Master of martial arts, marketing - East Valley Tribune: Business

Master of martial arts, marketing

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Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2006 6:35 am | Updated: 4:38 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Michelle Lee is a master in marketing and a master — with a capital “M” — in martial arts. The 39-year-old Tempe business entrepreneur and tae kwon do black belt master instructor owns and operates one of the more successful martial arts academies in the Valley.

The 39-year-old Tempe business entrepreneur and tae kwon do black belt master instructor owns and operates one of the more successful martial arts academies in the Valley – Lee’s Black Belt Academy, based at 715 W. Baseline Road in Tempe — a 4,000-square-foot facility with two glass-surrounded and paddedfloor classrooms.

She and her partner and cofounder, Mark Lee, own three other academies and plan to open a fourth in March in Laveen.

They started the west Baseline Road academy in 1985 with two instructors, an annual gross revenue of $22,000 and about 50 students.

Today, the academy has more than 3,000 students, more than 30 instructors, including Michelle and Mark Lee and earns an average of $1 million in gross revenue.

Lee traces her steady growth — on a personal and physical level as well as her business expansion — back 26 years ago when she was a 13-year-old living in Chicago.

‘‘I was raped,’’ Lee said. ‘‘It devastated me. It also made constantly aware of my security — or lack of it.’’

Her sense of insecurity continued when she moved with her parents, Bonnie and Lou Cornille, to Tempe at age 17 and enrolled at Arizona State University’s College of Business.

‘‘I felt uneasy walking the streets on and near campus so I enrolled in a martial arts class in Mesa,’’ said Lee.

‘‘That was the beginning. I never thought I’d make a career out of martial arts, but I’ve been able to combine both my business and martial arts knowledge effectively.’’

Michelle Lee learned firsthand about marketing during the early years when she travelled around the world marketing consumer electronic equipment while her then-husband, Mark Lee, also a master black belt instructor, gave tae kwon do classes at their then-new academy.

They later divorced, but remained business partners and instructors.

‘‘At first, Mark struggled to earn enough income so I had to work outside the academy,’’ she said.

‘‘At the time, I was eating a lot and I was about 40 pounds overweight. I continued tae kwon do, but I was in last place for the first eight years of World Championship competitions.’’

‘‘I had it with losing,’’ Lee said. She began to focus on losing weight and increasing her tae kwon do goals.

Her parents, meanwhile, weren’t too happy with their daughter’s choice of business enterprise.

‘‘They thought martial arts was primarily a man’s thing,’’ Lee said, whose father is a deacon at Saint Bernard’s Catholic Church in Scottsdale and whose retired mother worked as operations administrator of surgery at Mayo Clinic.

Their attitude, meanwhile, gradually changed as their daughter — who eventually lost more than 40 pounds and got in shape — won first place in the International World Champion competition in 2000.

She repeated the success by winning first place every year consecutively through 2006, when she also was awarded the title of master instructor at the Alltell Arena in Little Rock, Ark. — the international headquarters for the American Taekwondo Association on June 19.

Her parents and 15,000 shouting fans applauded as Lee was given the honorable title of ‘‘master.’’

‘‘My parents were in the audience, cheering,’’ Lee recalled. ‘‘I had completed nine days of fasting, the lights were flashing and I wondered if I was going to faint.’’

Her accomplishments may not have been as dramatic in recent years, but they are notable on the so-called bottom line and with the growing number of students, like the Lang family of Anthem.

‘‘It’s the best investment we have ever made,’’ said Darlene Lang, who with her husband, Randy and son, Brandyn, 8, take regular tae kwon do lessons from Michelle Lee.

Brandyn started classes at age 4 and, on June 19 won the World Championship in two categories — weapons and form — at the same contest in Little Rock where his instructor was honored.

‘‘My son is learning selfcontrol and, like many children who participate in tae kwon do, he is less prone to violence,’’ Darlene Lang said.

Michelle Lee agrees.

‘‘Our young students use all their energy to get rid of any inward violent tendencies,’’ Lee said.

‘‘In fact, many studies have shown that youngsters who do martial arts have less tendency to use violence.’’

Another common misconception is that martial arts are primarily for men.

‘‘That concept is steadily changing,’’ Michelle Lee said as she shot two punches into the air so quickly they created a blur.

Among the many training programs offered include S.H.A.R.P. (Sexual Harassment Assault and Rape Prevention) self-defense training for women.

Cost for academy membership is $100 a month for six days of training each week.

If two members of a family join, then classes for all other family members are free.

Taekwondo commands

in Korean Chah Reot – Attention June Bee – Ready Keu Mahn – Stop Bah Ro – Return to ready position Kyeong Nae – Bow She Jahk – Start Shi Uh – At ease/rest

Different disciplines

• Tae kwon do: Korean martial art that uses 60 percent legs and 40 percent body motion

• Karate: Japanese martial art that uses 60 percent body motion and 40 percent legs

• Tae kwon do for Tiny Tigers: A special program for preschool children aged 2 through 6.

• Karate for Kids: A program for older children.

• Tae kwon do for Adults: No age limit.

Michelle Lee

Age: 39

Family: Single

Resides in: Tempe

Occupation: Founder, chief executive and co-owner of three martial arts academies in the Valley and a master instructor in the black belt

Business: Lee’s Black Belt Academy, 715 W. Baseline Road, Pepperwood Plaza, Tempe; other academies at 3602 W. Thomas Road, Phoenix in the Carlton Business Park and 91st Avenue and Buckeye Road in Estrella Mountain at Phoenix Academy of Performing Arts

Key Achievements: In 1985, started the first of three martial arts academies in the Valley and will soon open a fourth in Laveen. Number of students has since grown from under 100 to more than 3,000, including children and seniors. Lee is a six-time world champion and was recently awarded the title ‘‘master instructor.’’ She holds a marketing degree from Arizona State University, a degree in Japanese from Kansai Gaidai University in Kyoto, Japan and has traveled throughout the world. Her company earns an annual gross revenue of more than $1 million.

Hobbies: Sky diving, marathon hiking and piano playing.

Size: 4 feet 11 inches tall; 105 pounds.

Information: (480) 831-2124 or

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