By Bonnie J. Cardone
25 Years of
Development and Innovation
By Bonnie J. Cardone
Just more than 25 years ago, Bob Hollis and a partner started a company known as Oceanic. It made camera housings, strobes, strobe housings and various U/W photo accessories, for a budding industry. Today Oceanic has evolved into an incredibly diverse company offering a full line of dive gear, most of which is designed and made in the 100,000 square foot headquarters building in San Leandro, California. Today there is a European manufacturing operation, seven overseas affiliates and four sister companies.
The company known as Oceanic is aptly named: it is the result of one man's love of the sea. Bob Hollis was born in Orland, California. His fascination with the ocean began when he was working in Standard Oil's engineering services division while earning a degree in mechanical engineering through a correspondence course.
His weekends were spent free diving in the Pacific Ocean off the northern California coast. As did most of our diving pioneers, he became an avid hunter, collecting abalone and spearfishing. In 1956 he bought a two hose regulator and began scuba diving. At the same time he became friends with three underwater photographers. This was a brand new art and the men made their own housings because there were none available commercially. Bob made a housing for his camera using Plexiglass. When the first electronic strobes came out in 1958, he made underwater housings for them as well.
Underwater photography soon replaced hunting as a passion and Hollis still enjoys it today. In the early '60s he founded the Underwater Photographic Society (UPS) of Northern California. Dewey Bergman, the founder of See & Sea Travel, was a UPS member and Hollis was soon running the world's first organized dive trips-to Cozumel-for See & Sea.
In 1966, Hollis and Ray Collins opened a sporting goods, surfing, diving and fishing store called the Anchor Shack in Hayward, CA. (There would eventually be three stores.) They also sold a mail order line of Anchor Shack U/W photo equipment. The products, all hand made, included a camera tray and balljoint arms, along with strobe and camera housings. One of the most successful products was an aluminum housing for Nikon and Canon cameras known as the Hydro 35. About 3,500 of these were sold; some are still in use today.
When Anchor Shack's Hydro Strobe was introduced, Paul Tzimoulis wrote an article on this, the first commercially available housing for a strobe. Hollis credits this multi-page Skin Diver article with bringing the photo line to the attention of the diving public. About 6,000 of these housings were sold.
In 1972, Oceanic was founded with the Anchor Shack photo line as its product base. Two years later the company's building burned down. When it was being rebuilt in 1974, Hollis made a couple of life-changing decisions. He bought out his partner and he decided to purchase machinery and tooling for a plastic housing that could be used for several products. The machine cost $50,000. 'It took a big roll of the dice' to make the decision to buy the machine, Hollis says, '$50,000 was a lot of money in those days.'
The purchase of the machinery proved visionary. The one plastic housing was made into three different Oceanic 2000 series strobes, the Pro movie light and two Ocean Pro handlights. One of the handlights was bought by Scubapro for sale in the European scuba market. Hollis says 5,000 to 6,000 of these lights were sold per year. This light was an Oceanic turning point, marking the company's debut as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer). Today, two of Oceanic's sister companies, Pelagic Pressure Systems and ROMI, make instruments and regulators for several scuba companies, including Oceanic.
The new company was off and running. Hollis began adding products to the Oceanic line. There were lights, of course, but in the beginning there were also more photo products: lenses, carrying cases, a lightmeter, camera and strobe housings, extension tubes and framers.
Then, in 1976, Oceanic bought Farallon. That added fins, masks, snorkels, diver propulsion vehicles, knives, BCs and gauges, to the company's product line. It was the beginning of the Oceanic of the future.
Pelagic Pressure Systems: The gauges were an important addition because, in the late 1970s, Hollis realized electronics were the key to the future of diving. Thus, he formed an Oceanic sister company, Pelagic Pressure Systems, which is an OEM specializing in instrumentation. Today, Pelagic Pressure Systems makes SPGs, compasses, analog depth gauges, digital computers and transmission gauges, not only for Oceanic and other scuba companies but also for use in the aircraft and firefighting industries. In its portion of the building that houses Oceanic, Pelagic Pressure Systems manufactures gauges from start to finish. It purchases raw materials and transforms them into finished products to be tested, calibrated and packaged for the end user, all on-site. Owing the lack of supply and reliability of pressure sensing transducers, PPS decided to make its own. Its high pressure transducers accurately measure air pressure in scuba tanks, then digitize this information for the air integrated computers PPS makes.
