Diving legend Ron Kipp’s extraordinary career has been chronicled in his newly released book: “From ‘Big Blue’ to the Deep Blue,’” an honest and often hilarious account of his ascent from a rising star IBM executive in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to owner of one of the most successful dive operations in the Cayman Islands. The Journal hears the life story of this industry leader.
Back in 1980, Ron Kipp says, his life was at a crossroads, both professionally and personally. His job wasn’t progressing as this ambitious executive had hoped, and things were not happy at home. Years earlier he had found himself at a gift shop in a Cozumel hotel and had been enthralled by a copy of Skin Diver magazine. From that moment, Kipp says he caught the diving bug and it was to be his lifelong passion, to the extent that soon afterward he took a trip to the Bahamas to become an open water certified instructor, no easy task for Kipp, as all the other students were about half his age.
But just a few years later, his life was in tatters.
“At the age of almost 40, I was going through an IBM crisis,” he says with searing honesty. “I found myself sitting in my basement at one o’clock in the afternoon smoking cigarettes and thinking ‘woe is me.’”
A lightning strike
Then, as if a light bulb had suddenly been switched on, Kipp picked up the phone to a friend who was in the diving industry, asking to be considered for a job in the industry. His friend, John Englander, owner of UNEXSO (Underwater Explorers Society), had heard that the popular diving operation in the Cayman Islands, Bob Soto’s Diving, was up for sale.
“I could see the potential the minute I went down to see the operation,” Kipp says. “The fact that the dive operation had an exclusive lease to operate at the perfectly located Holiday Inn (the only game in town at the time) meant it had a tremendous amount going for it.”
On the up
Kipp says from the moment he purchased the property from Bob Soto, he began learning the dive business in a very hands-on manner. Ensuring he had a strong team of staff behind him, Kipp was able to build up the business into a hugely successful operation, with several retail outlets earning the company excellent returns, as well as the main business of taking tourists and locals out on exciting diving adventures in some of the clearest, warmest dive sites in the world.
Along with building up a highly profitable business, what excited Kipp was the fact that he could sell Cayman as a destination via marketing his business.
“We invested considerably in advertising in publications such as Skin Diver magazine, as well as attend events such as the annual DEMA (Diving Equipment & Marketing Association) show. We used to produce a pirate-themed booth for the DEMA event, which always went down very well,” he says.
Another milestone in his career was co-founding the Cayman Islands Water Sports Association (CIWSA), which later merged into the Cayman Islands Tourism Authority. Kipp says he is proud of the work the organization undertook, promoting diving and tourism in general, such as the establishment of the first permanent moorings for boats around the island, which had been very necessary to help prevent the coral from becoming damaged by boats looking to moor offshore. He also directed Tourism Awareness Week, when tourism professionals in government and the private sector set about promoting the industry to locals, in particular to get young Caymanians involved in this exciting and dynamic industry.
‘Out of the box’ thinking
One of his proudest achievements, he says, was to establish an entire dive package – including air fare, accommodation and dives – for tourists during the traditional dead season of September and October. Kipp says it was an uphill struggle to get so many different facets of the package on board, in particular Cayman Airways and the hotels, simply because it had never been done. Eventually he managed to persuade all involved of the potential of marketing Cayman as a dive destination during the low season, and the idea eventually became a roaring success. It became known as “Cayman Madness.”
“We were flying around 100 to 125 visitors in each week, Wednesday to Wednesday, at the height of our success,” he says.
Kipp’s popularity and head for business created the perfect go-to for the producers of the 1993 movie “The Firm,” starring Gene Hackman and Tom Cruise, shot in part in the Cayman Islands.
“We were on duty 24 hours a day while they were filming here,” he says. “We helped with the diving scenes, organized background scenes for shoots and entertained the stars with dive trips while they relaxed. Watching how the movie industry operates was a real eye opener. They worked like a hippie marine corps: one minute relaxed and laid back and the next springing into action. It was an incredible experience.”
Kipp says that throughout having the business in Cayman, he really couldn’t have been happier.
“I came from a business background and I wanted to be a success,” he explains. “And I was a better businessman than I was diver!”
Eventually, Kipp says, it was time to sell his business, knowing that he could make a very tidy profit from the sale. He sold the business to local businessman Dan Tibbetts on the fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001, when the United States came under attack by terrorists. Three years later to the day, the business was wiped out by Cayman’s own “9/11,” Hurricane Ivan.
Still in business
Since selling the dive business, Kipp’s business acumen has continued, and he now runs Cayman Producer Services (CPS), a company that provides video and photos and is the sole service provider in this regard for Red Sail Sports.
While Kipp modestly proclaims he’s a better businessman than diver, he has clocked an incredible 7,500-plus dives in his lifetime, and at the time of writing, had recently returned from a dive trip to Honduras, where he was planning a return trip soon since his “bucket list” includes diving with whale sharks.
Now in his 70s, he is still a huge advocate for the Cayman Islands. Kipp says people don’t realize how good they have it here. He loves it.
“Where else in the world would you want to be?” he says.