Wow. It seems amazing to me that this little shop has been here for 15 years. And even more amazing that I’ve been running it for 5 of those years. It’s one of those strange juxtapositions where on the one hand it only feels like yesterday I walked in here on the first day, slightly bewildered at exactly what I’d let myself in for, and on the other it seems like I’ve been doing this my whole life!
This November marks the 15th year of Diving Leisure London and 5 years since I purchased the shop from Paul Toomer, the previous owner, 5 years ago. The picture below shows 2 men with a lot less grey hair.
I recall that the negotiations to buy DLL were a rather protracted affair, not least due to the fact that Paul spent most of that time overseas. The communications took place via email and with the usual solicitor snails-pace it meant that from the point of expressing an interest it took about 3-4 months to finally get an agreement in place. At the time I was working for Ocean Leisure and was continually torn between the idea of striking out by myself vs already having a reasonably well paid job in the industry.
Getting the capital together to buy DLL also illustrates the stark difference between the banks pre and post credit crunch. I essentially decided it would be easiest to buy DLL with personal loans. At one bank I was turned down because I put ‘Business’ down as the reason for the loan. The next day I changed it to ‘car’ and the money was handed over. I feel genuinely sorry for anyone now trying to do anything a bit out of the ordinary because I think getting the capital or support to try anything like that is now ten times harder.
The credit crunch. I still couldn’t quite believe it when approximately 6 months after buying the business the world went into financial melt down. I’m often asked how the recession has affected the business but the honest answer is that I don’t really know. We’ve been in a post credit crunch world for most of the time I’ve been here so I have nothing to compare it to. Diving is thought to be fairly recession proof in that it’s an activity that people are passionate about so they’ll continue to do it at the expense of other smaller luxuries. I think there’s some truth in that but then since being here I’ve seen 4-5 London dive businesses close down and many more around the country. There’s no question that this is a very tough business to be in sometimes and it’s a mark of personal pride that we’re still going strong here!
The first few weeks of running the business were an exercise in making things up as I went along. Fortunately the years I’d spent at Ocean Leisure meant I already knew most of the suppliers so stocking and running the shop was fairly straight forward. When it came to the dive training, I modelled the set up on Dive Solutions, the school where I used to instruct, which in turn had modelled their training on Diving Leisure London so it wasn’t too difficult to hit the ground running! However all the accounts stuff was a complete mystery to me (and basically still is…) so I really was feeling my way there. I also remember a visit from Mark Caney the head of PADI in the UK to commemorate DLL’s 10 years as a PADI Dive centre. It was an excruciating moment as I was photographed with the award having run the centre for about 10 minutes….
When I took over DLL the shop was also a little worn and in need of being re-vamped. There were also a few issues here and there including a persistent leak from the flat above. One day whilst talking to a customer, about a pint of dirty water fell through the ceiling onto the counter and all over the paperwork we were discussing.
One of the things we’ve slowly done is to update and modernise the shop. This has meant gutting the shop, pulling down all the old slatwall and replacing it with gridwall and also using a floor sander to strip back the warped and splitting floorboards for varnishing. This was an exercise that turned out to be remarkably different from how I imagined it would be. My perception was that I would be trundling up and down the floor gently smoothing over the wood to reveal a lovely finish. In reality I battled with a giant machine that sounded like a thousand people screaming in pain and the entire shop was filled with a thick orange dust that covered everything and was still making it’s presence felt 6 months after the event. The finished effect was pretty amazing though and worth the pain and effort.
Other radical changes were the introduction of the Deco Lounge this year in place of the more formal classroom, this has made a vast difference to the vibe of the courses, and of course the loss of the Beast. Many people will fondly remember the Beast, a battered Toyota Hilux I inherited with the shop. Despite being ancient, having 4 different tyres and being canted over to one side, the Beast was indestructible and I couldn’t ever quite justify getting rid of it. I used to feel incredibly self conscious driving it into dive sites and it actually came as a small relief when it was stolen about 3 years ago and we replaced it with the van. Except that the van has been a total dog ever since purchase. In total in the 2 and half years we’ve owned it it’s had a new gear box and clutch, a new computer and 2 new tyres and cost a complete fortune whilst the Beast cost nothing (it’s apparently the vehicle of choice for the Taliban). The final insult is that none of the back doors now open. The van will hopefully limp through to the start of next season when we will then be leasing a new vehicle. On that day I will take the old van to Wraysbury and take the hand brake off.
This year has probably been the year that many parts of the business have finally come together and it has started to feel like we’re moving to the next level. This has come about hugely due to the fact that my wife Jen now works full time with me and has massively improved the general level of organisation of the centre! The launch of DLL Tec is an exciting extra addition to what we can achieve here and next year I will be planning on doing my Course Director meaning we can fully run the Instructor Development Course here.
There are a huge number of people I would like to thank for making DLL what it is over the last 5 years but I know that I would probably miss someone out, plus the list would be too long to read! Safe to say that you all know who you are and that I am so incredibly grateful to all of you for taking the time and effort and so often going above and beyond what we could reasonably expect. DLL is great not because of me or Jen (well quite a bit because of Jen) but because of all the people who dive with us, go on trips with us and drink with us!
It’s been a pretty incredible 5 years and I hope to see you all for another 5 years of DLL!