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February 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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What SSIís Sale Means to Divers

from the February, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

On December 11, the Italian dive gear manufacturer Mares issued a press release that it was about to acquire the Colorado-based training agency Scuba Schools International (SSI). Actually, Mares is owned by Head, the sporting gear behemoth, which apparently saw a great crossover relationship between its dive gear subsidiary and a dive training agency.

The press release states, "SSI will continue to focus on its current business model. Mares will continue to build high-quality diving equipment . . . SSI will continue to work with all major manufacturers and Mares will maintain relationships with all training agencies. There is no obligation for an SSI dealer to do business with MARES or vice versus . . . Bringing these two companies together represents a huge paradigm shift for the diving industry, and a tremendous growth opportunity."

What kind of paradigm shift does this mean for sport divers? Turns out this type of partnership is nothing new, according to Bret Gilliam, who has, among many hats worn, been a CEO for a dive gear maker (Uwatec) and created dive training agencies from scratch (SDI and TDI). Here are his thoughts on the sale.

"Several training agencies have had historical 'allies' relationships with manufacturers. John Cronin co-founded PADI while he was working for U.S. Divers. PADI didn't get any viable market share until 1975, but Cronin was wise not to let his role at U.S. Divers become a lever to influence dealers. But he had that card in his pocket and used it when he could. Meanwhile, by 1970, Dick Bonin at Scubapro was getting fed up with the bad attitude of NAUI (then the predominant agency in the U.S.) and decided that John Gaffney's NASDS was a perfect match for his dealers. NAUI had an openly-stated policy that their instructors should not be 'ethically challenged' by selling dive equipment. I know, this sounds naive, but it was true. But NAUI was influenced by "weekend warriors" who did training as a hobby, and they were alienating the dive stores.

"I had been a Scubapro franchise dealer for two years when in 1973 Dick Bonin urged me to attend an NASDS instructor program. Afterwards, I told Dick that I (and my staff) would remain with the NAUI training system; he never pushed it. PADI's emergence in 1975 was due in part to its offering stores excellent materials and no-cost instructor crossovers to win most of us over. By 1977, PADI had caught up with NAUI, then left them in the dust to become the dominant agency.

"Fast forward to 1990 . . . I was elected to NAUI's Board of Directors. They still had a bad attitude about how to cooperate with retailers, and I tried to change that when I became Chairman in 1994. Even though we completely redid all the training materials, including new texts, videos and the first computer-based interactive training, the NAUI mentality was still rooted in independent instructors and university- based programs. It was a bad business model. I moved on to found TDI, and followed that three years later with SDI. When I became CEO of Uwatec in 1996, I found that SDI/TDI agencies were the perfect match for the Uwatec dealers, especially since the biggest industry growth was coming from nitrox, dive computers and technical diving. It worked well. We actively got TDI/SDI dealers into Uwatec and vice versa, which proved to a perfect symbiotic match. Both companies benefited from each other.

"I resigned from NAUI's Board in 1997 to concentrate on TDI/SDI. Unfortunately, NAUI later went into a nose dive. NASDS got down to about 20 dive stores and was absorbed into SSI, leaving PADI, SSI and TDI/SDI as the big three.

"The SSI sale to Mares makes sense because SSI has suffered badly in the last few years and needs an infusion of funds. Mares will use it as a supplemental 'product,' but there will be some 'strike back' from Mares dealers who will resist any attempt to force SSI on them unless they want to go that way. The diving industry is in dramatic decline, and only the strong and well-financed agencies will survive."

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