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.