Legends of Diving Articles

 

John Englander
CEO of ISS and prior owner of UNEXSO

In June 1968 John Englander first visited UNEXSO for the NAUI ICC (Instructor Certification Course as it was then called.) The course was his high school graduation present. Upon completing the program and becoming a NAUI Instructor (actually a "Teaching Assistant" since he was not the required age of 21) he spent another week, taking the fabled 250" Decompression Diving Course taught by UNEXSO President Al Tillman. This

began a special relationship with the "Club." During the next four years of college, John would work summer vacations and some winter school holidays as a dive guide?a pretty good deal for someone at college in Pennsylvania. He also was asked to be on the staff of several NAUI ICC's at UNEXSO over those few years, which further cemented the link.

Upon graduating in 1972 he went to the Bahamas to work full time as an Instructor?assuring his parents it would only be for a year, at which time he would come back to the US for "a career with


John Englander

a future." During his first year, he opened the UNEXSO satellite dive facility at the Xanadu hotel. Then things in Freeport became rather bleak as the Bahamas went through Independence in 1973 and the US proceeded into recession in 1974. UNEXSO continued to loose money for Volunteer Enterprises, its second ownership group based in Tennessee, headed by Frank Reed. As things rapidly declined in Freeport the senior staff left. Somehow Englander found himself to be the senior person with a total staff of 6 or 8. Eventually the owners refused to inject more money and told John to "shut it down." John went to Nashville and did a deal with them to acquire the business for "almost nothing." Since it was essentially bankrupt with no real hope, they agreed. One blessing had been that Frank Reed had encouraged John to take flying lessons and pushed him to buy a new Cessna 172. Fully equipped the price in 1974 was $17,750?it seemed like a lot of money, but Cessna financed it. This gave John tremendous mobility, allowing him to go the States to buy supplies, and was a key factor in keeping things going.

One of his first decisions was to clarify the name or the ?branding." Everyone called it "the club" from the name of the facility being the Grand Bahama Underwater Explorers Club. The original plan was for other such facilities as part of a global UNEXSO " The International Underwater Explorers Society, but that never happened due to the continued losses. John felt that he needed all tourists to the island to feel welcome, whereas the "Club" sounded exclusive and private, turning away potential retail customers, and even possible dive lessons and snorkeling business. He created a new logo featuring UNEXSO, coupled with the 3 words Underwater Explorers Society. The new identity worked with the serious dive market as well as the island tourist.

Nonetheless, the next four or five years were a struggle to keep the doors open. Freeport was really suffering; difficulty getting work permits for the dive instructors was just one of the problems. The Hydro Lab shut down; John Perry was going to remove the recompression chamber. Englander went to West Palm Beach and persuaded him to leave it in the Bahamas in the interest of public safety. He agreed but only if John could get the government to waive the customs duty, which they did. The Lucayan Beach Casino closed and the hotel followed suit shortly thereafter. The adjacent Oceanus Hotel (site of current Pelican Bay) went bankrupt a year or two later, shutting off the utilities?making matters much worse, as this was the feed for UNEXSO's water and power. Yet UNEXSO never closed. Englander strung it along, without any capital, and did various deals with the Port Authority; with different hotels owners; and even tried to do a private stock offering. Barry Taylor, and Glen and Suzie Turnquest, brought some new resources as investor-partners during this period.

Eventually the marketing worked; a fleet of larger, purpose-built Diesel dive boats proved more reliable; Freeport got back on its feet; by 1979 UNEXSO was profitable?for the first time since opening. The retail business became a considerable profit center with one of the finest arrays of dive gear in the islands, as well as a good line of apparel that appealed to the general tourist population. By 1980 NAUI was in decline partly due to PADI's market domination. John was elected President of NAUI worldwide, partly based on his turnaround reputation at UNEXSO. In less than a year of commuting to California he managed to turn a big loss at NAUI into a surplus. Englander recalls one pivotal mailing to the NAUI membership contrasting them with PADI. John Cronin, the Chairman of PADI, was at first upset, but then actually sent a secret donation of $10,000 to NAUI. Another memorable response came from the White House?Peter Emerson had been on John's original ICC at UNEXSO and was then working in the Carter administration. Although Al Tillman had been at the start of NAUI and UNEXSO, and had left both, he contacted John during the NAUI years and was very supportive.

The 1980's were the halcyon years at UNEXSO. UNEXSO's product and marketing reached new heights. John and the staff created the three signature dives: sinking the 228" Theo's wreck (the former Island Cement); developing up-close shark feeding; and the dive with the dolphins. The Dolphin Experience was developed in 1986 as a separate but related business, with the specific goal of creating something that had wider tourism appeal, but also enhanced the unique diving at UNEXSO. When the first group of dolphins arrived in 1985 they were acclimated in a remote canal in Lucaya. Soon a pen was built right alongside the UNEXSO boat dock, but this presented problems, including concern for the animals" health. The Dolphin Experience rapidly became a major visitor attraction, as well as front-page feature in the dive magazines. A better location had to be found. The unfinished marina in Fortune Bay was eventually deemed to be best; John renamed it Sanctuary Bay. But there were challenging issues both with Tamarind Developments and with the owner of the property, who lived in Trinidad. For a few years it was leased, but eventually UNEXSO was forced to buy the property at considerable cost. At that point the Dolphin Experience was the real profit center for UNEXSO and there was no alternative.

