When I originally started the interview series many years ago in Deep Tech Magazine, the people chose were reality high-profile individuals – most with a background in filming or photojournalism excellence. But this series would have been woefully incomplete if I had failed to profile on of diving’s most innovative leaders and pioneers in manufacturing.

Scubapro Line was Revered as the Rolls-Royce of Scuba Diving

Dick Bonin, the co-founder of Scubapro, has been responsible for some of the most technically advanced equipment lines the industry has ever seen. For those who started diving in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the Scubapro line was revered as the Rolls-Royce of scuba diving. Virtually all other manufacturers were viewed as “also rans” who played second fiddle to the stuff that was stamped with the memorable “S” logo and marked a person as a serious, committed diver.

The list of diving notables who swore by the Scubapro brand included Stan Waterman, Paul Tzimoulis, Dick Anderson, Jack McKenney, Dr. George Benjamin, Tom Mount, Ann Kristovitch, Sheck Exley, Jim Bowden, Wes Skiles, Hal Watts, Rob Palmer, Howard & Michele Hall, Marty Snyderman, Bob Talbot, Jimmy Stewart, Chuck Nicklin, Dr. Sylia Earle, myself and just about every Caribbean and Pacific divemaster who knew that the gear from Dick Bonin would endure just about every abuse and still bring them back alive. It was a brand built from the outset on the reputations of Bonin and his staff who promised high performance and reliability without compromise. Bonin also took the unprecedented step of offering a lifetime guarantee on his equipment including parts! In addition to earning the respect of hundreds of thousands of divers who bought his gear, Bonin became a mentor and father figure to his loyal retailers who showcased his line and his philosophy of diving excellence. Bonin was the first to offer business counseling and focused marketing programs to help the dive stores of long ago realize their profit potential. He stood shoulder to shoulder with them in delivering and supporting a brand that became the “gold standard” of diving for nearly three decades. Think back a moment to some of the “firsts” that Bonin’s Scubapro company brought to the industry: the enduring flowthrough piston design of his regulators beginning with the immortal Mark V introduced in 1970, the first low-pressure BC inflator, the first back-mounted BC for widespread distribution, the first silicone mask, the first jacket style BC (the infamous Stabilizing Jacket), the shotgun snorkel incorporating an exhaust valve that made clearing effortless, the first integrated inflator/second stage regulator called the AIR II, the first analog decompression meter, the first pilot valve assisted second stage called the AIR I, and last but not least, the celebrated Jet Fin that forever changed the design of what used to be called “flippers.” It’s a legacy unequaled to this day and perhaps forever.

Dick’s passion for providing great equipment that constantly pushed the envelope in design and practicality along with the best dealer support in the industry made him almost a mythical character to those who had a chance to work with him. Above all, Dick was, first and foremost, a real diver who personally evaluated, tested and approved every item his company brought to market. He surrounded himself with the brightest minds in the industry and pushed his research and development engineers to produce the next great piece of diving gear that no serious diver could be without… every year for what seemed an eternity in the short history of the burgeoning diving business. Bonin got his start as a Navy officer assigned to some of the earliest dive teams and cut his teeth testing gear and blowing up beach approaches in some of the most distant locations in the world. When his Navy hitch was up, he decided to take a stab at selling dive gear for some early manufacturers before realizing that the only way he was going to get the kind of equipment and the company policies he believed in was to do it himself. A partnership with another diving pioneer, Gustav Dalla Valle, led to the start of their own company in 1963. Both men were working for the soon-to-be-bankrupt Healthways company. Dick had been brought in to manage a new division for diving equipment that would be sold only through professional dive stores under the name Scubapro. When the parent company bit the dust, Gustav bought the rights to the name and got its earnest hard-charging manager as well. He paid the princely sum of one dollar! Dick has noted ruefully, “Gustav bought Scubapro for a dollar and got me with it. He always said he overpaid.”

Well, if he did overpay, these two oddly matched entrepreneurs quickly turned that investment into one of the largest success stories in diving history. They built their company into diving’s premier brand and then attracted a plethora of corporate conglomerates that wanted to acquire them for their continued growth history and ever-increasing profits. Finally, against Bonin’s wishes as the minority shareholder, Dalla Valle sold the company to Johnson Worldwide Associates for a then unprecedented multi-million dollar sum. The following year Johnson forced Dalla Valle out but Bonin continued as President and directed the company’s growth and continued profitability until 1991 when he parted ways and retired.

Typically, Dick is discreet about the controversy surrounding leaving the company he founded and nurtured to such success. Ever the gentleman and loath to stoop to the level of those who, in his opinion, have not met his standard of professionalism, he declines to comment on his abrupt exit. However, insiders confirm that his independence and refusal to compromise on issues of product quality and business ethics eventually made him persona non grata with the corporate suits that seemed only to care about bottom lines on the balance sheet with little regard to sustaining the brand in the long term.

Whatever actually took place will probably remain shrouded in confidentiality agreements and other legalese. But consider the aftermath: a revolving door of inconsistent and oft times inept management making poor decisions doomed the once proud Scubapro line to shrinking market share and a virtual halt to new product innovation. Currently (2003) mired in a series of product recalls and litigation alleging product defects, the Johnson stock price has dropped and Mamdouh Ashour, the head of its diving division (Scubapro and Uwatec), a man Bonin once banished from the U.S. operation, has taken refuge in Europe in the face of pending lawsuits and possible criminal charges. In the ultimate irony, Johnson Worldwide is also suing Ashour, its own ex-chief executive of diving.

It’s hard to imagine anything of the sort taking place under the leadership of Bonin. There was no problem getting access to Dick. I’ve been friends with him since 1971 when I helped persuade the U.S. Navy to officially add Scubapro to its list of equipment for Navy divers for the first time. I later became one of Scubapro’s top dealers through my Caribbean operation known as V. I. Divers. I visited Dick at his home in Huntington Beach, California in July 2003 to conduct the interview. I vividly remember meeting Dick the first time at one of the old National Sporting Goods Association shows during a freezing 1972 winter snowstorm in Chicago. Back then, before the DEMA Show, diving manufacturers exhibited to dealers at this mammoth trade show and tended to get lost in the endless aisles of tennis rackets, basketballs, footballs, and snow ski apparatus. Wandering the massive McCormick Place Convention Center, I finally found the tiny Scubapro exhibit and was wrapped in the firm grip of Bonin who seemed to instinctively recognize his farflung dealers. We talked about our common Navy heritage and I was thrilled to finally see the entire line of gear after previously only knowing some items from the catalog. By the time I left Chicago, I felt like Dick was a surrogate father and he promised to visit me in the Virgin Islands some time in the future.

