Gillespie takes the plunge into the business world

Susie Gillespie's family is going to have a hard time shopping for her this winter holiday season.

Until recently, the practical route for family members was to purchase paraphernalia to support Gillespie's hobby of scuba diving. But now, they're inclined to think that Gillespie, a 1983 Emory graduate and business manager in athletics and recreation, has everything one could possibly have. In fact, she has her own store selling scuba equipment and much more.

What started out as a lark for Gillespie when she signed up for a scuba class turned into a passion as she became a certified scuba instructor and eventually a dive shop owner.

Despite growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., Gillespie did not take up scuba diving until she came to Atlanta and made acquaintances with Larry Price, an Emory physical education professor who teaches scuba diving as part of the academic curriculum.

"I was not involved in any major activities outside of work," Gillespie said. "I also thought it would be a fun thing to learn for exotic water trips."

After Gillespie became a certified instructor, Price asked her to take over teaching the Evening at Emory scuba classes, which she still teaches in the pool at the Woodruff P.E. Center.

"I get a thrill every time a student goes under water for the first time with the equipment," Gillespie said. "When they come up out of the water, you can see the excitement on their face, and they'll often exclaim, `This is great!'

"Scuba diving is so incredibly relaxing," she said. "To go underneath in open water and see the beauty of a coral reef, well, it's hard to understand the feeling until you do it."

Basic-level certification in scuba diving requires 32 hours of classroom and pool work plus two days of open-water diving.

"Scuba diving is not dangerous, if you have good training and follow the safety rules," Gillespie said. "It's actually more dangerous to get in a car and drive on the road. And scuba gives you something different to do on vacation, besides sitting on the beach or shopping."

To fulfill the open-water requirement, Gillespie escorts her classes on a weekend trip, often to Panama City, Fla., or to Cozumel, Mexico. Next summer, she hopes to go to Australia with members of the UnderSea Adventurers, a local club co-founded by Gillespie for scuba enthusiasts with approximately 100 members .

Just six months after forming that dive club, Gillespie took an even bigger plunge, when she opened a store with a similar name--UnderSea Adventures--with business partners Scooter Sellers and Shirley Shaffer.

"I had talked with Larry [Price] for years about opening a dive shop near Emory, but never found a suitable business partner or location," Gillespie said. "Then I met Scooter, who was a scuba instructor, and I had my partner. Shortly afterwards, Larry called me one day to say that he saw a shop near Emory that was for sale at a reasonable price. We went over to look at the store and quickly decided, `Let's do it.'"

The partners financed the startup entirely with their own money without having to obtain a bank loan.

The doors at 2064 Briarcliff Road, near the intersection of Briarcliff and LaVista, opened on Jan. 25, 1994. They started small with nothing more than a couple masks, snorkels and fins. The first sale was a weight stop for $1. Gradually the store has expanded in inventory and in its physical size.

"Business is growing," Gillespie said. "It certainly is not where we want it to be. Most new businesses take five years to turn a profit. Some day we'd like to have a place where we own the land and building and have a pool in back so we can teach classes on site."

While Gillespie and Sellers work at their full-time jobs during the business day, Shaffer runs the shop. The two take turns working at the shop in evenings and on weekends.

"Going from my Emory work to the shop can be tiring, but most times I just want to keep going," Gillespie said. "It is hard to find time to do laundry. But there is a big sense of accomplishment to create something from scratch and watch it grow.

"We strive to be the friendliest dive shop in town," she added. "We want to be a place where people can come in, hang out and talk about scuba diving." And if the business turns Gillespie into a millionaire? "I'll buy a sailboat and sail around the South Pacific."

--John Arenberg

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