In 1985 John did a High Arctic dive safari with Paul Mockler that got major publicity including a featured show on Canadian television. A major diving setback in this era was that the unique dives in "Ben's Cave" were stopped due to their acquisition by the Bahamas National Trust. Eventually an arrangement was agreed for limited dives. Also at about this time, they opened the West End Diving Center at the Jack Tar resort. This was another way to broaden the diving product, enabling a base to access the diving on the Gulfstream all the way up to the sugar sand banks, with resident dolphin pods and several shipwrecks.

In the early 80's Englander was fully engaged with the general tourism promotion of the Bahamas. 1n 1982 the Bahamas Diving Association was created; Englander was elected President and was reelected for 15 years by the dive operators throughout the archipelago. The greatest benefit of this collaboration was that the dive operators were able to work with the Ministry of Tourism on a par with the hotels, golf courses, and casinos for international marketing. John frequently joined the road trips promoting the Bahamas across the US and internationally.

Englander and Barry Taylor partnered with Ron Kipp of Bob Soto's diving in Grand Cayman and created Dive Provo in Turks and Caicos in 1990, which became the largest dive operator there; it was sold off in 1996. There was also a diving exchange program with the Russians, focused on UNEXSO and Lake Baikal in Siberia. Albert "Ali" Bscher of Munich, had been a frequent UNEXSO visitor; participated on the Russian trip, and became a good friend of John?s. Over a few years, he became a significant partner, buying out the other minor partners over time. There were various deals in the early 90?s, including with the developer of the Pelican Bay, although that quickly fell apart. The original UNEXSO building and deep tank were slowly deteriorating. A reconstruction project struggled but eventually replaced all of the original structure.

John was asked by DEMA, then the Diving Equipment Manufacturers Association in the early 1990's to become part of their Board as the industry broadened to accept the other sectors of retailing, training and travel. DEMA was renamed the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association. Englander was on their Board for five years. Aside from being Treasurer, he was asked to oversee Ocean Futures Foundation " the diving industry's attempt to have an environmental organization. His work with Ocean Futures included annual black tie fundraisers, first with actor Ted Danson and then in 1997 with Jacques Cousteau.

This caused he and the Captain to spend three days together in Orlando with some long conversations. On the second day, Cousteau unexpectedly asked him if he would be willing to take over the Cousteau Society. John describes the stunned feeling--something he never saw coming; says he recalls trying to quickly evaluate it, but a second later just agreeing, figuring "how could you say no." Within weeks, he did a deal with Bscher agreeing to sell his businesses interests which was deemed necessary as head of the Cousteau nonprofit. At the time of his departure UNEXSO was probably at its all time peak, with 11 substantial boats and 85 employees across diving, retail, photo-video, and the Brass Helmet restaurant.

A few weeks later he was CEO of The Cousteau Society, traveling between offices in Virginia, New York, and Paris. There was urgency to stop the organization's slide while the Captain was still alive. The fractious family structure made this particularly challenging. Yet he did put together a promising turnaround plan within the allotted three months. Unfortunately it all effectively ended with Cousteau's untimely hospitalization and eventual death in the same period, due to a difference of direction with Francine Cousteau, the widow. Following the extraordinary funeral in Notre Dame Cathedral, John decided to take some time off in Virginia?essentially an unplanned sabbatical.

In the summer of 1998 he came back to the island as Executive Vice President of a marine real estate development at West End, Old Bahama Bay, on the site of the former Jack Tar Resort. Due to some protracted corporate and financial problems among the owners he left after a year. For the next few years he kept busy with a consulting business. One client turned into a new opportunity. An inexpensive diver propulsion vehicle was looking for help. John was intrigued enough that he assembled a group of investors, bought the company and re-launched the product as SeaScooter. It had good success selling hundreds of units via the Internet as well as through dive stores. Eventually the group sold out to a publicly traded company that had a wider range of electric vehicles?but shortly thereafter the "dot com bubble" burst killing the value of the shares that they had been given.

Since 2004 John has been CEO of The International SeaKeepers Society. Founded by owners of very large private yachts, SeaKeepers created an innovative system for automated ocean monitoring using private yachts and other "vessels of opportunity" to gather scientific data about the oceans and climate. Englander took their concept, strengthened the scientific basis, and revamped the communications. Under his leadership the organization has reached new heights, working with scientists, government, and high-end donors. In recent years he has become a passionate and expert lecturer about climate change, utilizing a vast scientific network and his personal experience in the Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland to communicate complex science to the general public in an easily understood message.

In addition to being NAUI Instructor #1148, John is a PADI Master Scuba Instructor, and SSI Platinum Pro Instructor, recognizing an estimated 5,000 dives. Although not actively involved in diving today, he continues as a Director on the PADI Foundation, a scientific grant maker, which is independent of PADI. He is an instrument rated pilot with over 3,000 hours experience, although is no longer current. He has been a member of the prestigious Explorers Club for more than two decades. John lives in Boca Raton, Florida with his wife Linda and young daughter Rachel.

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