Yeah, right. I figured I had about as much chance of seeing Dick in St. Croix as I did of seeing it snow there. But sure enough, he arrived a year or so later and cut a swath through the island’s social scene as though a movie matinee idol had appeared. You have to remember that back then there were only about 7,000 expatriate Americans living there and it seemed that every one of them either snorkeled or dived and I’d outfitted every last one of them in Scubapro gear from my dive store. Dick was in his early 40s then and looked like an action movie hero. Every day we went diving and talked diving business. Then at night we took in dinner and closed down most of the popular bars in the wee hours. He won a series of arm wrestling matches in a particularly tough late night watering hole, including defeating a guy twice his size and half his age. When the vanquished opponent asked the name of his better, Dick replied, “Anthony Stunning” and they’re probably still talking about this mysterious character even today.

Dick Bonin was a mentor, friend, fellow diver, and the single best example of how to conduct yourself in business that I ever met. Ask any of his dealers from that era and they’ll tell you the same thing. The man exuded honesty, enthusiasm, and an ingrained sense of what was right and what was wrong… along with an unbridled energy for the sport of diving. He oozed integrity. I began my first business as a Scubapro dealer when Dick picked me to distribute his gear over a much bigger established company. He saw a future for diving in me as a gung-ho 22-year-old that transcended the hefty wallet of the larger company. It paid off for both of us. He got a dealer that bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Scubapro gear over the next 15 years and I used that to springboard my tiny dive store operation into a series of successful corporations. Dick provided the initial opportunity to launch me in business and I owe everything I have today in business to him. There is no one that I have more respect for and I only hope that I can live up to the example he set for all of us. When I met Dick he was 42 years old and was the toughest guy I ever met. Today (2003) at 73, he looks like he can still kick my ass and those of anyone else who might challenge him. He’s still an active free diver and spearfisherman who regularly lands trophy fish in the company of other top divers young enough to be his grandchildren. If there is ever a Mount Rushmore for divers, I know Stan Waterman will hold the space for George Washington, and Dick Bonin will stand in for Teddy Roosevelt. The other two spots are still up for grabs in my book. Dick and I settled in with full coffee cups and let the tape recorder run.

Everything before Scubapro

How does a guy from Chicago end up diving?»I grew up in the Midwest, always loved water, swam on the high school swim team. I went to college on an athletic scholarship. What did you play?»Basically everything, but the scholarship was for football, boxing, baseball, and swimming. Then, when the Korean War broke out, I enlisted in the Navy and they sent me to OCS. There was inter-company swimming, and an officer came over to me one day – I remember that he had a scar on his cheek – and asked if I liked sports. I said yes. “Do you like swimming?” Yeah. “When you finish OCS – you get a few choices, Destroyer, Carrier or UDT” (underwater demolition teams) – so I chose UDT. Where did they send you?»I was at Little Creek, Virginia in January of 1953. The Korean War was on. I went through all the training. There were 137 of us when we started, 19 when we finished. When I qualified I was sent to extensive underwater training in New London and, in three months time, the Caribbean. Subsequently, I was appointed as a Submersible Operations Officer. There were two teams on the East Coast then, and three teams on the West Coast. Just 500 guys in the whole country! Each team was 100 men, with one diving officer on each team. I was appointed Diving Officer on the East Coast.

How’d you like the Navy?»It was great. I was an Ensign. Early on, our executive officer got a call from Chicago, from a fellow that ran a retail/ wholesale diving business, one of the very first. He was distributing E.R. Cross’s mail order study course, Diving for Fun and Profit. It was written by Cross, and was a classic. He wanted someone in the Navy to read and okay what Cross was writing. So I was designated for the job. When it was time for me to get out of the Navy, the fellow in Chicago that had the retail/ wholesale operation said, “You‘re from Chicago, so why don’t you come here and see about a job?” Before we get to that, tell me some of the stuff you were doing in the Navy diving. They actually based you out in the Arctic or something, right?»Well, the first assignment I had was an operation up in the Arctic, blowing and surveying approaches to bring in supplies for the Far Distant Warning Stations. We would go from bay to bay. They would bring us in – there were about 12-15 men beside myself – and we would do a survey and then blast it out, so there was nothing left to tear up the landing craft bringing in the supplies. We did that for about three months. Way up north, I don’t remember all of the places. It was dull as hell, except when we were operating.

It must have been cold as hell?»We were working in the summertime, but the water was cold, just above freezing. How did you stay warm?»We had good dry suits. They were made by U.S. Rubber. They were functional but you had to make sure you took care of them and wore a couple of pairs of long johns under them. You couldn’t stay in the water for long, but long enough to get the job done. And we would go in and do it as fast as we could. It was pretty simple. You go into a bay, do recon, and then come back the next day with explosives and lay them out, and blast the approach.

Let me tell you a story. I was just an Ensign then, too. We really wanted to do a good job, so we came in and we surveyed one of our first approaches. I said to the men, “Okay, we have to do a thorough job, so this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to use this much C3 explosive to be sure. That’s going a little heavy.” So we swim in, set a heavy checkerboard pattern, and we blew that baby sky high! Rocks and debris are coming down all over the fleet! So we go back and the fleet’s skipper is waiting there, and asks, “Is it always like this?” I gulped and said, “Yeah, you’ve got to blast big when it’s a tough job.” He said, “Well, maybe I’ll anchor out a little further then next time.” We had a lot of exciting things up there. We shot a polar bear on one swim because, when you are in the water up there, you look like lunch.

