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Ex-Naval Pilot Steers His Career to Liberty Station Karate Studio

After retiring from the Navy, Sal Convento says he’s still serving his country and the community as chief instructor at the United States Karate Academy at Liberty Station.

The ex-officer opened his academy at the site of the former Naval Training Center in Point Loma last summer after being stationed in Nebraska from 2005 to 2006. During his military career, Convento was a pilot who flew missions over Iraq and Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

“I came back to San Diego because I thought it was the most beautiful place in the country, and I was ready to start a business here,” said the 35-year-old Convento.

Convento based his business aspirations on his expertise in the martial arts. He’s earned a third-degree black belt, signifying the highest skill level achieved in the martial arts.

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He was also deemed world champion in the male division of the 2004 World Tang Soo Do Association Championship. The martial arts organization has an estimated 100,000 members in 36 countries.

Convento’s business model was patterned after his first karate school, which he founded in Nebraska in 2006. Due to a relocation during his military service, Convento was forced to close the Nebraska studio a year and a half after its opening and began scouting properties in his new, long-term residence of San Diego.

He settled on the NTC Promenade at Liberty Station.

“The NTC Promenade is run by a foundation that was looking for ways to bring kids and families into the area,” Convento said. “I am an ex-officer and a graduate of the Naval Academy, so the Liberty Station location was a perfect fit.”

The NTC Foundation, formed in 2000 to oversee the conversion of the Naval Training Center into Liberty Station, incorporated the NTC Promenade district within the complex to provide arts, culture and technology elements.

Alan Ziter, executive director of the foundation, said that its goal is to attract repeat visits by day and night from a diverse group of local residents and visitors.

“U.S. Karate Academy is in a building with a strong health and fitness component, including two fitness centers, so it’s nice for our project to see all ages, from 3-year-olds to seniors, focusing on healthy minds and bodies,” Ziter said.

Ziter noted that Convento’s Navy experience and general professionalism made the foundation’s decision process easy, as did the tenant’s carefully devised business plan.

Convento added that the property owners were seeking a martial arts tenant specifically, with goals to add “vibrancy” into the area.


Something For Everyone

Joining anchor tenants such as Trader Joe’s grocery store and The Rock Church, Convento opened his Liberty Station karate studio in June 2007 with four employees and other black belts who volunteered to teach classes.

Overhead costs to run his academy include about $5,000 for monthly rent and utilities, with another $5,000 spent monthly for salaries, retail merchandise and additional expenses.

While Convento says that his business has been profitable for the past seven months or so, revenue is not his main objective.

“It’s much more about memberships than revenue in this industry, and right now we have 142 students enrolled, while the average martial arts studio has around 110,” Convento said.

Within another year’s time, Convento said that he hopes to grow the school to its capacity, about 400 students.


Student Value

John Godwin is director of business and finance for the World Tang Soo Do Association and says that the U.S. Karate Academy is well above the industry standard for student value, the number by which many member organizations measure growth.

“A high goal for student value would be about $200 per month per student, and Sal’s is about $210 right now,” said Godwin.

Student value can be measured by dividing the total growth by the total number of members.

Godwin added that the student value may be temporarily lowered by offering grand-opening discounts or two-for-one membership specials in order to build enrollment, but the short-term loss may pay off in favor of long-term revenues.

“While boosting enrollment is the primary focus when an organization like the karate academy is starting out, revenues become important down the road for expansion and adding additional instructors and members,” Godwin said.

From a business standpoint, Convento says that entrepreneurial success thrives with a combination of passion, profit and expertise.

“I am very passionate, I know how to turn a profit and I am a world champion,” he said.

From a personal standpoint, the more profound benefit of his business is the positive impact that the art of Tang Soo Do brings to those that practice the discipline.

“With our youngest student group, the Tiny Tigers, we focus on discipline and self-control,” he said.


Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Alan Ziter’s name. This version has been corrected. The Business Journal regrets the error.

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