SSI/Head/Mares – How’s that going for you?

The BUZZ on this topic has become a roar. Back in December 2013 SSI (Scuba Schools International) Dive Centers received news of a buy-out unique in the modern dive industry. On January 1, 2014 Head Sports, parent of Mares, would become the owners of SSI. To some SSI dive centers this felt a little like a surprise shotgun wedding inextricably tying them to Mares. Unlike mergers combining two product companies, this was a training agency being acquired by a product company. Ethical questions and anxiety bubbled up, especially for those dive centers not already selling the Mares line.  As one dive center owner put it, “When you want to become a pilot you don’t go to the airplane manufacturer, you go to flight school.”

Editor’s Note: Normally, we would not do a follow-up article about a merger so soon after the acquisition. Mergers take time to settle in and reveal their outcomes. However chatter about this buy-out coming from dealers has been uncommonly extensive. Additionally there seems to be a great deal more anxiety that we expected. This was evidenced when we sent a short survey to SSI dive centers. We received an overwhelming response (>40%); many times greater than the norm. It’s clear that people want to talk about this merger and get some clear answers.

During any merger some level of anxiety from customers and employees is to be expected and managed. But when we covered the Huish Outdoors purchase of BARE, we heard more relief than fear. When Aqua Lung purchased Whites most of the chatter was hopeful. But that is not the case here. The core feelings of a great number of SSI dive centers owners is anxiety and uncertainty. No one knows what SSI dealers will feel in about this merger a year from now. But what we are hearing today leads us to believe that three factors are causing the confusion and anxiousness at this point.

The most prominent factor seems to be the communication and/or lack thereof coming from Head/Mares. The initial emails were a mix of  “DON’T PANIC” and “We’re should all be excited…” but there was also lack of details. Many dive centers have reported that they have not (or only recently) heard from their SSI/Mares reps. A few actually admitted they did not even know about the merger until we contacted them. The most recent communication we saw from SSI’s Doug McNeese was more detailed and was, in his words, designed to “set the record straight.” But, in what may prove to be a PR faux pas, he stated that he was prompted to write this because he knew that “…there are many people in our industry creating and spreading rumors to generate fear and uncertainty about this acquisition.”

Secondly and probably the most overt anxiety producing move by the new owners was termination of some beloved SSI reps who had extensive training and dive business experience. From what we have heard SSI reps are now “combi-reps” who service both SSI and Mares accounts. In two cases we heard about well respected SSI instructor-trainers reps being replaced by a Mares rep with no dive pro rating. This move did not bother some dealers but others were quite vocal, saying that this shows a lack of respect for training by the new owners. A dive center in Texas reported that the new combi-rep visited him and spent only a few minutes talking about the changes at SSI and the rest of the time trying to get him to become a Mares dealer.

The third issue is the most obvious question that seems to immediately come to everyone’s mind. Should a scuba product manufacturer own a dive training agency? The new owners do not seem to making the case that there will be an ethical distinction between Mares and SSI. Understandably dive shop owners want to be sure that there will be no pressure for SSI shops that sell other product lines to convert. SSI correspondence makes the distinction that SSI was purchased by Head who also owns Mares and not that Mares purchased SSI. But the actions to date seem to leave a perception that Mares is the partner company and not just another member of the Head family of products (a la Aqua Lung). Recent SSI correspondence also touts an added focus on “Swim, Snorkel and Scuba products in both education and equipment.”

Besides personal and phone interviews with SSI dive center owners we also sent a short and confidential two-question survey to just over 100 SSI Dive Centers. These were mostly in the US but the list included some in Canada, England, Australia and a few other countries. We asked them two questions and, to make it easy to tabulate, we gave multiple choices for response. The questions were “How do you feel about the purchase of SSI by Head/Mares?” and (because we had heard enough shops wondering if they should switch agencies) we asked “If you were going to switch to another agency, which would it be?”

As mentioned, we were most surprised that we received such a high percentage of responses (62 to date). We were also surprised by the negative leaning of the responses to the “How do you feel” question. The four least hopeful responses garnered 38% against only 25% for the four most hopeful feelings. So that we don’t mislead with statistics we’ve included the actual figures below.

On the question of a possible next choice of training agency the responses were also a bit surprising to some industry watchers we interviewed. TDI/SDI started strong and maintained a wide lead with 38%. Some point out that SDI/TDI has a similar philosophy and feel to SSI. TDI/SDI president Brian Carney told ScubaGadget that they have had to put on extra staff hours to cover the request for information and transfers they are getting. PADI and NAUI staff later reported they also of seeing a similar bump in requests . Until we sent surveys outside the USA NAUI was the second choice with PADI a distant third. But later PADI slightly edged out NAUI.

