Dive Industry, Diving Equipment
by Bret Gilliam
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I’m privileged to profile one of diving’s most innovative leaders and pioneers in manufacturing. Dick Bonin, the co-founder of Scubapro, was 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.
Dick Bonin, President of Scubapro 1974
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.
The infamous Jet Fin
Think back a moment to some of the “firsts” that Bonin’s Scubapro company brought to the industry: the enduring flow-through piston design of his regulators beginning with the immortal Mark 5 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 of the era and then attracted a plethora of corporate conglomerates that wanted to acquire them for their continued growth history and ever-increasing profits. Finally, they sold the company to Johnson Worldwide Associates in 1974 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.
Bret Gilliam, Dick Bonin, and Bill Walker outside Gilliam's St. Croix dive center, circa 1974
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 finally met him 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 far-flung 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 probably a million 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 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.
Dick Bonin spearfishing at age 73
When I met Dick he was 42 years old and was the toughest guy I ever met. Today at 80, 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.
The Historical Diving Society honored him at the 2010 DEMA show by making him the recipient of their first “Diving Pioneer” award. They have picked a truly worthy individual. His leadership and innovative drive influenced the entire diving industry for generations. He has honored me for over 40 years with his friendship. I can think of nothing I hold more dearly. Congratulations, ol’ buddy. Anthony Stunning lives on…
Bret is the author of Diving Pioneers & Innovators that tells the stories of those who made diving what it is today. This book is available through Undercurrent, with our profits going to support preserving coral reefs
Dick Bonin: Founder of Scubapro