Was it making some moves on you?»Oh, of course! But we always had a boat, a landing craft or an inflatable, with one armed crewman on board. And, you know, polar bears hunt man. Outside of that, when we worked, it was exciting. But the rest of the time was boring. We read the same books over and over; showed only certain parts of movies because we knew the movies so well. Of course, there was no TV and no newspapers either. Where did they house you? I bet it was some horrible Quonset hut or something?»No, we were on an LSD (Landing Ship Dock) ship. The first ship we were on hit an iceberg on our way to the next site. The skipper of the LSD was in tactical command because he was senior to the captain of the icebreaker in front of us leading the way. A significant iceberg came around the icebreaker in front of us and hit our ship because we were steaming too fast in 70 percent ice coverage. It tore a hole about 10-14 feet high and 22 feet long. I was below when it hit and it knocked me over. I ran topside and there was complete panic. The ship was heeling over fast. It was a hell of a hole. One engineer saved the ship all by himself by his fast action. He got compartments sealed off before it got to the boiler room. We would have all been dead because, without protective suits, you had maybe 30 seconds in the water to survive. He saved the ship and us. They sent a helicopter in to pick up the skipper off of our ship and take him away. It’s safe to assume they weren’t bringing him in to give him a promotion!

Not to a ticker tape parade, either.»No! Then they transferred us to another LSD and we finished our work up there. So, we had some exciting incidents in three months aboard. I remember reading somewhere that you guys were testing some equipment and had a failure on something 250 feet deep or so.»I was in about my third year as a Submersible Operations officer. We were using three open-circuit units, the Aqua Lung, the Northill and the Scott Air Pak. Do you remember the Scott?

Life on the Line

Yes, certainly.»We had been using it for a number of years, and a directive came down from the Bureau of Ships that they wanted us to do deep-water tests on those three units. I guess, for some reason, they were going to buy new equipment or something. So the Submersible Operations Platoon got on board a submarine rescue ship and we went out off of North Carolina to do deepwater tests. They wanted us to do 200 feet plus. Most of our diving was not really deep. There wasn’t that much call to do much over 100 feet. We anchored overnight and put down lines the next day. Officer and chief go first so I had the Northill, and Chief Foster took the Scott. We got down pretty deep and I started taking water in and I cleared it out. Went a little further down, and took more water in, cleared it out. And I got to about somewhere over 200 feet. Anyway, I got to the point where I couldn’t clear the water out and I said to myself, “You’ve bought the farm. You’ve got two minutes left in your life, and now all you can do is what you were trained for, and go up that line and whistle Dixie – ya know, blowing out the expanding air.” So, that’s just what I did, I went up that line, hand over hand and whistled Dixie. It seemed like forever before I got to the decompression stage. But I did get there! How deep was the deco stage?»Twenty-30 feet. And there we had regulators you could breathe off. “Jack Brown’s” (full face masks w/surface supply hoses). The topside support staff didn’t know what was going on because there was no communication, but they knew the line was going slack. And the night before, they had thrown garbage off the fantail that attracted sharks. There were hammerheads all over, circling the deco stage and the aft end of the ship. It was spectacular, but probably not really that dangerous in retrospect. Later the Navy sent down a representative to talk to me because it was one of the deepest free ascents ever. They had the submarine rescues with the old Momsen Lungs, but this was one of the very first unaided free ascents of significant depth. Of course, in those days you had the old UDT vests, but that’s not going to be any good coming up. What were you kicking with on your feet? Duck Feet?»Yeah, we went to Duck Feet while I was Sub-Ops officer. But on this ascent, I went hand over hand on the line. I just did what I was trained to do and it worked. What had happened is that the Northill had an exhaust valve right in the middle of the diaphragm, and it would invert under a certain amount of pressure.

“If I like to sell, I’m going to sell something I like.”

You weren’t going to resolve that underwater either.»No. Later on we sent another diver down shallower and it did the same thing. It was pretty exciting in retrospect, I guess. Now after you survived all of this stuff in the Navy, you’re getting out and going back to Chicago because you reviewed this diving program by E.R. Cross. Was the idea that you were going to take a look at a sport diving industry vocation?»I had no idea. I had always figured I wanted to be a salesman. I never really knew, even when I was in school. I took some accounting but I majored in economics and sports. I just always felt I should get into sales. And they offered me this job. It was a very humble beginning because it was in the early days of diving, and it was a little dive shop. Big for those days, but small by today’s standards.

What year was this?»This was when I got out of the Navy, so about 1956. I said to myself, “If I like to sell, I’m going to sell something I like.” So I went to work for almost no money and started selling diving equipment. I met all the original pioneers, including Cross, who was one of the most impressive men I’d ever met in my life. I worked there a little over a year. Swimaster had just started with a company called Pacific Moulded Products in Los Angeles. They had bought some fin molds and masks, but it didn’t work. So they bought a spearfishing company that included Duck Feet, wideview masks, and a couple of other things. They had a fellow by the name of Arthur Brown, a former engineer, one of the truly smartest guys, product-wise, ever in the history of diving equipment. He developed Duck Feet. Swimaster bought the company from Brown, who was actually in this town, Huntington Beach. We used Duck Feet in UDT, and the West Coast teams had them first. When I saw them, I brought them out to the East Coast. We were using Voit fins before that. Well, Swimaster sent out a marketing consultant scouring the country to find someone to run the company, because they were only doing $200,000 in sales or less annually. He picked me and I was thrilled. So, I left the shop in Chicago, and came out to Swimaster, and took over running things. We developed it into a tremendous little company.

But when you got there, you probably only had just rubber goods, right?»Yeah, you’re right, when I got there, their inventory was all rubber goods. We had more inventory than their sales, so I came in and said, “Okay, we’re going to introduce the professional store theory.” Because of having worked for two years in the dive shop, I learned that the demand was created by the pro in the dive shop, and the instructor who teaches you how to dive. So, I set up the distribution strictly through dive shops. We had the Duck Feet and we put a foam rubber edge on the wide view mask. It was just me and the production manager, Jorge Calderon. That was the whole company, the two of you?» There were lots of other people in assembly but, yeah, it was basically the two of us running things. We brought out the first flexible snorkel. In Chicago, they used to sell surplus aircraft parts so I took a hose and put it on a snorkel tube, and I never forgot that. Swimaster priced it at $2.95 and everyone said we were out of our minds, but we sold them like crazy.

