Not many can say they were mentored by Michael Jackson. But it’s a different story for Matt Fiddes, owner of the Matt Fiddes Martial Arts franchise, who can boast work experience with the King of Pop on his CV
It’s difficult deciding the most staggering thing there is to know about Matt Fiddes. That he became such an entrepreneurial success after leaving school with only the remarks of naysayers ringing in his ears rather than qualifications, that being picked on as a child made him the man he is today or that Michael Jackson lit his path into the world of franchising. “I’ve led a bizarre life,” Fiddes laughs. Today, he can smile and appreciate where he’s gotten as he looks back on his early years, which saw him take up taekwondo at the age of seven, but it wasn’t the easiest childhood. “I was being bullied really badly at school,” Fiddes says on what drew him to the Korean martial art. However, it was this very problem that changed his life.
With his self-defence lessons underway, rather than looking for revenge like the ultimate Hollywood underdog movie from the eighties, Fiddes turned the other cheek. “The first thing my instructor taught me was to recognise danger and stay away from bullies.” That was his approach for years but his peers eventually realised he wasn’t to be messed with. “It was only when I [was] 13 and started bodybuilding and really training hard that I would go into PE and everyone [saw] I could lift more weights than [them]. And when it came to stretching, I could sit in the splits with ease and all the other lads were like ‘Jeez, I ain't getting near him’,” he recalls. Winning British championships gave Fiddes even more freedom as he found himself in the local press, confirming he was no longer easy prey.
Nevertheless, his rise in popularity didn’t make study any more enjoyable as he simply had no interest in what he was being taught. Fiddes believed then, and now, that teaching needs to be updated. “Even with maths and looking at equations, they’ve got flipping calculators now,” he claims. “I learnt that at a young age and I felt [I wasn't going to use anything I was] being taught – I’m just wasting my life away’.” Fittingly, the only subject he cared for was PE, which led him to believe English, maths, history and so on were all unnecessary. “All I wanted to do was be a martial arts or fitness instructor,” he adds. “My careers day was the most soul-destroying day of my life. A careers adviser came around and I said ‘Nothing here is for me, I want to be a martial arts instructor’ and she said ‘Don’t be so stupid Matthew, you can’t do that, there’s no such career – you can never make any money out of that’.” But that snub only lit a fire in his belly to prove her wrong.
Despite little appetite for the school curriculum, Fiddes set about educating himself as a teenager by reading a series of self-help books from the likes of entrepreneurial authors Tony Robbins and Jim Roman in a bid to chart his roadmap to success. At 16 he moved from his childhood home of Swindon to Croyde in North Devon with his parents and it was in the seaside village that the young martial artist would start shaping his business. “It’s a back of beyond place really,” says Fiddes of Croyde. Deciding to start his own class, he found that this was easier said than done. “Initially it didn’t work,” he admits. “I just couldn’t get people through the door, they would quit quickly.”
While his careers adviser was only too eager to burst his bubble at school, Fiddes’ family was also disappointed by the career choice he’d made. “My mum is one of 14 children and they’re all university graduates and done really well for themselves in an academic way, whereas I failed everything at school without a GCSE to my name,” he explains. On the other side of the coin, his dad’s family all learnt a trade, which meant Fiddes was getting pressured to perform with both barrels. “When I went to be a full-time martial arts instructor they didn’t want to know me and I didn’t hear from my parents at all,” he says. “While I was setting up schools, they had no faith in it. They just thought I ‘couldn’t make any money kicking my legs about in the air' – that’s what my grandad used to say to me.” That’s when a guardian angel tipped him off about a US martial arts operation that offered what felt like a glimpse into the future. “One of my friends who had just come back from San Francisco was raving down the phone to me saying ‘There are guys in America light years ahead of us. [They’re] multimillionaires with martial arts schools where the standards are high and they’ve got 5,000 students with big studios all over the States.’” That call led Fiddes to chart his route across the pond.
