How does a poor U.S. immigrant from Paraguay become a martial arts mogul with 12 schools and 2,500 students in just a dozen years? See how Florida's Sergio Von Schmeling rose from poverty to prosperity as a living example of the American Martial Arts Dream.
Like most of the four-million inhabitants of Paraguay, Von Schmeling's father was a farmer who grew only enough crops to feed his family of ten children. Von Schmeling remembers that they had no electricity and no running water.
Von Schmeling's first taekwon do instructor wasn't the best example of the tenants of the martial arts. "He sat at his desk drinking beer and smoking," he says. "And he regularly beat us up."
In 1988, Von Schmeling and his wife, Maria, sold all their possessions in Paraguay and moved with their two-year-old son, Hermann, to the U.S. They brought with them only what they could pack into a few suitcases. He then taught for Master Bill Clark in Jacksonville, Florida, for five years.
"[Life] should be a picture of joy as well as success. I am happy. I have been married for sixteen years and have four children -- that is joy and success."
One of Master Von Schmeling's biggest goals is to have 100 schools at the manageable size of 200 students each.
Right in the middle of the South American continent sits the poor nation of Paraguay. Its main exports are coffee, cotton, lumber and -- taekwondo. That's right, taekwondo. About a dozen years ago, Master Sergio Von Schmeling brought his successful martial arts teaching formula from Paraguay to the United States. Today he is one of, if not the most successful ATA (American Taekwondo Association) owners in the United States, with 12 schools and over 2,500 students.
But it was not an easy road for this immigrant who could only speak a few words of English when he arrived in Florida in 1989. Von Schmeling was born in 1964, in the rural area of San Juan, Paraguay. Like most of the four-million inhabitants of this country, Von Schmeling's father was a farmer who grew only enough crops to feed his family of ten children. Von Schmeling remembers that they had no electricity and no running water. The family worked the land from sun-up to sundown just trying to survive. They moved from the country to the city of San Lorenzo when young Sergio was just 6.
One of the reasons was so that the children could attend school. Von Schmeling went to elementary school and then to middle school in the evenings because he had to work during the day to help support the family. He passed by a martial arts school on the way to work everyday. He remembers how he had to repeatedly beg his father to take lessons.
The First Lessons
His first taekwon do instructor wasn't the best example of the tenants of the martial arts, remembers Von Schmeling. "He sat at his desk drinking beer and smoking," he says. "And he regularly beat us up." In fact, Von Schmeling recollects how his father noticed the bruises on the young boy one day as he took his shower by the bucket in the back yard. "My father was not pleased."
His next instructor was "not any nicer, but just less crazy," says Von Schmeling. There were few children doing martial arts in the country in those days. "There was a dictatorship and everything was very military-oriented. Most of the martial arts students were soldiers," says Von Schmeling.
In fact, the tournaments had no divisions set up for children. Von Schmeling had to fight adults if he wanted to compete. In his first tournament, at the age of 14, he placed third. By now he was a red belt and was helping to teach the classes at his school. He was such a popular instructor that the school owner didn't want to promote him to black belt, lest he start his own school and take away the students.
Von Schmeling finally did earn his black belt just after he turned 18. He wanted to open his own school, but in that culture most considered him too young to teach adult men. But he decided to try anyway, figuring that he could at least teach women and children. But much to his surprise, even the men flocked to his classes.
A New Direction
About this time he met Master Cesar Ozuna, an ATA 3rd-dan who had recently returned to Paraguay from Sacramento, California. "Master Ozuna opened my mind to teaching in a more educated way," says Von Schmeling. "He was, and still is, a great mentor to me."
Master Ozuna brought Von Schmeling into the ATA and helped him set up better business practices. In 1984, '85 and '86, Von Schmeling won the national championships, which brought him more recognition as well as students. His association grew to five schools with almost 700 total students, an almost unheard of feat in that part of the world. In fact, he was the most successful ATA owner in all of South America.
In 1988, Von Schmeling visited the United States to compete in the ATA Championships. "I immediately fell in love with America," he says. "I had my first potato chips in the airport in Miami. I thought it was the best thing I had ever tasted until I ate at my first fast-food restaurant. I decided it was the best meal I ever had."
That was when he made up his mind to someday move permanently to the U.S. He called Bill Clark, the Vice President of the ATA, to ask him for advice.
"I spoke to him through a translator," remembers Clark. "His enthusiasm impressed me right away." Clark eventually sponsored Von Schmeling's emigration to America. Von Schmeling and his wife, Maria, sold all their possessions in Paraguay and moved with their two-year-old son, Hermann, to the United States. They brought with them only what they could pack into a few suitcases.
Von Schmeling taught for Master Clark in Jacksonville, Florida, for five years. "When he came to work for us, he immediately outworked everyone else. He had a plan from the beginning," says Clark, "and he has followed it."
Master Von Schmeling never seemed to have a problem communicating with the students. His skill levels and his enthusiasm made up for any lack of English. "I did have to have someone finally tell me that 'bulls--t' is not a nice word! I thought everyone in America said that," he remembers.
It wasn't his English, but his energy and his self-esteem that seemed to attract people. "Because of his compassion for people, his students gave him a chance, even though he could not speak English," says Adriana Castillo, the current administrative head of Master Von Schmeling's schools. "His self-discipline and work ethic just rubs off on people."