By the way, do you know they sell snorkels now for almost $75 and they have music built into some of them?»That’s incredible! Well, later I met Jack Prodanovich and saw the guns that he was custom making. I took them and we made the first American spear guns, and sold the hell out of them. At Swimaster, it was just one continuous product break after another.

The focus of the sport in those days was geared to spearfishing, wasn’t it?»Mostly, but not completely. You had a lot of competitions and people then were more inclined to be looking for power fins. There weren’t many women in the sport. Everything we introduced was a quality product and it was good. We had the best masks, fins, snorkels, spearguns of that era. What were you doing for hardware, like regulators and valves?»We really didn’t have that stuff then. We did make weight belts. We made the first stainless steel quick release buckles. I never messed around with the regulators because the big boys were in the regulator business and there was just the two of us. I started experimenting with a silicone mask. We studied it. They make specialized aircraft parts out of silicone. This was when silicone was hardly known. It looked like silicone was magic. The chemist I worked with kept trying to make me a silicone mask because I figured if we were successful, it would last forever. We could never get it clear enough or pliable enough. We kept trying, but I eventually filed that idea away. Then later at Scubapro we had a rubber plant, and I went back to that project and we made the first silicone mask. If you think about it, the silicone mask is probably the most commonly used product out there. It was my dream but I didn’t call it a silicone mask – I called it a “hypo-allergenic mask.”

Before we jump ahead of ourselves, you were still at Swimaster, right? What year are we in?»Yes, I was at Swimaster for about three years and not making much money. It was about 1959. Sportsways was having problems, so they approached me to come and run their company. Where were they based at that point?»They were in Paramount, California. They were owned by an automotive company. I don’t know if you remember Dick Kline from the earlier days, but he was the original Sportsways founder. They were having serious problems so they approached me and offered me more money. Since it didn’t look like I was going to make much where I was, I left for Sportsways. It was a good experience, but a mistake. I soon discovered I didn’t like the way they did business. I had the privilege of working with Sam Lecocq, who was a truly gifted designer and that was very rewarding, but there was a lot of nepotism in the company. Eventually I told one of the owners what I thought of him, and he fired me. But while I was at Sportsways with Sam, we established the single hose regulator. We made that a major breakthrough. With his engineering and our marketing, we made the single hose regulator number one in the country. Didn’t you guys also introduce the original submersible pressure gauges?»It wasn’t the original gauge, but it was the first one put out by an established diving company. We made the first successful one. We also did the first O-ring seals and specialized tank valves. It was a good start but we all had trouble with the owners.

“SCUBAPRO”

When you left, what happened with Sam?»Sam remained and the company went on for a couple more years, then Sportsways went bankrupt. In fact, they went down so deep they had to hold a public auction to sell off the tooling. I then went to work with a marketing consultant who hired me for Swimaster for a while. He had some fishing companies and recreational accounts. U.S. Divers, Healthways, Voit, Dacor, and Swimaster – they were the original five diving manufacturers. Healthways, a mass merchandiser, sold to everybody. They decided that they wanted a professional line, like I had done at Swimaster, so they brought me in to develop that concept. At the time, Healthways had Gustav Dalla Valle as their R&D Department head, which meant a European connection for obtaining diving products. So they paired me with him and said, “Develop a line for a new company.” It was to be called Scubapro. Did you guys come up with that name?»No, an advertising guy came up with that name. I wish I could take credit, but I can’t. So, it was going to be Scubapro. I got on the phone and started calling our old dealer network, began putting things together, working with Gustav on products. Then the day after Christmas in 1962 the owners called us into the office and said, “We’re in Chapter 11.” So that was the end of Scubapro.

What was Gustav’s reaction?»Well, he wasn’t really surprised because he knew it was coming. He had a little garage warehouse, so we went there and said we were going to do it ourselves somehow. Gustav had a little money, not much. Wasn’t he an Italian count or something?»Gustav was one of the most colorful men ever, maybe the most colorful man in diving history. He was the son of a count who cornered the silk market in Italy at one time. Gustav was given a fortune when he was a young man and blew most of it. He was well educated and had studied architecture. A very cultured guy. He was a bon vivant in the fullest sense of the word. Finally, he took what money he had left and went to Haiti, and started a little glass-bottom boat business.

This was back in the day of Papa Doc?»He got there just before. He’d take people out in a glass-bottom boat and demonstrate snorkeling and spearfishing. Then Papa Doc came to power. Gustav was also involved in a gambling casino down there, so he had to get out of Haiti fast. With the new regime taking over, Gustav got out of town and migrated, actually he escaped, to Miami. He started up a business importing dive gear from Europe. His first account was Abercrombie & Fitch. Then he signed with Healthways and had them under contract for a lot of his European lines. When you guys ended up at Healthways, was this a natural sort of teaming? I mean, you guys are so different. Gustav is so emotional and crazy, and you are so solid and controlled.»Surprisingly, we got along fine. Gustav was fun to work with. Every day was something new. People used to say that Gustav was not a businessman, but that’s not true. He was a very good businessman, intelligent and shrewd. Anyway, we were thrown together and just happened to compliment each other and we worked together well. We used to fight a lot but in the best interests of the company. He used to take care of the finances and the purchasing. He couldn’t handle the interaction of accounts and staff. I did that and the marketing. We worked on the products together. He bought the name Scubapro for $1 and got me, too. And, ‘til the day he died, he said he paid too much. Paid too much for both of you, huh?»Yeah! So we started out and it was tough. This was January 3, 1963. Was that the acorn of the Scubapro company?» That was it. We opened up the garage door and said, “Let’s go to work.”

The Revolutionary Jet Fin and the Mark V Regulator, Enduring Classics

What was your first product?»Well, whatever Gustav could get from Europe on credit. Gustav had some money, but not much. Maybe $20,000 or so. And I had none. Anything he could get on credit we would bring in. For example, we brought in Squale masks that were passé even then. I would call the dealers and say, “Here’s what I’ve got. Help me out and we will build a line for you.” I called it “sympathy selling.” That’s how we started. The dealers gave us as much business as they could, not much, but whatever we could get. Then we made a regulator. This was a big step. We brought in a couple of part-time engineers that had done some work for Healthways.

