Mark Smith

Mark Smith

Owner, Underwater Adventures

Hometown: Baton Rouge

Why a dive shop? What drew you to this business?

I have always had a knack for the water and a love for people and adventure. Underwater Adventures allows me to travel the world, meet interesting characters (I am one myself) and have fun while I am at "work." I earned my NAUI Scuba Instructor certification in 1979, after I graduated from LSU, then opened a commercial diving business. I began teaching in and around Baton Rouge, and then I dove commercially in Venezuela for a while. When I settled back in Baton Rouge, I decided to open a full-service dive store, and here I am.

You say that Underwater Adventures is "constantly evolving." How so?

Like I said, I was a commercial diver originally, but I realized I enjoyed teaching and traveling with other divers too. As I developed as an instructor and changed some of my training methods over the years, I discuss these changes with the other instructors and Divemasters on staff here at UA. We look at the standards and policies for all the agencies that we teach for and seek to "over train" our students. For instance, we offer scuba diver training, but we add in rescue skills to allow students a better understanding that this is a fun sport with certain risks.

I believe in safety first. I was actually talking with my staff today, and we were discussing the dangers that some of the other dive agencies are taking by not properly training their students; taking short cuts is not always the way to go in this industry.

Trust is a huge issue in dealing with new students - they are effectively putting their lives in your hands. Over the years Underwater Adventures has developed into a family of divers. I have divers that I taught 33 years ago coming in with their kids or grandkids to get them started in scuba. How huge a compliment is that? When a father or mother lets you train their pride and joy? I train my students as if they were my own kids. And I ask myself with each new instructor or student that I now train: "Would I let this instructor teach or student-dive with my daughter, my son or my wife?"

Don't get me wrong, sales and customer service are still key factors in a small business, but I find that by training my Instructors and Divemasters to a higher level we produce a more qualified diver.

Describe the most intense or memorable experience you've ever had on a dive.

I have had so many intense and memorable experiences, from my commercial dives to diving with the East Baton Rouge Sheriff Office's dive team, but there is one that stands out.

I was in Palau in April of 2008. I was diving the Blue Corner along the Oolong Channel. The group got in the water at the Blue Corner and we used our reef hooks to get into position for the dive along the channel. Once everyone was in place, the Divemaster gave a signal and we released from the Blue Corner into a four-knot current along the Oolong Channel. I saw some of the biggest blue reef sharks that I have ever seen. The colors and wildlife were so prolific! I have had the pleasure of being in the Pacific so many times but this one dive was a truly amazing experience.

What is the most common fear among novice divers? How does one overcome that fear?

It is not fear, as much as it is the discomfort or lack of training, facing the unknown and putting your life in someone else's control. It may take extra time in the pool reviewing skills, or maybe just a matter of finding the right instructor or Divemaster to help you overcome that issue. In the end we strive to see everyone complete their dream of becoming a scuba diver, but sadly that is not always the case.

What's the environment like for a small business in Baton Rouge these days? How has it changed over the years you've been in business?

For the owner of a small business it is an environment of being "on" all the time. As an owner you can't shut off your customer service just because you are out with the family or friends. If I see one of my divers or students around town I make a point to say "hello" and ask how they are doing, or compliment my student on a particular skill that they did well.

When you start a small business you have to be there in the store and show your face to the customer. You have to become the "go to" guy. The one that will stay late at the pool to help a student get proficient at that skill, or get up early to give an oral exam to a dyslexic student to help them be more confident about their scuba diving knowledge. There are also highlights, like when that particular student needs you to fly to Cozumel to certify his family on their private yacht.

It is still work and it is a changing environment. Small businesses aren't for everyone, but everyone can open a small business. It takes a lot of hard work, long hours, and a very patient and understanding family.

I have been in business for 22 years and diving for 33, and it seems to me that the biggest change in my business was finding someone that could manage Underwater Adventures so that I could take some much needed time off. Finding a person to manage your small business is very hard when you have been doing it basically by yourself for so long. And you will go through employees; some won't fit the job, some may even steal from you, but when you find that one person that you can trust it is truly a gift.

But don't slack off because you have someone in that role. You still need to be aware of the day-to-day activities, as my store manager preaches to me. In the end this is your business, and it is an investment that you want to become your legacy.

Why do you do what you do?

Would you like to see my passport? Because of my work I have traveled to many different time zones to go diving with my dive buddies. What's not to like?

What is your greatest professional accomplishment?

Opening my own dive store and making it as a small-business owner. Through hard times, hurricanes, 9/11 , the down economy, etc. Just going out on my own!

What was your first job?

I have had so many!

What is the best advice you've ever received?

Treat people as you want to be treated, smile, and make it a great day every day!

If you could have any job other than your own, what would it be?

I already have the best job!

What is the greatest personal or professional obstacle you've overcome?

Losing my mother in 2005. She was the rock that kept our family together, and when she passed it was like I had a hole in me that can't ever be filled. My sisters and my dad will never understand how much I miss my mom. But I see her every time that my kids succeed in their lives–they are stronger then I give credit and they make me so proud. I hope that I can live up to her and love my kids like she loved us.

If you started over, what would you do differently?

Spend more time with my family and friends. I recently lost a very close friend of mine, and I wish I had had the chance to spend more time with her.

What is your prescription for life?

Live every day to the fullest and hold nothing back. Make every day count smile you will be surprised at how much you get back.

What book are you currently reading?

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

If you could have dinner with any three living people, who would they be?
Oliver North, Robert Ballard and Condoleezza Rice.

Who would play you in a movie?

Matthew McConaughey

What do you do to unwind?

I love to work on cars. I have been rebuilding Corvettes for a while now. I have a fully restored 1962 Vette and I am currently working on a 1963 split-window Corvette.

What is the most expensive purchase you've made for yourself?

My motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson Road Glide.

What is your favorite weekend activity?

Spearfishing in the Gulf.

What's your favorite spot in Baton Rouge?

Death Valley on Saturday night–Geaux tigers!

How do you take your coffee/tea?

Coffee with cream.

What is your favorite movie? TV show? Band?

Catch 22, M.A.S.H., and Cream.

What is your favorite gadget?

My 1962 Corvette.

What is something that you can't live without?

My good friends, and most of all my family: my wife Susie, my son Taylor, my daughter Allie and my stepdaughter Brooke.

If you could change one thing about Baton Rouge, what would it be?

Build a high rise on the interstate to divert traffic through Baton Rouge.

What is your greatest hope for Baton Rouge?

A self-sustaining transit system.

What is your greatest fear for Baton Rouge?

Education is key. Nowadays what kids learn is two years out of date. I truly hope that Baton Rouge improves on the education system for our children, our future.

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