Dealing in diving

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks
Jeremy Kitzhaber, owner of Clovis SCUBA, assembles a scuba unit Monday in his shop, located in the back of his home.

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

When you sell a product that has no particular use within a 100-mile radius, it helps when your customers are your friends.

That’s the key to business for Jeremy Kitzhaber, who has taken a love for scuba diving and some extra space in his house and turned it into Clovis SCUBA.

Kitzhaber, an Air Force master sergeant stationed at Cannon Air Force Base, said he got into diving when he was stationed near the Azores Islands three years ago. He was in a class of four students, and said he picked up things quickly and would help out classmates if they fell behind.

“Once I helped them,” Kitzhaber said, “that became fun.”

When he came to Clovis in the summer of 2005, he started working toward certification as a scuba diving instructor.

The business was a natural progression, as Kitzhaber assumes he can save travel and shipping costs when students wish to buy their own equipment.

“They don’t have to pay for shipping,” Kitzhaber said. “They know I’m right here.”

The business is evident in his home. A spare room includes equipment for conducting diving lessons, and the back portion is loaded with snorkels, fins and air tanks.

Also in the shop are his numerous scuba instructor certificates and a thick binder titled, “Where can I dive in New Mexico?” Kitzhaber said that in New Mexico and Texas, there are nine places to dive within drives of three hours and 14 within six hours.

The most popular nearby site is Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, according to other divers such as Terry Mateka. Mateka, an Air Force first sergeant, was stationed near the Azores Islands with Kitzhaber and is now at Cannon Air Force Base, but he’s always been partial to Blue Hole.

“As far as diving availability, you’ve almost got year-round,” said Mateka, who once made a 19-hour drive to Blue Hole while stationed in Wyoming. “Santa Rosa has an ambient temperature of 61 degrees. You can’t find that anywhere else in the United States in a freshwater environment.”

Kitzhaber admits that being landlocked means there aren’t a lot of divers, but he prefers to call the market “untapped” instead of small.

There are some difficulties in running a small business he’s finding out. Many companies won’t sell him equipment because they require minimum orders — one supplier, he said, would only sell to businesses that could move $100,000 worth of products in a year — but he said his restrictions don’t limit the quality of equipment he stocks.

“I only use what I sell,” Kitzhaber said. “If it’s not good enough for me to dive in, it isn’t good enough for my students.”

The trust factor is something Kitzhaber takes into account when making business decisions — it is much bigger for scuba diving than for other endeavors.

By the time a person properly learns to scuba dive, Kitzhaber said, the odds are less than 1 in 40,000 of having an accident. When people feel that safe in the water, they’ll trust the person who taught them.

“If you take classes with somebody and you get certified, you’re going to build a rapport,” said Greg Senn of Portales, who has been diving for about six years. “They’re going to sell what you need rather than what you think you want.”

Senn, who does business with a shop in Roswell, said it’s natural to trust an instructor when purchasing scuba equipment

“My instructor knows what I can and can’t do in the water. He’s very open telling me what I do and don’t need.”

Kitzhaber hopes to build that type of trust with people. His ideal situation, he said would be to train eight students a month. He’d be happy with any number, though, because he also gains a new diving partner when instruction is finished.

“It’s more of a friend helping a friend by the time the first class is over and not a business transaction by that point,” Kitzhaber said. “The positive is that (you’re trying to make a sale), but it ends up being a friendship.

“The bad thing is to stay in business, I have to charge my friends.”