Was one of these guys Dick Anderson?»Right. He came in, never really worked for us full time but gave us a hand. Dave Denis, who became our production manager and Bob Roberts, who we eventually hired, also came in. We developed the first reliable piston regulator. The first regulator we made was a true success. It was a workhorse and it was a winner. Then a little product by the name of Jet Fins came along. In the beginning, we couldn’t pay the bills. Gustav and I couldn’t take a salary. We couldn’t pay the phone bill. We made that unforgettable mistake of bouncing the check for the taxes. I don’t really know how we got through it. Every day Gustav would take the sales invoices and go to the loan shark. We did that for I don’t know how long. But we finally turned the corner after about two years.

Oh, so you guys were floating loans against your sales?»We were existing off the receivables. We didn’t take salaries or anything, but we made it. All of a sudden we started developing more products and adding to the distribution. Now all we had to do was get new products to the dealers out there, because I had the network built. And we did! Then we started growing so fast that we couldn’t believe it. What year did you finally develop your distinctive logo, the “S”?»That was right from the beginning. It’s an enduring logo. Memorable. Classic. I changed it by adding the black and the silver. They had the “S” shape and the name when I came there. It was a wonderful name and a wonderful logo.

The company is so well remembered for its initial regulator and the Jet Fins. You guys were getting them from France, right?»Rene Beauchat invented the Jet Fin. Beauchat was a good friend of Gustav, and was a very successful manufacturer of European diving equipment – spearguns, masks, fins, snorkels, very good stuff. He asked Gustav if he could get Jet Fins started in the United States. Gustav brought them to me, and he said “Dick can you sell these things?” And I said, “Gustav, these are the ugliest fins I’ve ever seen, but I’ll take them to the trade show and see what photographers out there with me, are still using the 352 Jet Fin, the extra large Jet Fin. Frankly, I don’t think they’ve ever built fins better than that original design. It gave you all the power you could possibly need, and none of the frills and nonsense associated with some of the designs today. I still have a pair of my original ones from 1971 that I keep on the wall in my office. I used them exclusively for, I think, 25 happens.” I had never used them. It was a cardinal mistake because I should have. Anyway, we went to the show. We were only a couple of years old when Jet Fins came out, maybe three or four years. I took a bunch to the show and I sold some. The dealers would laugh initially and buy some samples. Then, all of a sudden, the phone calls started coming in wanting to know if we had any more of those “ugly fins.” I didn’t even like the name. They said, “These fins aren’t bad.” That taught me a big lesson. After that, I tested everything that came to Scubapro. Jet Fins just took off. I’ve never seen a product accelerate as quickly. As a matter of fact, I think they are still popular today.

Listen, I just got back from a month at sea at Cocos Island, and four of the divers, professional photographers out there with me, are still using the 352 Jet Fin, the extra large Jet Fin. Frankly, I don’t think they’ve ever built fins better than that original design. It gave you all the power you could possibly need, and none of the frills and nonsense associated with some of the designs today. I still have a pair of my original ones from 1971 that I keep on the wall in my office. I used them exclusively for, I think, 25 years.»It was a remarkable product. I understand that there are also still some of our original regulators working out there.

I can assure you that there are a lot of your original regulators in the Caribbean.»I’m now starting to get calls from memorabilia buffs. I received a letter just last week from a fella looking for our original Scubapro manifold. He’s a commercial diver. I get these calls from people all the time who want to talk about the “golden days” of Scubapro. He mentioned in the letter, “I paid $160 for a copy of the 1970 Scubapro catalog.” It’s history. You guys were not only the most innovative equipment product company, but also brought a breath of innovation to your marketing. The revolutionary Jet fin and the Mark V regulator, enduring classics Now, I can’t remember the year but I’m going to take a stab and say it was 1973 or 1974 when you came out with that catalog with all of Dick Anderson’s poetry in it.»We have a couple of catalogs that were classics. Dick Anderson’s limericks. One with recipes in it and another with nautical poetry. I remember one of them to this day. It was from the Dick Anderson catalog and it was in the watch section. It said, “A diver wears a watch to tell what sport is his. The secondary function is to tell what time it is.” I never forgot it.»Those catalogs and the advertising campaign came from Roy Brizz. Roy is gone now.

Yeah, that particular piece was one of his innovative marketing ideas.»I’ll look for some of the catalogs, and I may have a couple of them. Well, I hear they are extremely valuable now. A complete set is priceless. But I don’t know if there is a complete set anywhere. That’s one thing I really regret. I had the complete set of catalogs for the entire time that I was a dealer, 18 years, and I lost them in a boat fire in 1993. I had kept them all religiously for all those years.»They had to be worth a fortune. Now we are coming into the early 1970s, and you guys have really made your niche. Your concept of the development of a product like this through a pro dive store distribution network was so revolutionary. Now you are really starting to get products that no one else had even conceived of. Things like, the Mark V regulator. How did that come about?»The Mark V was just really a product by committee. Our engineers, Gustav and I would brainstorm a product then construct an operating prototype and test the hell out of it. We had product meetings and were a diving company. We actually dove our stuff! We dove a lot. The whole company was divers. Our engineers were all divers. Our salesmen were too, of course. We spent more money on R&D than any other company. We hired the best engineers we could find. Some of them were instructors as well as divers. And we all tested our potential products for performance, for durability, for convenience, you name it.

When did you get Sam Ichikawa?»Sam came to Scubapro maybe two or three years after we started. Sam had worked with me at Sportsways. Sam worked for me longer than anybody else. He taught me my original Scubapro repair clinic in 1971.»Sam was first in his field and did repair seminars all over the world. We picked out people like Sam for every department. We had the distribution and just needed new products and top people. Eventually we created the stabilizing jacket that revolutionized diving safety and convenience. The first time I saw that buoyancy theory being used was with Ed Brawley, when he was teaching diving. As it turns out, everybody I know took credit for the stabilizing jacket. As best I can remember, it was Mike Brock that first suggested, “Why don’t we make a wrap-around version of this BC?”