"My self-esteem was always high," admits Von Schmeling. "I credit my father, who always said we could do anything we wanted." This was rare in a country where most of the roads are unpaved and 95% of the people do not have a television or radio.
"I don't know why, but I have always said, 'Hey, I can do this,'" he says. "And I was just so motivated by being in America." He shares his high-energy enthusiasm with his students and staff. Adriana says that few people know how generous he really is. "He takes the time to help people out. I have seen him working with young people in gangs and convincing them that this is not the right path for their lives."
A Passion for Success
"Sergio has a passion to be not just good but the best, to be not just successful but the most successful," says Clark. That passion led Master Von Schmeling to move to the Winter Park area of Orlando, Florida, to open his own school in 1993. "There were already many schools there," he says, "many successful masters with many students."
But if Von Schmeling was intimidated it didn't show. Nicky Young has been with him since the first few months in Winter Park. She says it wasn't the fact that Master Von Schmeling was a champion or even that he was so skilled in the martial arts that drew her. "He is just an inspiring person," she says. "He cares for each one of his students. He lives his life the way he teaches."
Starting her training with Master Von Schmeling at the age of 14, Nicky has just graduated from college and now, as a 3rd-degree black belt, runs two of Master Von Schmeling's schools in the Orlando area. Her older brother, Ted Young, teaches at the original Winter Park school and her younger brother, Travis, is also on staff for the schools. "He is like a second father to all of us," says Nicky about her instructor. "Because he cares for us, we care for him."
That is something that all of Master Von Schmeling's students repeat about him -- that he truly cares for them. "He is probably our most successful school owner in America," says Bill Clark, "but his approach isn't just about business. His real emphasis is on human development. That's why he is so successful."
"He doesn't treat us like employees," adds Adriana. "He wants us to succeed like he has."
"It would be a misconception to say that because he is such a successful businessman, he approaches his schools as a business," agrees Nicky Young. "He truly loves his students and they come to him for advice in many areas outside of the school."
For example, he even helped Nicky choose her college major -- Psychology and Criminal Justice. "He said not to pick business because he could help me with that," says Nicky. "He told me to pick something that would help me learn to care about other people. Now there are several teenagers that I work with at our school and I try to do the same thing with them that Master Von Schmeling has done for me."
That passing on of knowledge and of a caring spirit is what Master Von Schmeling wants to develop in his instructors. Of the over 300 black belts he has promoted, only 40 are considered instructors. "Unlike many schools, we make a distinction between a black belt and an instructor," he says. "It is like the difference between someone that plays golf as a hobby and someone who is on the professional golf circuit. I do not expect a mother who has made black belt with her children to have the same standard of training as one of my instructors," Master Von Schmeling points out. "My standard is high for an instructor."
Perhaps it is the extra time and effort that he puts into his instructors, but without exception they profess extreme loyalty to him and want to help him operate his schools. "Many times a person becomes a black belt instructor and then goes out to start their own school," he says. "But if I treat them as a member of my family, if I show them love, then they will love me [in return]. Besides," he adds, "wouldn't you rather be a part of the McDonald's [empire] than having to compete against it?"
The McDonald's restaurant analogy also comes up when Von Schmeling is talking about the size of his schools. "Many times instructors brag that they have five-hundred or seven-hundred students, but that is a double-edged sword. With that many students at one location you must have so many instructors -- and that makes it hard for the instructor to succeed," he claims. "It is better to have one-hundred-fifty or two-hundred students with a few instructors that they know and respect. There is a reason that a McDonalds is not bigger; they can best serve the people [at each location] at the size they currently are."
Master Von Schmeling goes to a different school in his chain to teach specialty classes. There he teaches the young students as well as the instructors. "He doesn't ask us to do anything that he is not doing himself," says Adriana Castillo.
Master Von Schmeling is a big believer in setting goals, Adriana claims. "He sets up his goals, writes them out and then accomplishes them," she says.
He says that one way to achieve success is to picture yourself being successful. "Picture what you want out of life. It should be a picture of joy as well as success," he says. "I am happy. I have been married for sixteen years and have four children -- that is joy and success."
It no doubt gives Master Von Schmeling joy that his children have followed him in the martial arts. His oldest kids, Hermann, Alicia and Janet, are all black belts and two-year-old Victoria can give a taekwondo yell with the best of them. Wife Maria is also a black belt and, he says, "was the one pulling them in off the streets to sign up at our first school in America."
Maria spends most of her time these days at home with the children, but Von Schmeling still considers her a vital partner in the schools.
One of Master Von Schmeling's big goals is to have 100 schools at that manageable size of 200 students or so each. That may sound unattainable, but for a man who came to this country with literally nothing and has turned it into a multi-million dollar company, anything seems possible.
Veteran journalist Keith D. Yates is one of the world's leading writers and authors of the Korean martial arts. He teaches taekwondo in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas area.
Fast Facts About Master Sergio Von Schmeling
Location? Winter Park/Orlando, Florida.
Number of years in business? 8.
Number of schools you operate? 12 schools and one administrative headquarters.
Number of employees? 42.
Number of active students? 2,500.
Size of school(s) in square footage? 2,800 to 3,500.
Name of your billing company? Superior and Education Funding Company (EFC).
Amount of yearly tuition? $1,000 average; black belt club: $2,995.
Annual gross? $4 million.
Monthly Pro Shop gross? $4,000.
Do you charge testing fees? Yes, $50.
Do you have an after-school pick-up program? No, but we go to public schools to teach.