I want to reiterate an important point. Overall the survey and interviews do not and cannot tell us anything about how good or bad this merger will turn out for dive centers, students and dive industry. But we do feel that it makes one clear point. The communication from Head to SSI dealers is not making people feel comfortable and some have have already left or are in the process of leaving SSI. Interestingly, seven percent is the same portion of both those that are choosing to switch and those that are say they are 100% behind the new plan. The squeaky wheels are not just in USA. From an SSI LinkedIn conversation we read the post by dive pro Micheal Carpenter. In it he says, after attending a network event in Manila hosted by the new Mares-SSI organization he was left with the impression that his Mares-SSI hosts deflected questions on the “strategic basis of the merger” gave him impression that he “was not competent enough to understand such complex business dealings.”

We are diligent about giving subject company leaders a chance to comment on or correct anything we report on ScubaGadget. However when we contacted the top level staff at both SSI and Mares with that offer we got no replies. That non-communication seems to fit the pattern of what the many dealers are telling us. If we hear more in the coming days from either company we will update this article with their response.

There is no doubt that this merger gives  SSI the additional resources to gain on market leader PADI. PADI is reported to have ~60% market share. With the belief that healthy competition creates positive evolution we can only hope SSI employs those resources wisely.

The Raw Survey Data:

How do you feel about the purchase of SSI by Head/Mares?
I am 100% behind the change.
I have already seen things get better.
I have heard or seen signs that it will be good.
I am hopeful that this will help.
It could only get better.
It could be good or bad. I have no opinion yet.
I have low expectations.
I am not hopeful but still waiting to see.
I am doubtful and considering my options.
I am leaving or have already left SSI.
61 responses

If you were going to switch to another agency, which would it be?
42 responses

Raw comments from survey:

  • I hope that the lines of communication are improved as I have been very disappointed with the way the announcement has be handled by SSI Headquarters.. We are yet to receive ANY communication and know only what we have heard and seen on the internet … 18 years of Loyal SSI patronage entitles us to better treatment.
  • Apart from the notification that Mares had made the purchase I have heard nothing from either party. So its an unkown at present.
  • no information has come down to the shop level….well not here anyway about what is going on and who is who in the zoo.
  • Found the existing SSI organisation in Australia was really good … have doubts that a new organisation set up in Queensland (much further away) could be so accommodating.
  • SSI headquarters, in Fort Collins, seems to be in total confusion and I sense they are kept in the dark on the whole deal. Also, it would be nice if the online store was operational. Did not work last time I tried it.
  • I miss our rep
  • Haven’t met with my new rep yet – he missed our appointment. I visited with a new shop owner about 20 minutes away that he was to set up for SSI, the rep. 1) called to say he was running late & set new time, 2) showed up 30 minutes later than promised, 3) spent 5 minutes talking about SSI and remainder of time trying to sell Mares. Did I say this was to set up a new shop for SSI?? In all fairness, been in this business for 20 years, and the number of good reps could be counted without removing your mittens. If I cared for my customers like these guys, I would be on food stamps by now.
  • The change over has not yet happened here in Australia. I reserve my judgement until then.(identifying info removed)
  • have had no dealing with SSI by Head/Mares yet. have no info when it will start either
  • depending on the coming up changes on my Certifier status. If there are no changes I do not have to change my ssi facilities to PADI (identifying info removed)
  • I was happy with SSI. Didn’t know they were being purchased
  • as for me it’s too soon
  • I have no trust for Mares. After being a dealer for years and then getting rid of them, they have a terrible reputation as a company,which has decent products.But cannot be trusted. That said, for a small agency to survive Mares money should help SSI survive. However if it is run like Mares ,long term survival is doubtful.
  • With the financial backing of Mares this is a plus plus
  • The few changes that I have seen have been good and bad. I am still very much on the fence. Time will tell.
  • I have been told nothing will change for SSI dealers and so far that has been true. I am still happy with SSI as our agency.
  • It will all come down to keeping the separation of education and mfg making sales. Mares has not been an easy company to work with nor does it have a good reputation within the diving community. SSI has always been a solid company to work with and is a great example. There is already talk of how SSI will suffer and that’s not good for anyone.
  • It took me by surprise, but have not run up against any problems yet. I have yet to be called upon by my Rep from Head/Mares. I am sorry that I lost my SSI Rep and especially in the quick manner that I did.
  • We saw some improvements almost immediately- especially to the website! Orders are taking longer to be shipped and the online ordering system is not up which have all been frustrating. But we are hopeful that the changes are coming and SSI will be improved, maybe by altering some of the higher-up staff members.
  • I have already experiencing major unnecessary delays in shipments of SSI training materials. Up to 10 days before we receive shipments from the time being order and paid by credit card.

Comments from readers…

  • To say the least I am very disappointed with acquisition. We still have not even heard from our new rep and at this point I don’t care if I ever do. We have been a multiple agency facility for years with a strong focus on SSI for the last 5, this year since we have been kept in the dark I’ve started back pushing the PADI brand. Nice to see SDI/TDI had a strong level of support from the survey, may need to look back into training there again.

    I do not know if Head/SSI will ever understand that a good many folks still exists in the industry that remembers exactly what they did with the last scuba company they acquired.