As successful as the stabilizing jacket was, you preceded it in 1973 with the buoyancy compensating pack – which was the first production back-mounted unit to achieve widespread market acceptance.»We did pretty well with that. But although we gained a lot of notoriety with the BCP, the guys at At- Pac were originals with the first back-inflation style BC. When the BCP came out in 1973, you had all these nutcase conservatives saying this is a terrible design because it’s going to float you face down if you are unconscious and all this nonsense. And yet, leap ahead 20 years from there and everybody went back to backinflated devices because it trimmed you better in the water. All the technical divers, all the cave divers, everybody that was doing wreck penetrations, they all went back to those designs. And they still dominate today; virtually the same as you guys built it back in 1973.»You know, I understand that there’s not much new on the market anymore. Too bad.

The Shotgun Snorkel

There was another product you guys came out with that, in a way, revolutionized things – the shotgun snorkel.»That was Joe Schuch’s idea. That was an astounding product. It was so simple and, yet, so effective.»That was from having good people. That came from Joe Schuch, our sales manager. The stabilizing jacket idea came from Mike Brock, a salesman. These guys were in the water all the time. There were so many new products that I’m sure all the patents put together in the entire diving industry wouldn’t equal what we did at Scubapro. I don’t think they’ve built a better snorkel yet. I still use one myself, and I’ve got one of the old rubber ones. You can hardly find those anymore. I remember when you brought that out. I think that snorkel sold for $20. And you were worried about selling a $2.95 retail snorkel a few years before then. When we first got them in my store, all we had to do was give it to customers once and it changed their lives. You know what a shotgun snorkel sells for today? I think it’s over $50. Fifty dollars! When we started, you could buy a whole set of scuba gear for that.»We had ideas like that. Actually, the idea for the first inflator came from a retailer in the valley, a couple of young fellows, and we said, “Hey that’s a good idea. Okay, guys, we want this. What do you want, royalties or cash?” They said, “Give us the cash.” So we did. In fact, we gave them more than they asked for. Probably one of the best deals you’ve ever made. How many 562 Inflators did you sell? You can tell I’m an oldie. I even know the catalog numbers. I used to have them all in my head.»Gosh, I don’t know but it was a lot. It was just a natural evolution and it just went like that all the way down the line. We actually dominated in a lot of categories. The more technical the category was, usually, the stronger we were.

Well, you guys owned the regulator market for almost two decades. No one could compete with you.»And with the stabilizing jackets. The Jet Fins were amazing, and snorkels. Then, when we came out with the first silicone masks, we dominated masks. But after a while everybody had silicone masks. But for a while, we were king. We have a section in Fathoms magazine called the Panel of Experts and we get different questions every issue. One of the ones we asked them a few issues back was what was their original equipment and what was the most innovative equipment that they’ve seen along the way. Your stuff from the 1970s and 1980s so totally dominated the responses that it looked like a sales hype. Between Howard Hall, Michele Hall, Marty Snyderman, Chris Newbert, Lina Hitchcock, Stan Waterman, everybody that came down the pike and went through that era, they all seemed to be outfitted with a stabilizing jacket and other Scubapro gear. That’s fantastic, that’s a pretty good crowd to be in.

Big Changes

You guys were riding so high, what motivated you to consider selling the company?»In 1973, Gustav decided that he wanted to cash out. He thought it was time for him to get some security because we never did take big salaries for ourselves. So he wanted to sell. I was adamantly opposed. I was the minority shareholder. When we started I had 20 percent, because I didn’t have any money and Gustav provided all the capital. He had control as the majority shareholder. So, I couldn’t talk him out of it, and we had close to fistfights over it. Anyways, he put the company up for sale, and we had every major corporation around trying to buy it, because we were very profitable, technically we were a cash cow. And we had glamour… we were THE diving company! So we had everybody, including some of the world’s largest corporations, out to see us. Wining and dining us. Including S.C. Johnson. Ultimately we ended up selling to them in 1974, basically because it was cash. All the other companies wanted to give us stock. This was cash in our fists.

I don’t know if you want to talk about it, this would be a matter of public record, but what did the company sell for?»Let’s just say millions, but not enough when you look back on it. A big payday in 1974.»A big payday in those days, and it was a steal. Gustav wanted the cash-out and I couldn’t stop him, and he sold out. Now it gets delicate, because they “retired” him fast. You guys had been so independent, running this innovative company and basically lavishing stuff on your R&D department. Scubapro was five years ahead of the rest of the industry for so long. With coming into the Johnson fold now, did this immediately impact the growth of the company? I know that the cash must have been nice, but were you also still free to do the innovative stuff that you wanted to do?»Yeah, we were doing so well – I wouldn’t say that they left us alone but, in the early days, we had less interference.

What prompted their motivation to ease Gustav out?»For some reason they decided it was time for him to retire. They never did explain their thinking. I suspect it was basic economics, typical big corporate behavior. I gotta tell you though, I’d have liked to have been there the day they tried to fire Gustav. That must have been an interesting little play.»Well, it really wasn’t as bad as you think. They did it delicately and I suspect he knew it was coming. I warned him before we sold, “The company will never be the same, Gustav, and they are going to get rid of all of us.” Just as an anecdotal aside here, Gustav had a reputation not only for his flamboyancy but, also, for his rather explosive emotions at times. I remember when I first met him, in 1973 or something like that, at your offices, he had a chopping block on his desk with one of your diving stilettos on it. Somebody told me the story about how one day he accidentally stabbed somebody through the hand with it.»Almost, actually. One of the vendors who was selling us metal parts let us down, and Gustav took the knife and went ‘whack,’ and it was left there swaying with about half the blade buried… right between his fingers. The guy about had a heart attack. Gustav was volatile but, let me tell you, it was all controlled. He was in complete control – but he knew when to use fear and he was very good at it. It was usually justified when he did it.

When they finally did decide to let Gustav go, how did he take it?»He handled it well as he was no longer committed to being involved in the company. And he’d already made his payday. He made a lot of money. A lot! And that’s when he moved up to Northern California and got the wine place?»Shortly after. He went through a divorce and his wife took half the money. He then bought the place in Mustique in the Caribbean, where his neighbors were Mick Jagger, Princess Margaret, and all that lot. Eventually, he got tired of it, and came back and bought a vineyard in Napa and developed it into a first-class winery. His wine is sold out now, year after year production is pre-sold. He passed away what, four or five years ago?»He did. He was about 75 or 76. He died of prostate cancer. I think Gustav packed an awful lot of living into the time that he had. I could make a movie on Gustav. He was the most colorful man I ever knew.

