Wow! I would have never thought, back when I did my initial TDI Nitrox Instructor course in Miami Beach with Mitch Skaggs and David Sipperly, the agency would be where it is today 20 years later.
I was asked recently by a staff member here to write an article reflecting on where the agency came from and where it is today, but had no idea where to start. Upon some reflection I thought I would talk about my personal start to give everyone some insight into TDI’s roots.
Many instructors don’t realize that TDI actually started in Florida and then later moved to Maine. You may have seen the recent story about the napkin, but did you know that TDI operated out of someone’s kitchen initially? Well, my first exposure to TDI came when I traveled to visit a friend, David Sipperly (original manager of TDI), in the Florida Keys in 1994. Upon my arrival at his home, he said I needed to check out this new agency he had recently gotten involved with. I was interested and he promptly walked me over to his kitchen counter and opened up a couple of cabinets and pulled out a few TDI books, stickers, and even a t-shirt (this happened to be the entire inventory of the company at this time, stored in his kitchen cabinets, his girlfriend loved it). After some initial conversations about TDI, I wanted to know how I could become an instructor.
The next morning we went up to Miami Beach to meet with Mitch Skaggs (one of the founders) to take a Nitrox course at his dive shop “H20 Scuba”. At that time Mitch asked everyone who completed the Nitrox course to write their name on the wall. He did this because a lot of people at the time said Nitrox was dangerous and no one would want to take the course. Well years later, there was no more room on the walls, proving the skeptics wrong. So after signing the wall and driving back to Dave’s house, we went into his computer room, which had an old Mac (you know the ones with the tiny screens) and pulled up a spreadsheet. Next, to my surprise, he asked me to pick my instructor number from the sheet so he could print my laminated cert card. It was that simple back then.
A few years later, after countless more courses and materials were added to the curriculum; I was contacted by Bret Gilliam (one of the founders) and asked to work for him at TDI in Maine. The company had such explosive growth in Florida that Bret decided to relocate it to his home state so he could directly oversee the operation. So off I went from my beach house in Rhode Island to work for TDI and Bret, having very little idea what the future would hold. After working with TDI for a few months, Bret called me into his office and asked if I would proofread a new manual. The next thing I knew I was reading the SDI Standards and Procedures manual.
The first draft was okay, but after pointing out the deficiencies in the manual to Bret, he assigned me to rewrite it. To this I replied that I was already an instructor with another agency, how would the company benefit from this? Needless to say Bret was once again way out in front of me and everyone else with his vision, he was right. So off I went, and realizing I needed help to get this project done, I contacted Cliff Simoneau.
Cliff at the time was a rep for TDI and also a close friend (he was the one who actually recommended to Bret that he hire me). Cliff and I spent the next 3 months working on the manual. When we finally handed it over to Bret for approval, thinking we really nailed it, Bret edited with a red pen noting every error and old way of thinking about training. He called Cliff and I back into his office and handed us the manual back and said, “Now go write a program that makes sense! Not one of just regurgitated information from other agencies”. Thus began Cliff’s and my first foray into TDI and SDI being so innovative… and another lesson from founder Bret.
As the years progressed, more and more stories arose that were very similar to the one above, but the one thing I think that makes this agency so special is the people. The organization, while it was the idea of just a few in the beginning, has grown due to the numerous people who have contributed along the way. I could list countless names of those people and what they contributed, but I don’t think I have enough data storage on my computer for that document. Throughout our years of growth and expansion into other agencies, we have always been able to maintain one of our core principals, to be like a family.
Most of our members got involved with diving because of their passion for the sport and it is very easy for us to understand and relate to that passion as we feel the same way. Thus taking away the idea that we are a big corporation, and not treating our members like just another number. We understand that in order for our organization to grow, our members businesses have to grow. So we take the approach that we actually work for our members, and the members let us know what they need in order for us to be successful. It makes it a great organization to be involved with and not only do I work here, but even if I didn’t I would still teach for the agency based on that one thing alone. It is a business but it is run with a lot of heart.
I’m looking forward to the next 20 years.