We are often advised to work at what we love, but what if a business rekindles a lost passion? Take Simon Tambling, the managing partner of Al Boom Diving, a sports diving business in Dubai.
The son of a peripatetic builder who erected UK government post offices in tropical backwaters, Mr Tambling caught the diving bug at the age of 10, when his family was stationed in Malawi. In England 11 years later, he had set his heart on becoming a commercial diver but soon ran into difficulties. At the time, in 1980, the British government offered training sponsorships for trades. Mr Tambling applied for a grant to take a diving course. The government turned him down but his girlfriend came up with the fees.
"I paid her back within a few months," Mr Tambling says. The very personal loan indirectly introduced him to the UAE. After completing his course in Cornwall, Mr Tambling came straight to Abu Dhabi in 1982 to work for a contracting company: "I arrived in the middle of the Zakum oilfield in a Bell helicopter. It was good fun." But commercial diving was more lucrative in the chilly North Sea. By summer of 1982, Mr Tambling was in Aberdeen, trying to break into the burgeoning UK oil industry's submarine construction scene.
Many other recently trained divers had the same idea. Mr Tambling joined a group at a crowded guest house who were vying for offshore jobs. "We would take jobs in the yard, painting equipment and just waiting for an opportunity to get in the water," he remembers. "If the phone rang, we used to race for it and the one who answered would say 'No, he's not available. He's got a job, but I'm available'."
Mr Tambling's first North Sea dive involved a welding inspection at night on the Heather Alpha oil platform at a depth of 33 metres. He had to "decompress" afterwards in a hyperbaric chamber to allow the excess nitrogen dissolved in his bloodstream to leave the body harmlessly. Mr Tambling spent 90 minutes in the chamber, emerging at 1.30am. Just 40 minutes later he had developed "skin bends", an itchy rash indicating insufficient decompression.
Most North Sea diving experiences were equally unpleasant. Sometimes divers would find huge jellyfish had impaled themselves on the rig and were spattering bits of themselves around. Mr Tambling's least favourite task was removing encrustations of barnacles and other marine life from undersea structures "with a paint scraper on the end of a two-foot pole". This would usually take place in fairly shallow water where the diver would get sloshed about and his ears would pop and ache from pressure changes.
Safety practices sometimes left a lot to be desired. Mr Tambling's closest call was when a large shackle from a tanker mooring was dropped on him from the surface, landing on his foot. "If it had landed on my head it would have shattered my helmet and I would not have been here," he says. "It shouldn't have happened. They were in a hurry to finish the job, and the superintendent didn't check that the area was clear."
By 1993, Mr Tambling, and his foot, had had enough. When a friend working in Dubai for Al Boom Marine, the sports retailer, decided to emigrate to New Zealand, Mr Tambling took over his position. He soon became a brand manager in the UAE for Oakley sunglasses and No Fear T-shirts, then worked as a distributor for Royal Sporting House and Speedo, and finally as a Reebok sales manager. Then in 2002, he was made redundant. Instead of moving back to the UK, Mr Tambling decided to sell the house there to finance a business in Dubai.
He thought about starting one but was approached by Marc Armstrong, a founder of Al Boom Marine, about taking over his money-losing sports diving business. "I really wasn't sure about it," Mr Tambling recalls. "The Dubai boom hadn't started and I'd stopped sports diving. I'd done thousands of dives and I'd had enough." But there was something about the situation that made him want to "give it a go".
Mr Tambling took over Al Boom Diving, a five-year-old business with 10 dishevelled staff, one leaky boat and sales rights to the then-tattered Aqua Lung brand of diving gear. With his experience in distribution, Mr Tambling had no difficulty bringing the retail offerings up to scratch. The boat was refurbished. The staff were another matter. "When I came, people were walking around with no shoes on and disgruntled," he says. "It took a long time to get good, loyal staff that know the job and are passionate about diving."
Early staffing problems involved sifting out the beach bums. "European drifters came here. There were lots of problems with drinking. They came here to party." Today, Al Boom Diving has 65 qualified staff, including Filipino boat drivers, UK ex-military and Filipino diving instructors, and managers from South Africa, Germany and Egypt. There are also seven dive boats, kept shipshape, and a "regimented" plan for looking after the diving gear.
Partnerships with two five-star resorts, Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort in Fujairah and the Jebel Ali Golf Resort and Spa in Dubai, give Al Boom Diving access to a variety of diving sites in the UAE and on Oman's Mussandam peninsula. Just as business was really taking off and Al Boom Diving had signed a mortgage on a warehouse, the recession hit and Dubai's property market imploded. Instead of retrenching, Mr Tambling decided it was time to expand. That was when he formed the partnership with the Jebel Ali resort. He also worked towards getting his business qualified to offer tours through the Dubai destinations company Arabian Adventures.
To keep his staff busy, he launched an environmental project with the Fujairah Le Meridien to develop artificial coral reefs. Last month, Mr Tambling and Samantha Joffe, the company's business development manager, travelled to the London International Dive Show. "We're going overseas to market accommodation and diving," he says. "We're also investigating whether we can do flights and packages. " I now find myself in the position where it's time to go looking for new business, because we have very good diving here. It's time to let people know about this."
Mr Tambling no longer wants to hang up his fins. His reinvigorated love of diving is one of his biggest business drivers. The other is that he is a born hands-on manager. "Everything needs attention. How are the sales? Customer inquiries? There are a million things to do," he says with relish. Mr Tambling has no regrets over deciding to run his own business: "The only regret is that I didn't do it sooner."