Working as a lifeguard in tandem with attempts to get his class going, Fiddes saved up enough cash and jetted off to the US to clap his eyes on the business his friend had sung the praises of and got up close with the owner of one of the country’s biggest martial arts schools. “He was so impressed I was only 17 and had this ambition,” recalls Fiddes. “He said ‘Matt, anything you want, just follow me around, write notes, model me, take it back to England and see if it works.’ We became close friends [and still are] to this day.” Armed with new information, the first thing he did was end the age-old pay-per-class model and introduced direct debit – something he claims made Matt Fiddes Martial Arts the first of its kind in England to offer such a payment model.
In addition to a more convenient way for consumers to pay and a resultant sustainable income for the business, rather than just teach children how to punch and kick, it was more about helping them build life skills. “Kids would get homework at the end of each lesson, so that would be brushing teeth, to be well-mannered at school and home,” he says. “And if they weren’t they wouldn’t be able to progress to their next martial arts grade.” This was enforceable with a form that needed signatures from parents and teachers, which proved to be a big hit. Drawing upon his own experiences as a student to shape the approach to his classes, Fiddes explains: “You can’t keep kids interested when they’re doing the same kick for half an hour and a punch for another half hour then they’re told to go home. [In my day] it was very hardcore, breaking bricks and all this type of stuff, so I wanted to develop family martial arts.”
Winning over parents was half the battle and once that happened the classes picked up steam. “They saw me as a respectful young adult and wanted kids to become like me – respectful, ambitious and so on,” Fiddes details. “And it grew and grew.” With the class running out of a nearby town called Braunton in a school hall, which cost him just £15 a night to rent, he was making up to £5,000 a month for teaching just twice a week. The rest of his time was spent training and sunbathing – when the British weather would allow for the latter. But with all of his friends working more conventional hours, the freedom became a lonely experience so Fiddes visited a doctor and the outcome shocked him. “It got so bad with boredom he prescribed me antidepressants,” he reveals. “I was thinking ‘what on earth am I on antidepressants for? I’m on this kind of money teaching three hours twice a week on a Wednesday night and Sunday night’.” Although a cushy gig from an outsider’s perspective, it clearly wasn't the case for Fiddes. But that sense of loneliness is what gave him the drive to expand.
Fiddes wanted to make a permanent home for his brand, drawing further on lessons from his time in the US. “I tried to think about having this full-time centre like they do in the States,” he says. The location for this was in Barnstaple and although the landlord was sceptical, he knew Fiddes’ mother from her local work as a lawyer and that was good enough for him. “We had six months rent-free and just about enough money to decorate the place – six months later it was the biggest martial arts school in the UK with 700 members,” says Fiddes. This resulted in his face being plastered across magazines and newspapers nationally with headlines such as “Wonder Boy” and “Broke schoolboy becomes millionaire”, while he also appeared on TV alongside the likes of Trisha, Kilroy and Chris Evans.
With his formula working and a wave of publicity, Fiddes set about further growth. “I had to keep myself occupied and wondered was it a lucky fluke or will it work again?” he says. “I’ve got to be honest, even when I got to school number 100, I was still thinking it was all going to end some day like a fairytale. I just followed the same system and had the same results every time.” By 19, Fiddes had expanded across North Devon and notes he “didn’t really have to work again.” “That’s when I got my first Ferrari [and] my first house was paid off,” he says. Uri Geller, the famed spoon-bending TV personality, was among the many people who had been captivated by Fiddes’ story and the two forged a business partnership that became a friendship. “We made a series of fitness videos together where he did motivational talks focusing on mind power and I did kick-boxer aerobics,” recalls Fiddes. “They became bestsellers in Asia – it was huge.”
Securing an A-list collaboration with Geller made way for an even bigger star to moonwalk into Fiddes life. “He introduced me to Michael Jackson,” he reveals. “Me and Michael became very close friends and then I ended up being his bodyguard for ten years – the last ten years of his life.” Fiddes says that while Jackson didn’t interfere with his business, he was always happy to offer guidance when needed. “He saw my workload and negativity I was feeling about my business and how hard it was,” says Fiddes, having reached 118 schools at this point. “And he said ‘It doesn’t have to be like this, I can show you an easier way’. He gave me advice and pushed me in the right direction.” And that direction led straight towards franchising.
