Customer Focus: Zen Shin

Kyoshi John Richards is an 8th Dan school owner and Karate instructor. He has been training for over 42 years, during which he has taught thousands of students across the UK and developed many hundreds of those to Black Belt level. John is President for the WKA (World Kickboxing and Karate Association) England and runs Shotokan (traditional) Karate lessons across Birmingham, all under his association Zen-Shin.

Tell me a little bit about yourself, your career and your school?

I have been teaching Martial Arts for a long time. My main angle and focus is traditional Karate, I’m a fanatic! In my opinion most of the best instructors are fanatics as it’s that fascination and devotion that carries them through and allows them to become excellent.

I first got into Martial Arts when I was 12, when I started Boxing. I really enjoyed Boxing but wasn’t completely ‘sold’ on it so began Karate training as well. Although for the first 5 years Boxing was my main focus, when I was 17 I had my first knock-out. It was at this point I decided that Karate was best and I continued my training from this point onwards, only focussing on Karate.

At that time, Karate in England was fairly new. There were few clubs about, but many opportunities to investigate and doors to open. Particularly in Birmingham around that time, there were many Martial Arts clubs around, for Wado Karate or Kung Fu, but not many for Shotokan Karate. Luckily for me my nearest club was Shotokan Karate, maybe it was feit, but looking back I am tremendously thankful for this as it has shaped my life and make me the man I am today.

Right from the beginning there was something about Karate that I really enjoyed. For me it was an adventure and a journey of discovery. Each session made me want to practise more and my thirst to learn as much as I could lead to a desire to want to understand and conquer this fantastic art. The only problem was that the more detail I looked at, the more there was to learn and the harder this became.

To buy my first gi I saved up empty pop bottles and took them to the local shop. For each bottle I got 5p – you can imagine how long it took me to save up enough money, but eventually I got there. It lasted for ages and I really looked after it.

Your Career:

In 1978 I opened my first club and my association Zen-Shin Martial Arts was born. It grew quickly eventually becoming one of the biggest Traditional Karate groups in Birmingham. Before I knew it, I had clubs that were part of my association across Europe in Ireland and Germany with over 750 members.

More recently, I have begun downsizing. With my age and experience, I am fortunate enough to be able to make this decision and am happy to steer my business in this new direction. I now have more time to focus on developing my own instructors and ensuring they are of top quality, which I know will take my business from strength to strength. In addition to this, I now have time to implement and develop new business systems, structure and processes which I believe to be key to a successful and well-run organisation.

Over my time as an instructor, I have seen Karate develop like a fashion:

  • In the 70’s, Judo and Boxing were very big and gaining in popularity
  • In the 80’s the release of the film Karate Kid and the Karate Kid and the rise of Jean-Claude Van Damme helped raise the profile and popularity of Karate

Especially today the rise and fall of Martial Arts is heavily affected by the media however, if you are good at what you do and adaptable, you can survive against the development and diversification of the industry.

Initially Birmingham didn’t have many Shotokan Karate Schools. Whilst there was a choice of Martial Arts Schools and styles to choose from, it was not as diverse as it is now. Today Birmingham has a huge choice of Martial Arts on offer including:

  • MMA
  • Jujtsu
  • Grappling
  • As well as Traditional Karate, Wado Karate and Kung Fu
Your School:

Most of my schools are located in run down areas, often known for their bad reputation. As such I frequently get parents who are trying to improve academic performance, increase self-esteem, increase fitness levels and sometimes just discipline their children and help them get back on track. This is one of the aspects of teaching Martial Arts that I find the most rewarding. I enjoy working alongside parents to help these children and watch them develop into strong, confident people, with good morals and ambition.

I also take students to compete at competitions around the word and in between clubs, and to continue to grow my student numbers I teach and give talks on Martial Arts and Self Defence in schools and at after school clubs too.

About 6 months ago opened a new school at another location in Birmingham. With 7,000sq, plenty of parking and lots of outside space, I decided to make this my main location.  After a lot of hard work, I am very pleased with how it looks and happy to say that we are now well established and settled in. Not only am I thrilled to have opened another location, but am pleased that my student numbers are growing steadily after an initial decrease due to the change of location.

Working alongside with NEST has helped me a lot as I can feel relaxed in the knowledge that I am financially secure as training, grading and other fees and charges are all looked after.

How did you first get involved in Martial Arts?

When I was young I tried out a few styles of Martial Arts including Boxing, Judo, Karate and Aikido, but out of them all, Karate just felt natural to me.

Like many instructors, I feel that the other styles I trained in me to develop my instructor skills and teaching styles.

In the early days I travelled and taught in different countries, but one of the most important for me and my development was Switzerland. I coached for a friend – Dominique Studgilo, who had ideas back then (25 years ago), that in some places in the UK are now only just being embraced. He was ahead of his time and gave me new ambition, aims and goals for the future. He made me think about coaching Martial Arts from a business perspective and demonstrated the long-term benefit of good business and ethics to his students.

How did you set up your first school?

In 1976 I saw an issue of Combat magazine with Bruce lee on the front and decided to buy it. This one act was quite transformative as it exposed me to other people who were doing Martial Arts for a living, and gave me inspiration to open my own school. I told my instructor what I had seen and what I wanted to do and they fully supported me.

My first lesson in my first school cost just £2.50 – which was purely to cover the cost of the rent. From there my student numbers increased more and more until I had over 10 locations. These days I have 2 full time centres and 6 satellite clubs.

What do you think attracts people to your school?

