept me on as a full-time instructor.

After a little bit, Mary and I asked if she would let us buy her out. We ended up settling on $50,000 to take over the business. I think my mom invested $10,000, Mary’s mother invested $10,000, my sister pitched in $10,000, and I think we made payments for the remaining $20,000. We had credit card debt of probably $25,000 or $30,000. It was killing us. It was a rough time. The debt and the business were overwhelming.

Why he took on more debt to buy a Charlotte karate school: We thought we could handle it. We could see its potential. We also saw how much she was pulling out every month to pay her loans down. We said, “We should be doing that. We’re doing all the work.” So that’s what we did. We took a leap of faith.

Did he have any doubts: I had no worries. Full speed ahead! Damn the torpedoes!

Bruce Lee movies including 1973’s “Enter the Dragon” helped inspire Michael Price’s interest in the martial arts, leading to a career that has been full of surprises.

He now owned a business: We changed the name right off the bat to “Charlotte Martial Arts Academy.” I created the logo, our dragon, out of Microsoft Publisher clip art. And we went for it.

The biggest challenge is attracting students: Once the parents see the investment in the program and see what’s going on on the mats – not just the punching and kicking but the reinforcement of discipline and respect – I think that’s when the parents get behind it.

Your students will always have ups and downs. There are periods where they’re hyped about it and periods where it’s like a chore. The trick is when the parents are supportive then they keep the kids going until it becomes a long-enough habit that they’re stuck.

He has tried many approaches: We have gone everywhere. We have advertised in the movie theaters. Spent $30,000 in two years on that. Got one student. Not effective for me.

We advertised in newspapers. Not effective.

Back then, we were in the phone book. Couldn’t wait to get rid of that bill. That was a nightmare.

We did shopping carts when that became a thing. Seeing my logo on the shopping cart at Harris Teeter was weird. The return on investment wasn’t great.

With the digital age, we’ve tried a few times with Facebook ads, Instagram ads. To be honest, it’s not something I’m good at. We post on Facebook, and I pay $100 to boost the ad. I pick my demographics: families, this much income. I really don’t know if I’m doing any good.

Customers are his best advertising: Now, 90% of our marketing is word of mouth. We do referral contests. This sounds crazy – but we do karate birthday parties. And 80% of the people who come to them are not from the school. So they come into the school, they see the facility, they watch us teach, and we send them home with a gift pack: a free T-shirt and a coupon for a month of lessons.

Same thing with summer camps. We provide a summer camp program that you don’t have to be a student to attend. I’d say 60% of our summer camp kids are not our students. And then we work hard to retain them at the end of the summer, to work them into regular students.

Another big challenge is rising rent. The skyrocketing rent is really not friendly to small businesses. We were paying $5,000 for 8,000 square feet on Hawkins Street in South End, near Sycamore Brewery. They wanted to raise the rent to $16,000 a month. Now, off Clanton Road by I-77, we’re paying $6,000 for 7,000 square feet.

His advice to entrepreneurs:

  • Start with a solid business plan, and then get someone else to look at it and tell you whether it makes sense.

  • Once you start it, you’ve got to go in both feet. You can’t half-try to start your business while you’re running another business on the side. You really have to be able to commit to it because the hours are all-day.

  • There’s a little bit of sacrifice that comes to your family sometimes. Your family has to be on board.

Does he regret not attending college? No. I never wanted to be in school. I never enjoyed school. I could ramble on about how in many cases, college is a waste of a lot of money.

On the importance of passion: If you don’t have a passion for what you do, if you’re just in it for a buck, it’s a waste. You have to look at something you’re going to enjoy doing 20 hours a day as opposed to something that you think that you can turn into a giant profit quickly. It’s easy to find the people who don’t have passion for their businesses. There’s a certain lackluster to them. You can tell.


Is Krispy Kreme abandoning its roots?

Krispy Kreme announced this week that it’s heading to the Big Apple, with plans to open a 24-hour flagship store on Times Square in 2020 that will deliver “the most awesome doughnut experience imaginable.”

Start spreadin’ the news: Times Square will have as many Krispy Kremes as all of Charlotte.

That’s just swell for New Yorkers. But a Ledger reader wrote to ask the incisive question:

Why, oh why, is there only ONE Krispy Kreme in Charlotte?

Why not build something like this here?

The company is a sponsor of the Carolina Panthers … but there’s no location anywhere near me! I guess I’ll have to go to New York!

Krispy Kreme is based in Winston-Salem — where it started more than 80 years ago — so you’d think it would have a bigger presence in the state’s largest city. Charlotte’s only Krispy Kreme is in Cotswold, though there are additional locations in Matthews, Indian Land, Rock Hill and Gastonia. Charlotte used to have several Krispy Kremes, including spots on Woodlawn Road and on Providence Road in Myers Park, but it shut those stores in the 2000s amid an accounting scandal and economic woes. (The Woodlawn location near I-77 is now a strip club, which gives new meaning to the doughnut chain’s famous light-up sign, “Hot Now.”)

The reader also points out that Krispy Kreme’s CEO, Michael Tattersfield, lives close by. Property records show Tattersfield owns adjoining lots on Lake Norman valued at $2.8M. That’s a lot of dough(nuts).

We reached out to Krispy Kreme’s PR folks on Monday to ask what gives, but they didn’t reply. Probably too busy palling around with their new New York buddies.


Charlotte wants to beef up its housing code

The city of Charlotte is looking at toughening up its housing code for the first time since 2005. Will that prompt landlords to become more responsible? Or will it lead to a decline in much-needed affordable housing? Steve Harrison with WFAE took a good look at the issue the other day.