With time spent working across the globe, Jackson had contacts in every port. “He had connections and could get to whoever he wanted to – he was a powerful man,” says Fiddes. “He was a very clever guy. You don’t get to be the biggest superstar in the world and be a clown like people think he was.” One such connection that Jackson opened the door to was a franchise lawyer in Bristol, which helped Fiddes move to the next level. “Mike taught me how important goal-setting was and how you have to write them down and hit those targets,” says Fiddes. Jackson showcased his approach to make Thriller the best-selling album of all time, which was a vision in the making for four years as opposed to an overnight success or coincidence.
Offering further insight to his relationship with the King of Pop, Fiddes reflects: “I looked up to Mike, he was like an older brother [and] a mentor to me and he would check in on me like ‘How you doing, how many members you signed this month?’ It’d be quite funny because I’d say ‘I signed up 40 members’ and Mike would say ‘Well done.’ I’d ask ‘How you doing Mike?’ And he’d reply ‘I just signed an $80m tour’ and I’d sound like a prat when I came off the phone.” And like Fiddes’ instructor, Jackson also taught him to rise above the noise of bad press. “I’d ring him up at Neverland screaming and he’d say ‘Hey Matt, look what I have to put up with all over the world. You’ve got to worry about it when they’re not writing about you. Ring me back when you’ve got a real problem’ and he put the phone down on me,” Fiddes laughs. “Really he was just a cool guy, just a very loving, intelligent man who just wanted the best for me and my family.”
Harnessing the support of Jackson, the franchise lawyer and his own expertise, Fiddes realised how his business model could be combined with his experience in a manual and tied up with branding and PR. “When I turned it into a franchise, we did 600 franchises in a year,” says Fiddes of the stratospheric 2001 franchising launch. “Fitness centres snapped them up and put them in their studios.”
However, he quickly discovered that the transition from business owner to franchisor came with a price. “I don’t think I realised, until things started happening, just how much control you lose,” Fiddes details. “That was one thing I was blind to because it grew so fast that I had to quickly put quality control in once it became a franchise.” One of the steps implemented was sending an external examiner in to franchisees to report back on their performance. “Then we’d get in situations with a bit of bad press and it reflects on my name when I don’t even know the person who’s done anything,” he adds. “It’d be silly things like one of the instructors would get caught fighting or whatever and my name would appear in the article and I’d get dragged into it.”
Finding himself facing limited control because the businesses in the network weren’t technically his, he had to accept that his role had changed for good. “I get the odd thing come up where a franchisee would love me to step in and sort issues out for them but I can’t,” Fiddes says. “I do what I’ve got to do but unless it’s really serious I can’t get involved because it’s their business. And that was a mind-shift, definitely.”
Interestingly, Fiddes admits his biggest battle is franchisees who don’t seek their true potential. “You have some franchises I could never understand, who don’t want to be a millionaire – they’re quite comfortable earning £30,000 a year and it’d frustrate me because they’re holding onto this incredible territory but they weren’t breaking any contracts, so there was nothing I could do about it,” he says. “That’s probably the most frustrating thing – I’ve got some people in some areas who aren’t doing as well as they could do or should do but they’re quite happy and content with their lives. They don’t want to be millionaires, they don’t want 1,000 students – they’re quite happy with 150.”
Although Fiddes is obviously very passionate about his franchisees and desires the best for them both operationally and financially, he looks for more than a strong bank balance in prospective partners at home and abroad. For him, “as long as they’re ambitious, have an open mind, they’re willing to learn and play everything by the book” then they’re viable. “Even if they haven’t got a lot of money behind them, if I can see those qualities in them I’ll let them go for it and give them a chance,” he says, seemingly remembering the chance his landlord gave him early on.
With a presence in Australia, Germany, Dubai and 1,000 schools set to open in the US – the place that served as a real inspiration for Fiddes – the brand’s position seems cemented. “The business runs itself, we’re expanding internationally all the time,” he says. “My career has turned around a little bit so I don’t have to be absolutely involved in the business apart from PR, celebrity clients and international expansion. It’s seen as a the only martial arts brand really, there’s no-one else out there. After 21 years now, it’s a monster of a machine and keeps growing whether I like it or not. Franchising is definitely an interesting business, there’s no doubt about it.”