This year, 2016, Force-E Scuba Centers turns 40 years old and most of you might wonder who is the force behind Force-E? How did it all start? What is in store for the future?
The owners behind Force-E are husband and wife team, Skip and Cathy Commagere. We did an interview with them to hear about their experience in the dive industry here in South Florida for the past 40 years.
Q: What drove you to start the company?
Skip: I had returned to Florida in 1975 with the goal of starting my own business but I just didn't know what business I wanted to pursue. I had been a diver since 1958 and an instructor since 1961. When I met Cathy, she wanted to become a diver and I didn't feel I should teach her. We were too close and I wasn't up to date on the latest standards. She signed up at the old Boca Dive Shop for a YMCA certification. That's when I started looking at several dive operations in South Florida. My business background and experience was in marketing.
We observed that the dive clientele was much narrower than it is today. Divers were 25-45 years of age, educated, middle class and over. Almost 90% of divers were male. In order to thrive in a small town (Boca only had about 25,000 people then) we felt that we needed to broaden our offering to secure our future and hedge against competition. We were going to be Nautilus Dive Surf and Ski and started Nautilus Inc. Besides being a Dive Instructor, I had ran a Waterski School as a teenager and I regularly surfed. So that's how it began.
Q: When and why did you change the name from Nautilus to Force-E?
Skip & Cathy: About a year and a half after we opened the first store and were about to open one in Pompano Beach, an attorney called and wanted to get our permission to use the name Nautilus in Florida. They were a giant fitness equipment company and wanted to open Nautilus Fitness centers across Florida and the country. We said ok but for fitness only. Big mistake! They did open centers in Boca, West Palm, Ft. Lauderdale and pretty much all over the country then promptly went out of business leaving the members with out a gym and the money they spent for the membership. People mistook us as being someway associated. We wanted our own unique name. We renamed the stores with the symbol of who we are. We are a group of people, (staff, vendors, instructors, and clients) with a common goal. We are a Force. The goal is Excellence in what we do. We are Force-E.
Q: Back in 1993, you and Cathy left the company. Where did you go, what happened to the company and when did you return?
Skip: By '93 we were getting tired. We hadn't had a real vacation since we started. Force-E was doing great and by that time we had grown to seven stores and an accessory distributing company and manufacture of the original "Bugger" Lobster loop. By that time everything we did together or as a family, had Force-E as a central player. Our daughter, Kerri was grown and had moved to New York. She had been a central part in our Force-E family. We decided to sell to a couple of our long term employees and retire. I was 50 then. We bought a sailboat and sailed off into the sunset. It was great. We sailed to almost every island in the Caribbean as well as Venezuela. We were gone from the company for three years then we got the call…"We've hit a real rough spot and we need to borrow money." Cathy and I made the arrangements as we sailed back to Florida. When we got here the company was gone. We are a Christian family. We believe if we do the right thing in the best way we can, it will somehow work out. We refused to go bankrupt and leave our venders and landlords with the bill. We had ten stores at the time. We closed seven of our store over the next three years. We bought out or lived out the leases. We worked with our vendors to structure a payback. Speaking of vendors, if it hadn't been for Aqua Lung, Oceanic, PADI and Tusa we would have failed. They believed in us. We put it back together with the help of Kerri, Bill Black our nephew and Gary Thomas who has been at the core of Force-E for 30 years. Force-E is stronger than ever, but it took over 20 years to get totally back. Bringing Force-E back was much harder than starting it.
Q: Force-E is known as an innovator. Tell us some of what you have done to change the way we dive, how we learn and how we shop.
Skip & Cathy: Everything we've done started with recognizing a need and filling it. We introduced the pro shop model to dive store marketing. Before we came along, dive stores were poorly inventoried and displayed. Our stores were and are beautiful and inventories rich. We introduced the first 1/8" (3mm) wetsuit and sold layers. We introduced close-fitting Waterski gloves to divers, which is now the standard. We created the first home study program for the Open Water Certification (All the current online programs are based on our program). We made drift diving the standard in South Florida. We put the Blue Heron Bridge on the diving map, because before we started promoting it this dive was virtually unknown. We pioneered and funded the first Mooring balls on the shallow reefs in Palm Beach and Broward Counties. We manufactured the first "Lobster loop" and were instrumental in getting it approved. Our social media and public relations efforts are the undisputed model for the rest of the industry. We were the first dive shop to have full time service specialists. So as you can see we have done a lot in the past 40 years and hope to continue to do more!
Q: What is your biggest fear?
Skip: Wow....Regardless of what we sell or teach, we are in the service business. I fear the unsatisfied customer. It could be price, products, service, or attitude that might make a customer unhappy. I fear the client who doesn't call me personally to give me a chance to make it right…So my number and email are on the website. Call or write me anytime…Cell 561-702-8621 or email [email protected] I would like to hear from you.
Q: So how do you see the future of Force-E? How long can you and Cathy keep this up?
Skip: First of all, Cathy and I are still enthusiastic about the work we do. We have the same passion as we had 40 years ago when we started. Our competitors, certification agencies, vendors and staff are amazed at the energy Force-E generates. We have an abundance of talent in our staff and family. Should Cathy and I ever decide to step back, Force-E would not miss a beat. It might run better. So I'm confident that Force-E is here to stay for the long haul. We have a great company with a perfected brand. It's a valuable entity as it is and even more valuable as a stepping stone to a much larger company. Cathy and I have wonderful options but we're happy doing what we do.