Well, let’s take a twist here for a minute. You guys at Scubapro were such strong supporters of your dealers; there are probably more millionaires in the diving industry that came out of being Scubapro retailers than any other segment of the industry. You taught us about business and how to handle our money. That was a foreign concept then: to support and do sales within a professional network like that and not just throw the products everywhere they would go. You fought all sorts of battles along the way with, for instance, Skin Diver magazine and their mail-order ads. That’s got to have some colorful history to it.»Actually, it always astounded me that nobody else did the same. Because it was apparent to me when I started out in a dive shop: Who created the demand for diving equipment? It was very simple, the fellow behind the counter and the fellow that teaches diving lessons. I put that into practice at Swimaster and it worked. Worked like a charm. It was not a complex theory. Basically it was sort of a takeoff on “The Golden Rule” but for business. It was pretty simple economics to me. Then down the line in my travels, there was a dive shop in Milwaukee owned by Ralph West, who was also in the ski business, and he introduced me to the Head ski system. At that time, they did basically the same thing with extra flourishes. They had professional franchises and I picked up a lot of inspiration looking at Head Skis philosophy in those days. We did have a lot of political battles, because nobody agreed with us. Our beef with the magazines was simple, too: we felt that, ethically, diving equipment should be sold by people that can teach you how to use it and ensure that you are using it correctly. And could also tell you where to dive and provide that extra service to get folks stoked about diving. We did not agree with the magazines that would allow mail order. I felt that someone who doesn’t know how to dive, writing from 1,000 miles away to get equipment, was just wrong. So we went for a long time not advertising in magazines that accepted mail order. But we didn’t have a lot of support except for our dealer network.

Innovations and Renovations

Ultimately you were proven to be dramatically correct, because the stores that were Scubapro dealers not only developed very quickly with reputations as the pro stores, they also had the best equipment. In the 1970s and 1980s, if you didn’t have Scubapro as a line, you were already eight steps behind the competition. What were you going to sell? With the junk that was out there, it just was no contest. If you had Scubapro you were automatically the Mercedes dealer of everything in diving. Now it’s always amused me, looking back with almost 30 years of retrospect here, that Paul Tzimoulis (the editor & publisher of Skin Diver magazine then), who was a very innovative guy in a lot of ways, used to appear in his editorial picture with a Scubapro regulator around his neck and a Scubapro stabilizing jacket. And yet, this was exactly the guy who you had to do battle with to try to resolve issues at that level regarding magazine mail order.»Yeah, that’s a surprise. I didn’t know he had our regulators. The entire time that I knew Paul, and I met him originally in 1974 or something like that, he was always a Scubapro guy from top to bottom.»Well, that’s a compliment. I didn’t know that. Our later relationship with Skin Diver was really bad. There were some companies that came along that did agree with our philosophy, like John Gaffney’s NASDS, but they were short-lived.

There’s an interesting name that comes up, Gaffney. Here was a guy who with the NASDS concept – which was also so closely linked to Scubapro, that many people in those days thought you guys were all under the same ownership. The innovative things that NASDS was doing dovetailed so nicely with the innovative things that Scubapro was doing. Back then NASDS probably was one of the most successful training systems compared to the likes of NAUI, YMCA, etc. They were the first to embrace the concept of octopuses, although they called them something else. NASDS always had a great name for things. A compass couldn’t be a compass; it had to be a “direction monitor.” A regulator couldn’t be a regulator; it had to be an “air delivery system.” If there were a way to make it more complicated, they would do it. In the early 1970s probably 80 percent of your dealers were affiliated with NASDS.»No, not quite. Remember you were a NAUI guy then and wanted nothing to do with them. Actually, NASDS, Gaffney and I had a long history. He was a hell of a free diver and was doing some work for Skin Diver magazine. That’s where I met him. He was working for the founding publishers, Chuck Blakeslee and Jim Auxier. We immediately hit it off, and came to discover that we basically had the same philosophy. He started NASDS after leaving the magazine. It’s a parallel story, it started after Scubapro, but it’s the same type of history. A dealer supported him, and he built it up, and was quite successful. And we actually encouraged our dealers to join NASDS because of that cooperation and jointly held philosophy of how diving could be a business. We had a tremendous relationship with our dealers, but sometimes they looked at their supplier and said, “Why are you telling me how to run my business?” But if NASDS told them the same good principles, they were more likely to accept them.

Well, there were a lot of good principles there. I remember when you convinced me to go to a NASDS clinic in 1973, and I had a choice of going to someplace up in the Puget Sound, or Pensacola, Florida. I went to Pensacola and I’m glad I did. That’s where I met Tom Allen (co-host of the television series Wild Kingdom and soon to be the southeast sales manager of Scubapro). He and I went through the same NASDS program in September of 1973. The other thing that really distinguished your company is that your sales representatives ended up being some of the most successful guys out there in helping the dive stores actually make coherent decisions about what they were going to do. Some of these guys really went on to have tremendous success stories.»The first was actually Jim Christiansen. When we started we couldn’t afford anybody and I traveled everywhere, including all of the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. We hired Jim, who was a fireman then and one of the top free divers in the world. We brought him in and trained him, and he worked for us part-time. Eventually, we said, “You’ve got to make a decision between us and the fire department.” He came with us. Next I got Joe Schuch, because I’d always been impressed with Joe and his approach towards business. And I kept finding guys who were avid divers, who loved the sport, had some retail experience, instructional background, and a sense of humor. Then we worked together. We collectively trained each other. So, we all had the same principles, and they all put themselves behind the counter at the dealer’s, so they thought like a dealer. They also knew our products inside out from a repair standpoint, a maintenance standpoint, and this was unheard of at the time too. They were all technically trained by Sam. He was the best.

