Martial Arts Company Unwavering After Leader’s Death

The dictatorship that was the World Traditional Taekwondo Union Inc. of Little Rock has been divided into three branches of government following the death of Grand Master Haeng Ung Lee.

Before he died Oct. 5 after a six-month battle with lung cancer, the founder of the world’s largest martial arts organization realized that it was dangerous to have one man responsible for all operations and institutional memory. So he decreed that the company split its hierarchy into three units after his death.

“He knew that everything that he did was so hard to do,” said Senior Master In Ho Lee, WTTU chief executive officer and one of H.U. Lee’s five brothers. “He realized that there needs to be more people involved to make sure that the organization can continue.”

Haeng Ung Lee left an organization with annual revenue of $11 million, 150,000 students in 1,300 licensed schools, and about 90 employees at the corporate headquarters. Company officials expect 20 percent revenue growth this year.

But as yet, there isn’t a new grand master, a title reserved for the company’s only ninth-degree black belt. (H.U. Lee was posthumously awarded a 10th-degree black belt and elevated to eternal grand master.)

That mammoth task befalls another brother, Chief Master Soon Ho Lee, an eighth-degree black belt.

In Ho Lee, a seventh-degree black belt, said that having his older brother become the next grand master is the company’s “first priority.”

After Grand Master Lee’s death, the company divided itself into a Martial Arts Council that oversees curriculum development and goals, a Business Council that puts everything together to meet those goals, and a grand master to act as the figurehead and envoy to the public.

In Ho Lee said the system is modeled after the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, in which the House of Representatives oversees appropriations, the Senate handles treaties and overreaching goals, and the president is the public figure at the helm.

“Basically, the five-person Martial Arts Council says this is what we want to do, the four-person Business Council says this is how we’re going to do it, and the grand master makes it happen,” In Ho Lee said.

The company’s revenue stream comes from three sources.

The WTTU and the ATA divisions employ 30 to 40 at the corporate headquarters and bring in $5 million annually through the company’s licensed training schools.

The Superior Credit Services division provides billing service for the entire enterprise and offers financing to qualified school owners to open or expand schools. It generates about $1 million per year and employs 15.

And the World Martial Arts division sells merchandise through licensed schools, bringing in another $5 million annually. World Martial Arts’ 30 employees also embroider student’s uniforms and produce 15,000 belts each month for WTTU and ATA members.

In Ho Lee said the company’s future growth is tied to opening more schools and seeing them succeed.

“The WMA and SCS are more revenue for us, but we’ve got to have training centers to support their business,” he said. “Now, there are a lot of martial arts schools that open and close because the owners don’t know how to operate them as a business.”

To ensure that its school owners stay in business, the WTTU and ATA train them to instruct students and put them through a business training course that lasts four days. The company also provides support to school owners.

And the ATA World Championships held in Little Rock each June generate revenue for the company, too. The event usually draws about 2,300 competitors, but In Ho Lee said he is expecting about 2,500 competitors this year at the Statehouse Convention Center.

“Overall, about 10,000 will be here with all the spectators,” he said. “A few years ago, the competition generated about $7 million in revenue for greater Little Rock.”

This year, pop singers Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore will perform at the Statehouse Convention Center on June 9 to appeal to younger competitors.

Taekwondo History

The WTTU was preceded by the American Taekwondo Association, which H.U. Lee started in 1969 in Omaha, Neb. He moved the company to Little Rock in 1977.

“It’s too cold in Omaha,” In Ho Lee said. “We had a field operation here, and my brother felt he needed to be here. He found the climate similar to Korea and was close to the same latitude.”

H.U. Lee also liked the pine trees and, a golfer, he found the year-round golf appealing.

The head of a rival martial arts organization celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the U.S. Taekwondo Federation of Hot Springs, said Arkansas was ripe for the martial arts.

“This is the mecca of martial arts,” said Scott McNeely, president and director of operations for USTF. “Back in 1970, there were some clubs, YMCAs and the like, that were among the first in the nation to offer martial arts training. We had a thorough in-state network in place. That may be why ATA located here.” (See sidebar.)

In 1983, H.U. Lee developed a new form of taekwondo called songahm taekwondo. The WTTU was formed in 1991 to supervise the company’s international operations. Just four years ago, it scrapped plans to build a $6 million, 45,000-SF corporate headquarters and songahm taekwondo museum at the southwest corner of Chenal Parkway and West Markham Street after a public stock offering failed.

The company had hoped to raise $2.5 million-$6.4 million by selling between 600,000 and 1.4 million shares. Despite extending the deadline twice, the company sold only 30,000 shares. The 3.5-acre site that WTTU purchased in November 1994 for $1.09 million was sold to Bank of the Ozarks for $1.8 million, generating enough profit to cover the cost of the unsuccessful stock offering.

But In Ho Lee still feels the pain of that failure.

“That memory still hurts,” he said. “People still don’t see martial arts as a money-making business. It’s hard to convince an underwriter that there is money in it. If they see the real business, they will underwrite us.”

He said the company doesn’t have any IPO thoughts in the near future, but someday, the public will realize the potential of the martial arts market.

“It will be big,” he said.

After the plans for a new headquarters fizzled, Grand Master H.U. Lee and his minions sucked up their loss and renovated the company’s headquarters at Baseline and Geyer Springs Roads in southwest Little Rock.

The $2 million expansion project quadrupled the facility’s size to 40,000 SF, and the building was renamed the International Headquarters and Songahm Museum.

The museum opened a year ago. It starts in the lobby and includes Grand Master H.U. Lee’s personal office and workout room and is packed with mementos presented to the grand master and the company since its inception.

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