SPRINGFIELD — Rick and Kim Sass regularly travel to exotic locations around the world 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 stands in front of their diving 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 retailer, which specializes in dive equipment, instruction and travel, the Sasses stepped down from day-to-day operations earlier this year to serve as a consultant to the dive shop’s new owner, Diventures Inc.
Around 2018, Kim and I started quietly saying to each other, “Let’s say 40 and we’re done,” Rick said. “Forty years of running a business is good. Then came March 2020 and everyone knows the story there… As luck would have it, one of our sales reps mentioned our name to Dean Hollis, who buys a bunch of dive shops that are well run around the country.”
In January, the couple sold the business to Hollis, founder of Diventures Inc. The Nebraska-based company started 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 Sass family remained on the job as the store transitioned management until their official retirement on June 30.
“What we liked most about them was the travel aspect,” Hollis said. “That tells me they’ve 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 growing a great sustainable business… I love customers. I want them to be as involved as they want to be, as long as they want to be.”
The Sass continue to lead groups on a number of trips, including some that were delayed 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 the wrecks 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, shipwrecks are preserved compared to saltwater dives.
“I would say it’s retirement, we’re working. But it’s a lot of fun to work with,” she added.
The business started when Rick Sass was working at a sporting goods store in Kalamazoo. He was leading a group on a trip to Micronesia when he was approached by a doctor to start his own business specializing in travel and diving.
Sub Aquatic Sports and Service had humble beginnings, starting from the front porch of Rick Sass’s Urbandale home in 1980. He soon bought out the investor.
At the time, Kim Sass was working in the respiratory unit of the closed Albion Hospital when a friend suggested she try scuba diving. She met her future husband on a group dive at Gull Lake in Richland.
“He was wearing a bright, orange dry suit 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 convinced me to work for him for a summer… I left the hospital and didn’t plan on staying 38 years, but I did. I love to travel and this is a great job.”
The couple built the current store in Springfield in 1989, where they sell and rent scuba equipment, fill air tanks and offer scuba certification instruction. They have also done some restoration work.
Diventures’ business model includes retail, education and travel, in addition to offering a range of swim training programs for children and adults. Hollis said the company typically needs about 2 acres of land to build a full facility so it can install its own pool, and Sub Aquatic Sports and Service’s location currently sits on only about 1 acre.
Due to limited space, 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’re excited about the next chapter of their lives, which includes a lot more travel and diving.
“I can say I’ve been to Grand Cayman (Bahamas) 60 times, and every time you go, you see something different,” Rick Sass said. “If you’re observant, you never get tired because there’s 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