Some of the proposed provisions sound not-too-unreasonable:

One proposed change to the code is to prevent mold.

For example, if there is a stain on the ceiling, the proposed code would require the property owner to show that the cause of the water damage has been fixed — not just the stain.

There would also be a mandatory inspection of all apartments in a complex if a certain number of units have problems.

But some in the real-estate industry worry that tougher regulations would burden landlords so much that they would sell their aging but cheap housing complexes — which could then be replaced by newer housing that lower-income residents can’t afford:

Joe Padilla, of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, said he’s worried added costs could pressure landlords to sell. If repairs are too costly — or if fines pile up — complexes could be torn down or converted to luxury units with a new owner, he said.

He said he is concerned that some proposed regulations are ambiguous, such as that air conditioners be in “good working condition.” He says that could trigger disputes over whether a working AC is cold enough. …

“You want to be sure that we’re not making these regulations so costly and so stringent that existing property owners are now more incentivized to sell that property because the cost of maintenance has gone dramatically up,” Padilla said.

Seems as though there should be a way to enforce common-sense minimum standards without endangering the stock of the city’s affordable housing, which is already in short supply.

The City Council is expected to vote on the new rules by September, WFAE said.


In brief

  • Charlotte leads nation in hiring outlook: Charlotte ranked #1 out of the top 100 metro areas in employment outlook in the 3Q of this year, according to a new report from ManpowerGroup. “Charlotte, North Carolina, looks to be the most active metro area, with a net 37% of companies planning to hire more,” CNBC said.

  • No cigarettes for you: About a dozen states have hiked the legal age to buy tobacco to 21 — including three in the South. Virginia’s tobacco-age increase takes effect July 1, Texas’ on Sept. 1 and Maryland’s on Oct. 1. North Carolina is the top tobacco-producing state, and here the age is still 18. (Time)

  • More American cancellations: As somebody around here predicted a couple weeks ago, American Airlines has extended its grounding of Boeing 737 Max planes as regulators are taking their time ensuring they are safe. American’s planes will be grounded until at least Sept. 3, the airline said this week. That will result in the cancellation of 115 flights a day starting Aug. 19, the airline’s earlier target for returning the planes to service. (CNBC)

  • Charlotte home sales fall: The number of residential real estate closings in Charlotte fell 9% in May compared with May 2018, the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association said this week. In the Charlotte region, sales were up 0.5%.

  • Labor troubles escalate: Two American Airlines unions “took out a full-page ad Monday in The Wall Street Journal. The ad screamed ‘INVESTORS BEWARE’ before going on to bash management. … ‘Our Unions will not be broken,’ the ad continued. ‘We will continue to resist AA’s unacceptable demands even if it means a strike action following release by the National Mediation Board.’” (The Points Guy)

  • Another Wells Fargo settlement: Wells Fargo “plans to pay about $386 million in order to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by customers in 2017, accusing the bank of forcing unwanted auto insurance, without their knowledge, at the time they took car loans.” (Yahoo Finance)

  • Wells struggles to find CEO: The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday (paywall) that Wells “is having trouble getting top bankers interested in its open chief executive officer job.” The paper said the bank approached William Demchak of PNC and former U.S. Bancorp chief Richard Davis about the top job, but they weren’t interested. Gordon Smith of JPMorgan is another candidate but might not be interested. Wells seems to be rapidly approaching a no-win situation on its new CEO.

  • Luxe Elizabeth apartments include “pet spa”: SunCap Property Group is putting the finishing touches on Draper Place, on Randolph Road in Elizabeth, the Biz Journal reports (paywall). It has 47 two- and three-bedroom apartments averaging $4,150/month for nearly 2,000 square feet. The Ledger did a little digging and found that amenities include a small dog park and what developers are calling a “pet spa” — two locations in the building where you can wash your pet.


Off the Clock

Low-key ideas for the weekend

Movies opening in Charlotte this weekend:
  • 5B (PG-13) (100% on Rotten Tomatoes): Caregivers help in AIDS ward

  • The Dead Don’t Die (R) (53%): Bill Murray zombie comedy

  • Men in Black International (PG-13): Duo searches for mole

  • Shaft (R): Father-son investigate death

Highly rated movies now playing:
  • Booksmart (97% on Rotten Tomatoes)

  • Avengers: Endgame (PG-13) (94%)

  • Rocketman (R) (90%)

  • John Wick 3 (R) (90%)

  • Late Night (R) (83%)

  • Pokemon Detective Pikachu (PG) (66%)

Cheap getaways from CLT:
  • Charlotte to Baltimore, $68 round-trip on Spirit (nonstop), June 29-July 1 and other dates in July.

  • Charlotte to Trenton, N.J., $101 round-trip on Frontier (nonstop), Sept. 7-9 and other dates in August and September.

  • Charlotte to Philadelphia, $116 round-trip on Frontier (nonstop), various dates in August and September.

  • Charlotte to Orlando, $76 round-trip in Frontier (nonstop), various dates in August and September.

  • Labor Day: Charlotte to San Jose, Costa Rica, $296 round-trip on Spirit (one-stop), Aug. 29-Sept. 7 and other dates in August and September.

  • Farther out: Charlotte to Milan, Italy, $519 round-trip on American or United (one-stop), various dates October-March.

Source: Google Flights. Fares retrieved Wednesday morning. They might have changed by the time you read this.


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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

The Charlotte Ledger is published by Tony Mecia, an award-winning former Charlotte Observer business reporter and editor. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.