ROMI: This brings us to another area of the plant, the machine shop, one of the largest machining operations in Northern California. This is where all the metal parts for all the products Oceanic and its sister companies produce are made. This second sister company is named for Bob and his oldest son Mike (Robert + Mike=ROMI). Hollis is particularly proud of his brand new Italian Quattroflex 'turning machine.' It does the work of two machines, cutting the time of producing brass first stages by two-thirds. I watched as a three foot long solid brass bar became several first stages. The machine cut the bar in sections, polished it, drilled holes and produced screw threads in minutes. It runs from 7:00 am to midnight five days a week, popping out brass first stages seemingly effortlessly.
Oceanic entered the regulator market in 1983 with the innovative side exhaust Omega, an easy breathing machine that is still on the market. It now offers 11 regulators for use with air and eight regulators for use with nitrox as well as octopuses for use with air or nitrox. ROMI has its own automated assembly area; regulators start out as parts at one end of a large room and end up as complete units at the other. As with Pelagic Pressure Systems, all ROMI products are designed and made in-house.
2000 Design: This brings us to 2000 Design, Oceanic's third sister company. This is where engineers, using Silicon Graphics workstations and state of the art three dimensional software, design and develop new products for Oceanic, her sister companies and their customers. A prototype can be manufactured right from the computer design, then tested, refined and turned into a production model. Part of the reason for the high level of technology and employee skills found throughout the plant is owing to the presence of the Silicone Valley-it is right in Oceanic's backyard.
Still More: One of the largest areas of the Oceanic plant is reserved for BC production. BCs are cut from patterns, radio frequency welded, sewn and assembled here. A smaller area is shared by the Mako DPV along with drysuit customization and repair. (Oceanic recently partnered with its British affiliate to make its own line of front and rear entry drysuits.)The Oceanic headquarters building also has areas for quality control, inspection, testing, shipping, receiving and a newly remodeled and expanded customer service facility.
Quality control and testing deserve special mention. All of the products made here are thoroughly examined before they go out the door. To this end, the company has inspection areas for each of its products; PPS, ROMI and 2000 Design have special facilities for the testing of gauges and regulators. 2000 Design's facility allows it to duplicate U.S. Navy breathing tests; the result is regulators with excellent performance characteristics.
The products Oceanic sells in Europe are subject to periodic testing and qualification for CEN certification. In addition, Oceanic and it sister companies recently received the internationally recognized ISO 9002 designation. Only companies willing to undergo the rigors of continual external and internal auditing of their quality systems are considered for this designation. And, only those that pass a thorough third party audit are awarded ISO status. While complying with ISO auditing requirements is time consuming, Hollis thinks that 'in the long run it will make us a better company.'
Over the years, Oceanic has been responsible for many innovations in diving equipment. Its DataMax Sport was the first digital/analog gauge. Barry Warner, Oceanic's National Sales and Marketing Manager, thinks it was the company's 'most defining product' and the one that brought it the most fame. He told me it was the first easy to use, consumer friendly digital gauge made and it dominated the market for several years. Oceanic also created the first modular computer, the first hoseless, air integrated dive computers, the Tissue Loading Bargraph and was the first to use red, yellow and green on its computer faces to denote danger, caution and safe, just like the traffic signals people use every day. Hollis credits Oceanic's success with the fact that its product are designed and made in the U.S. and that most of the staff members dive. Barry says the Oceanic staff designs and creates products that meet their needs. (They also test dive them continually off the California coast.)
Hollis turned 60 last year, but he doesn't seem to be slowing down. At January's DEMA Show in Anaheim, a new Oceanic sister company, Aeris, was unveiled. Its motto is 'Distinguished by Design' and it features top of the line instrumentation, from compasses to computers.
New from Oceanic in 1998 is a digital compass, the Navion; a new wrist mounted computer, the XTC 100; two new BCs; new masks; new snorkels; and the AIR XS, a combination BC power inflator/octopus regulator.
Conclusion: You've come a long way in 25 years, Oceanic. I'd say the jump from balljoint arms to hoseless computers-from photographic products to a full line of diving equipment-is nothing less than a quantum leap!
The autobiographic material in this article came from an interview with Bob Hollis and from Eric Hanauer's book, Diving Pioneers: An Oral History, published in 1994 by Watersport Publishing.