SPRINGFIELD — Rick and Kim Sass regularly travel to exotic locations around the globe where they swim with sharks, stingrays and other aquatic wildlife.
But the married couple has always been anchored in the Battle Creek area.
In fact, a literal anchor sits outside their scuba business, Sub Aquatic Sports and Service, at 347 N. Helmer Road, where customers are greeted by their 1-year-old poodle mix.
After 42 years running the retail operation that specializes in scuba gear, instruction and travel, the Sasses took a step back from the day-to-day operations earlier this year to serve in an advisory role under the dive shop’s new owner, Diventures Inc.
In about 2018, Kim and I started quietly saying to each other, ‘Let’s say 40 and finished,'” Rick said. “Forty years running the business is good. Then March 2020 came along and everybody knows the story there… By luck, one of our sales reps mentioned our name to Dean Hollis, who is buying a bunch of dive stores that are run well across the nation.”
In January, the couple sold the business to Hollis, founder of Diventures Inc. The Nebraska-based company launched in 2009 and now has 12 locations across the country with the addition of Sub Aquatic Sports and Service, which now gives it a footprint in Michigan. The Sasses stayed on as the store transitioned management until officially retiring on June 30.
“What appealed most to us about them was the travel aspect,” Hollis said. “What that tells me is they developed a very loyal customer base. We are customer obsessed. When I see a travel program, you want to see that someone is willing to spend a lot of hard-earned money and spend a vacation with you, turning friends into customers and customers into friends and developing a great sustainable business… The customers love them. I want them as involved as they want to be, as long as they want to be.”
The Sasses are continuing to lead groups on a number of trips, including some that were backlogged due to travel restrictions amid the pandemic. While they will lead dives all over the world, they say some of the best diving can be done in Michigan.
“This month we’re taking groups to dive shipwrecks in (the Straits of) Mackinac one weekend, Port Sanilac another weekend, Whitefish Point the next weekend,” Kim Sass said. “We have 11,000 inland lakes and the Great Lakes, and because the water is so cold, the shipwrecks are preserved compared to salt water dives.
“I would say it’s retirement, we are working. But it’s awfully fun working,” she added.
The business started when Rick Sass worked at a Kalamazoo sporting goods store. He was leading a group on an excursion to Micronesia when he was approached by a physician about starting his own business specializing in travel and scuba diving.
Sub Aquatic Sports and Service had a humble beginning, launching from the front porch of Rick Sass’ home in the Urbandale neighborhood in 1980. He soon bought out the investor.
At the time, Kim Sass was working in the respiratory unit of a since-closed Albion hospital, when a friend suggested she try scuba diving. She met her future husband during a group dive at Gull Lake in Richland.
“He had a bright, orange dry suit on and I thought, ‘Who would wear that in public?'” Kim Sass recalled. “Probably two months later, I owned one too. I started diving, and he talked me into working for him for one summer… I quit the hospital and never meant to stay for 38 years, but I did. I love traveling and this is a great job.”
The couple built the current shop in Springfield in 1989, where they sell and rent out scuba gear, fill air tanks and offer instruction for scuba diving certification. They have also done some recovery work.
Diventures’ business model includes retail, education and travel, while additionally offering a number of learn to swim programs for kids and adults. Hollis said the company typically requires about 2 acres of land to build a comprehensive facility so it can install its own pool, and the Sub Aquatic Sports and Service location currently only sits on about 1 acre.
Due to the space constraints, Hollis said Diventures is exploring potential locations in the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo areas.
No longer filling air tanks, dealing with expense reports or supply chain issues, the Sasses say they are excited about the next chapter of their lives, which includes plenty more travel and dives.
“I can say I’ve been to Grand Cayman (Bahamas) 60 times, and every time you go you’ll see something different,” Rick Sass said. “If you are observant, you never get tired of it because there is always something new to see. It’s a great job.”
Contact reporter Nick Buckley at [email protected] or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter: @NickJBuckley