I think there are three main things that attract people to my school:

  • My reputation and credibility

I have been teaching Karate in Birmingham for a while now so have had the chance to prove myself. I have also has previous students who have become teachers and who understand the value of Martial Arts and the amount of work required to gain a grade or to be awarded a certificate.

Additionally I have parents who have seen or heard about the successes I have had with my more unruly students and want me to help their child too.

  • The Zen-Shin Attitude and Approach

I like to maintain high standards which I do not let slip. Students know they are receiving quality Karate lessons and understand the benefits this can bring. Each of my Students understand the value of hard work and sticking to a system that stands for respect, quality and discipline.

  • Our Results

The results we gain at competitions show the quality of training our students receive.

 Tell me about your new school location you set up last year?

We have been in our new school location for about 6 months now. It is about 7000sq and used to be a sorting office. It’s much larger than my other location, and has the space to allow us to develop. It also has several offices, a conference room and a reception area for parents to spend time in whilst waiting, helping to create a positive experience for the parents as well as the students.

Originally it needed lot of working to it, but I had a vision of how I wanted it to look and the tremendous amount of support from my students and their parents made it possible. Whilst doing this work, it became clear to me that people believe in what I do in their communities, so much so, that they were taking days off work to help me get everything done. I never asked for help, but I had parents helping to decorate, sand, clean and even paint, all so I could move in even sooner. Now we’re in, I’m still improving and developing it but it’s more than workable and fit for use.

Which aspect of your business is growing well currently?

Over the last few years, the number of female students on the mat has increased significantly and now makes up about 50% of my overall student base. In addition to our usual offering, we also offer ladies only classes which are very popular. These classes have opened the opportunity to do Martial Arts to people of different ethnicities, who may have been prevented from training in a mixed class due to religious or cultural reasons.

Our instructor Sensi Panzie takes these classes. She works hard with the ladies, encouraging them and helping to build confidence, self esteem, skill and fitness. I am very pleased to say that this aspect of the club is still growing and that it is developing its own community and support group within the club too.

What do you look for when hiring a new instructor?

To help maintain the high quality of teaching and Karate I expect from my instructors and students, I have two core things I look for in a new instructor:

  • That he/she has been my own student – this helps maintain my standards and traditional approach.
  • Somebody who ‘has a way’ with people. They should be approachable and humble. Happy to talk to parents as well as students, not aggressive or big headed, patient and good technically.
Who are your biggest role models?

I have met many great people through my career, but I would have to say my biggest role models are:

  • Senzi Conozoe
  • Ticky Donovan – English Karate coach
  • Dominique Valera – 9th Dan from France
  • Dominique Sigilo – a dear friend and fellow Karate coach from Switzerland
  • Jon Jepson school – a great business man and business contact giving invaluable advice and support

These 5 people have challenged my perceptions, inspired me to be the best I can be and shown me to always strive for more. Of course there are countless more people I have worked with who have helped and supported me along the way, but these people have always made me aspire to be and to achieve more.

You have trained in many styles of Martial Arts – how do you know if you have chosen the correct one?

Choosing  the ‘right’ Martial Art is different for everyone. It’s about what you are looking for and what you enjoy doing the most. I believe that you have chosen the correct one if you are happy and agree with the values instilled in the MA you choose and you feel good doing it. Martial Arts is about the development of yourself, so there is no one size fits all, but there is a style that will fit what you need and want.

Identifying with boxing and them moving to boxing. See Karate as a challenge more than anything else. Never though he would get a green belt so when he got his back belt that was amazing.

What is it that keeps you going and where do you find your inspiration?

My passion for Karate is what keeps me going. I enjoy the mystery, intrigue and fluidity of it, which is why I am so thankful that it is my business.  I also really enjoy teaching and motivating people. I love seeing the development of my students and the positive change this can create.

I guess my inspiration also comes from developing my students and watching their successes, both on the matt and in everyday life. I also love watching the club continue to develop into a friendly, successful place, filled with happy people, as well as seeing the positive impact that Karate is having not only on students, but on their families too.

I have made my dream a reality and this is something that my family and instructors should be proud of.

As president of the WKA Karate association – what direction would you like to see Karate go in over the next 5 years?

It would be great for Karate to get TV coverage. It would also be great if it could get in the Olympics too. There’s still talk that it may happen soon, but nothing as of yet, so fingers crossed. Also, as Traditional Karate has grown so big, I think it would be great to have more structure to the organisation so we can continue to develop and move forward in the best way possible.

Why did you decide to join NEST?

I had NEST recommended to me by friend. I was looking to leave EFC as the American system was difficult to work with and found that NEST was easier to use and worked more in my favour. Overall I think they gave me an air of professionalism and added more strings to my bow.

What do you like most about using their services/NEST?

NEST have helped me make my business more professional and successful. I can trust them to look after the business side of things, whilst I get on the mat and teach. Also I find the staff really friendly and kind. They are honest and transparent which helps me to make business decisions as I know where I stand.

3’s of me:
What are the 3 words that best describe you?
  1. Passionate
  2. Determined
  3. A fanatic
What are your 3 favourite films?
  1. Kuro Obi (meaning black belt in Japanese)
  2. Show Gun Assin
  3. Way of the Dragon
3 favourite Karate techniques?
  1. Gyakuzuki (Reverse punch)
  2. Kizami Zuki (Face jab)
  3. Ashi barai (Sweep, take down and stamp on)
I would like to thank:

I would like to thank my wife Melanie for her continuous support and my daughter Afiya, who’s is also full time instructor and personal assistant to me. These two people are my driving force and are ever reliable. I would also like to thank my students and the parents of my students for their help and support, especially over the last 8 months when preparing my new location. Without these generous people I would not where I am today.

(Interview from August 2015 )

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