It’s been 20 years since Jeff Dawson took a big risk by trusting his instincts and changing careers. Today, he can reflect back upon that choice and its outcome with pleasure, knowing that following his heart was indeed a wise decision.
Dawson and his wife Jessi are the owners and operators of the island’s only fulltime dive shop, Scuba Marco, which marked two full decades in business in August. Scuba Marco offers diving instruction and certification, dive trips locally and elsewhere in Florida, equipment for rental or purchase, tank fills and a multitude of other accessories.
“Pretty much anything you use for scuba diving, we have it, as well as apparel for paddle boarders, kayakers and water sports in general, for all seasons,” said Jessi. “We service and repair all scuba equipment; tanks, everything.”
Jeff chuckled slightly when pondering Scuba Marco hitting the 20-year mark and confessed to having some mixed emotions about the anniversary.
“I mean, it’s a great milestone, but it also means that I’m 20 years older and I don’t know where the last two decades have gone,” he said. “It’s gone by very fast, but it’s wonderful. I never would have laid money on a bet that I’d be here 20 years when I opened my doors, but here we are.”
Jeff is an Ohio native whose family moved to Naples in 1973, when he was a third grader. Like many local youths, the Lely High grad was drawn to exploring of the Gulf of Mexico’s below-surface mysteries through learning to scuba dive. After high school, he attended the University of Florida, earning a psychology degree, before returning here and marrying his first wife.
Prior to opening the shop, Jeff worked at the Marco Marriott for 10 years, “on the front line,” as a valet, doorman, bellman and bell captain. He also continued diving for recreation with friends and eventually he also began working part-time at Beach Sports, a now-closed South Collier Boulevard business.
It was the job at Beach Sports that contributed to Jeff’s decision to strike out on his own.
“The owner was a diver, and the dive shop on the island went out of business in the mid-nineties and Jim, the owner at Beach Sports, bought a compressor and started filling a void, filling tanks and he started offering some dive gear,” he said.
Jeff’s employer also decided he needed a diving instructor and tapped him for the role, paying for Jeff to secure the necessary certifications. About six months after Jeff became certified, the shop was sold, but he found the new owners to be lacking. Ultimately, he began to consider establishing his own dive-related business, but he was unsure about exchanging his Marriott gig for a plunge in entrepreneurship. Jeff had already discussed renting the building Scuba Marco now occupies, with its owner, but there was no formal agreement.
Then, as sometimes happens, there came a fateful day that changed everything.
“I was thinking about making the leap and going in debt and I had a young child and I went to work one day, really needing to make a decision about whether I was going to occupy the building or not,” said Jeff. “So I threw it out there to the universe and said, ‘God, powers that be, I need an answer. Please let me know what I’m supposed to do.’”
One of the first cars that pulled onto the Marriott ramp that day was occupied by a man and woman. Jeff greeted the female passenger and noticed she carried a book in one hand.
“I said, ‘Oh, I see you’re reading a book, what are you reading?’ She didn’t say a word. She just flashed the book at me and the title was ‘Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.’ That was a slap in the face, a neon flashing sign, so I really had no choice but to roll the dice.”
With that, he created a business plan, arranged financing, leased the building, bought a boat and began offering charter dive excursions, and Scuba Marco was born.
“It’s been a lot of perseverance and blood, sweat and tears, but it was the right decision and I’m glad I did it,” said Jeff.
Jeff and Jessi met in the late nineties, after she moved to Naples from California to join her parents, who’d moved there. Ironically, they were among Jeff’s earliest certification trainees after starting Scuba Marco. Introductions were made and the rest is history. Together, they have two children, a daughter, Jayce, a senior at Marco Island Academy, and a son, Jayden, who’s an MIA freshman. The family also includes Jeff’s 24-year-old daughter from his first marriage.
Scuba Marco has a staff of three-to-five key personnel, headed by the Dawsons. When it comes to the division of duties, the couple wears many hats, with Jessi cheerfully claiming the role of “fun specialist.”
She manages the business, overseeing such things as making sure the shop is stocked with merchandise and that scheduling is done, while her husband basically oversees everything else.
“Jeff keeps things so that we keep a roof over our heads and he provides a lot of kindness and patience,” she added. “Jeff instructs, he runs the business, more or less. We do it together, but he makes sure the boat is maintained. He makes sure that the students who come through doors get excellent instruction and get what they need. Everybody’s different and to be able to give them the experience that they need to get them where they appreciate the sport of scuba diving is really important. He uses his psychology degree all the time.”
That approach is reflected in the script found on the business’ T-shirts: “Where There’s No Hurries, No Worries, and No Troubles, Just Bubbles, Scuba Marco, Patience and Kindness, Always Free.”
Jeff said the importance of hospitality was instilled during his time at the Marriott and it’s something he carried with him in operating his own business, which he has found to be enriching in ways that have nothing to do with money.
“It’s the rewards of introducing somebody to the underwater world and seeing people just blossom, especially if they have phobias or fears that they’re able to work through to build self-confidence and skill, and also, a great new hobby, he said. “It’s very relaxing and rewarding being a part of that transition for people.”
Regarding the future, Jeff said they would like to begin offering diving trips to the Pacific Ocean and other locales they haven’t visited.
“Now that our kids are getting out of the nest, so to speak, that’s going to present opportunities, hopefully, for us to turn over more of the day-to-day operations to maybe our kids or other people that have a desire to be here, and step away a little bit and see the rest of the world underwater,” he said.
Jeff also nodded in agreement when Jessi noted that there is an important element of the business that they don’t intend to change.
“We want to continue to be a mom-and-pop dive shop for tourists and locals alike to come to and experience what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years,” she said. “Stay the same, but grow and be better.”
Scuba Marco is located at 1141 Bald Eagle Drive, Marco Island. For more information, visit scubamarco.com or call 239-389-7889.