Dean Hollis: A Passion for Water and Impacting Lives

Hollis gains familiarity with a travel buoyancy compensator. AUTUMN WOODS

DEAN HOLLIS, FOUNDER OF SWIM AND DIVE RETAILER DIVENTURES, grew up in Lakeland, Florida, as a third-generation Floridian. “I spent the first 22 years of my life in Florida, where I pretty much lived in the water,” he said. “My parents and grandparents were in the grocery business and prided themselves on having an exceptional, customer-focused organization, which made it successful. So I grew up with two things in my DNA: water and the customer experience.”

Hollis got scuba certified as soon as his parents permitted it. “They told me I had to wait until I was 16,” he recalled. “On my 16th birthday, my mom picked me up from high school, drove me to get my driver’s license, and then drove to the dive shop.” He did his checkout dives in Crystal River and was immediately hooked on diving.

After graduating from Stetson University in 1982, he continued a career in the grocery industry, including 21 years in various executive positions with ConAgra Foods. It was a career path that led him out of his native Florida to several locations across the U.S. He managed to find a local dive shop wherever his corporate life led him. His experiences at some of them led him to wonder how he could reimagine the dive retail business model.

Hollis with his wife, Lisa, and their five children and son-in-law, all of whom are certified divers. COURTESY DEAN HOLLIS

“We’ve all been in those stores where the owners love to dive, but the grind of running a business overtakes the passion,” he said. “They find themselves doing all the things they don’t like or want to do and not what got them into it in the first place: teaching people to dive and taking them on trips.”

Hollis along with his wife, Lisa, and their five kids eventually settled in Omaha, Nebraska. “I had moved my kids all over,” he said, “and I promised them I wasn’t going to move them again.”

Bringing the Water to Omaha

In 2008 Hollis retired as president and chief operating officer of ConAgra Foods, Consumer Foods, and began considering a dive retail store in land-locked Omaha.

“I thought I was going to open this little dive shop and just have a great place for divers to hang out, talk diving, and take a couple of dive trips a year,” Hollis said. “The more I got into it, the more I realized there was a real opportunity to transform an industry by focusing entirely on the customer.”

When he started Diventures in 2009, Hollis knew he wanted to create a dive retail store with all the efficiencies of being a well-run organization. More important, he wanted it to be a place where customers felt a sense of belonging.

“I think our secret sauce is combining my experience in the business world with a team of passionate people and a focus on the customer,” he said. “It took us a while, but we think we’ve found the right vision, mission, and values — and we have a team of people working hard every day to make it happen.”

Diventures has expanded beyond Omaha to Lincoln, Nebraska; Lexington, Kentucky; North Liberty, Iowa; Phoenix, Arizona; Atlanta, Georgia; Battle Creek, Michigan; Springfield, Columbia, and Kansas City, Missouri; and Fitchburg and Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

“I think our secret sauce is combining my experience in the business world with a team of passionate people and a focus on the customer …”

Hollis boards the DeepSee submersible off Cocos Island. LESLIE GNIFFKE

Hometown: Omaha, Nebraska

Age: 62

Years Diving: 46

Favorite Dive Destination: St. Lucia

Became a DAN Member: 2010

Adding Swim Instruction to the Mix

Emphasizing water safety and swim instruction has become crucial to the organization’s mission. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year in the U.S. there are an estimated 3,960 fatal, unintentional drownings, including boating-related drownings, and 8,080 nonfatal drownings.

“There’s an obligation to teach people to swim, especially when you realize there will be double-digit drownings every day in the U.S.,” Hollis said. “If we truly have a passion for the water, how can we accept that?”

Hollis realized that a successful swim instruction program could lead to more people getting their scuba certification. “We had to figure out how to fill the pipeline from swimming to diving,” he said. “In each location where we currently have pools, we have about 1,000 kids a week learning to swim. It could totally change the industry if we could convert just 10 of those swimmers to scuba divers. If we view this as the pipeline for future divers, we have to teach these kids to be safe around the water and to love the water. Then we can keep them for a lifetime, go on trips with them until they are 90, and eventually introduce their kids and grandkids to diving.”

The swim revenue enabled Hollis to hire skilled people committed to preventing drowning, ensuring people are safe around the water, and encouraging them to have fun. “We want to enable them to love the water, and then let’s keep them as a lifetime customer,” he said. “Whenever we see an opportunity, we’ll say to the younger generations, ‘Let’s go diving!’”

Hollis during a Try Scuba experience with a reporter CHRISTINE HUGHEY

The Emotional Connection

Hollis’ personal dive experiences have helped fuel the joy he takes in introducing people to scuba diving. One of his most humbling experiences was tagging great white sharks for research in Guadalupe, Mexico. “Coming face to face with a great white was just magnificent — an unbelievable experience,” he said.

Hollis was recently diving off Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, at a site called Black Rock Canyon. “There are a couple of parts called the Spires and Cathedrals that have huge swim-throughs,” he said, “and I turned around and got one of my favorite underwater pictures of my son. His bubbles are rising, the light is shining down, and I was thinking, ‘This is why I dive.’ It’s almost unfathomable. It’s a spiritual experience.”For Hollis, the emotional connection is equally important to the economic side of the business. “We are a mission-driven organization,” he said. “I love our vision statement. We worked long and hard on it: Using our passion and the power of water to impact lives, change the world, and have fun doing it!

“Every dive trip I go on, somebody cries because it’s such a powerful experience. As a recent customer said as he pulled me aside, ‘This has changed and saved my life.’” AD

Hollis at the groundbreaking ceremony of the North Liberty, Iowa, Diventures location
CHRISTINE HUGHEY

© Alert Diver — Q4 2022