That’s right. I remember the first time that Tom Allen came in to us and could run, right there on the premises, a full repair clinic seminar. It was unbelievable for us. That took all the expense out of having to send people to California from the Caribbean. Plus, they were always going to take us to lunch or dinner, which was something we had never heard of either, which was great. Scubapro was now the premier dive manufacturer. As you got into the 1980s and more manufacturers began to pop up, all of a sudden instead of having the original five dive manufacturers, now we have 24 manufacturers, or something like that. How did you see some of that evolution?»It was good. It kept you on your toes and I actually learned from some of them. Ralph Osterhut (originally Ralph Shamlian), who founded Farallon, I thought was a very sharp guy, a very imaginative guy. I watched and learned from them all. Ralph was an expert on the splash and sizzle. The one evolution that I was kind of tough on was colors. Colors came in and products became just a plethora of color. I was a little reluctant and I had this fixation on “professional black.” I still do but I decided that you have to give in here a little bit. But I never went so far as to go into the yellows and pinks. Pink? I’m trying to imagine Dick Bonin in pink and it conjures up an image that I’m not comfortable with.»I finally compromised and we went with teal. Well, by the time the 1990s rolled around, with the whole technical diving thing sort of coming out of the closet, everything went back to black again. You can’t buy a piece of technical equipment that’s not black.»See, I was right, and they all were wrong!

With all of the innovative products that you have built, and put out there, and have stood the test of time, because they have remained largely unchanged to this day – did you ever produce a product that you aren’t proud of?»Oh, yes. We developed a regulator and we had a recall. Actually, it wasn’t our design and it was in our very early years, before we even had salesmen. We developed a product that had a piston, but the seat was halfway up the piston, instead of a flow-through piston. The seat, in certain cases, could become unlodged and stick and cut off the regulator. Fortunately, we didn’t have a great number out there, but that was a close call and really taught us a lesson. It had been out there for a while before we ran into the problem. It wasn’t because it hadn’t been tested; the problem developed over time and long-term use. So what did you do when you found out?»We got every one back. This was in the days before there were official recalls. But we got every one back. We had a couple of other things. We had the Aqua Bomber. The Aqua Bomber was a little craft that looked like a plane, and you got in and peddled. It was a little submarine; it was really a laugh. One of our dealers developed it and I didn’t have the heart to say no. I brought a couple to show and our own salesmen razzed me unmercifully. It was a joke. Eventually I sold them to a quiz show.

You guys came out with one of the most enduring regulators in history, the Mark V. I can tell you right now, there are still thousands out there in use. And anybody who can get their hands on a Mark VII is grabbing those, because they have become real collector’s items.»Mark VII, Air 1. They’ve all become highly sought-after collection pieces. Now, were you still with the company when Doug Toth and Dean Garraffa were hired?»I hired them. In my tenure we had three different Chief Engineers, the last being Jim Dexter, who was a very talented young man. We looked for engineers that had a lot of diving experience, and really loved it, and we came up with Doug and Dean. Dean had done some work for Healthways after it had been resurrected from Chapter 11. Doug was actually a diving instructor. After the interviews it became apparent that these guys fit. They were with us until I left, and they started the Atomic company. There is a lot of irony here. You left the company in 1991. Doug and Dean exited not too long after that and went off to start a company that competes directly with Scubapro.»There’s only one person left at Scubapro that I know. All the engineers are gone. Doug and Dean started Atomic and their regulators are wonderful. I use them myself.»I’ve been told they are the best. Let me ask you this. The Jet Fin, in its era, was such a revolutionary product that everybody used them. Have you had a chance to try out these new split fins?»Yes, I have a pair. I like them. I got them last year. I do mostly free diving and they perform well.

Whose split fins do you use?»Atomic. I’m the old mossback guy. I dive with a lot of industry people, guys I worked with like Doug, Dean, and Dexter. They came on board my boat one day, and I took them out diving. They said, “You’re going to try these things.” They are very efficient fins. But somewhere you’ve got to have a pair of Jet Fins sitting around.»Of course! You retired from Scubapro in 1991. I know you did some really great work through DEMA and, also, with Ocean Futures after that. But are you retired now?»I am completely retired. I’m 73 (2003). Seventy-three years young. You are, of course, one of diving’s first generation. I’ve known you for over 30 years now. You look to me like you could go out tomorrow, run a marathon, and still close the bar that night. Do you stay in touch much with what’s going on in the diving industry?»No. My communications are basically with the fellows that used to work with me that are still in the diving industry. That’s pretty much it. The salesmen all still call, and I talk to them, and they are more up to date than I am. I’ll be called for the occasional humor, to see how things are, or somebody like you. I’ll ask what’s going on but, really, I’m not up-to-date. Generally, I’ll hear people say, “You wouldn’t like this, but…”

Could you ever imagine back in 1959, though, that the diving industry would grow into the multibillion dollar industry that it is today? Did you see that?»I always thought so. We went through periods of fast growth, but like any other business, that’s an exception. You build it up and battle to survive. Whether it’s diving, golf or software, it’s all the same. But I always thought it would grow, and then a lot of things happened that you don’t anticipate. Diving went through stages, the travel boom, and I guess the latest thing is the technical diving. That started just when I was running DEMA. I remember being asked if I thought it was here to stay. Most people said no, but I thought it was. Divers like a challenge.

It’s very surprising how technical diving and nitrox became the largest profit-center in diving in the past decade. There was more profit in those segments of the sport and a renewed interest for divers who wanted to stretch out their limits. But a lot of the conservatives didn’t want to have anybody daring to breach what they thought were absolute limits: no decompression diving, no diving below 130 feet, don’t do this, don’t do that. But then, again, if you think back, it’s the same guys that didn’t like dive computers. They didn’t like inflators. They didn’t like BCs. They didn’t like wetsuits that weren’t black. Whoops, I might be throwing you in that category, though. There is a segment of our industry that has always resisted change and innovation, and being the innovative guy you are, I guess you would be leading the charge today if you were still running things.»You just have to look at the changes, flow and rhythm, and try to get ahead of them. I remember the first time I was asked about technical diving at a seminar and I could just see all of the eyes peering, wondering what I was going to say. I said, “It’s here to stay.” And that’s based on what I know about the people of diving and the people who like to dive. These are people who want to do adventurous things and they’re going to try it. They are going to try cave diving, deep wreck diving, rebreathers, free diving. These are people who like adventure. You’re in your early 70s now, you still actively free dive, experiment a bit. Do you see any signs of stopping that?»I see the signs, but I’m ignoring them.

Diving Pioneers and Innovators
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