When Bob Shinners imagines the movie of his life it opens with him as a young man standing on a Milwaukee bridge in a thick parka. He climbs the safety rail, closes his eyes, and jumps. As he plunges into the icy water, his steel toed boots and heavy winter clothes suck him into the murky depths of the Kinnickinnic. His grey world fades but before Bob takes the fatal breath of liquid, perfect clarity occurs, he makes the decision to change his destiny. Thrashing the coat off, he swims against the rushing current to break the surface of the water. The biting wind and a grim industrial skyline are gone, instead he finds himself treading water so crystal clear it’s like floating in air. The palm fringed shore calls him back to life and to a fresh start.
My transcription is more lush than the original telling, but this is what Bob narrated to me while sitting at DR!NK in front of Low Key Watersports, the dive shop he founded 31 years ago. Bob has a poetic heart, although it takes a few rum and Cokes to uncover it.
It’s been a long, strange and exciting trip from the shipping docks of the Milwaukee Miller Brewing Company in 1980 to owning and operating one of the world’s most famous dive shops with his business partner Ann Marie Estes.
The Story of Freedom
Bob’s true story is a more common one – while on vacation on St. John he made a vow that he would never go home. He went back to Wisconsin only long enough to pack up his belongings and his first wife. He sold everything and moved to the islands within a month. But that is where common and Bob part ways.
Bob found his stride when he joined the shipping and receiving department at the Caneel Bay Resort for a salary and the perk of free unlimited diving and water sport activities. Once scuba certified, Bob started offering tourists shore dives out of the back of his pickup truck. The vacationing divers couldn’t get enough of the tall, handsome, sun bronzed instructor with the searing wit and easy manner. Bob told me he loved the freedom and ease of those days at Kiddel and Leinster, unencumbered with the complexities of a busy retail shop and multiple dive boats.
In fact, Bob asserts, he wouldn’t have lasted anywhere near 31 years in business if it wasn’t for the business savvy of his soul mate Ann Marie Estes. Bob and Ann Marie met in 1986 shortly after Bob opened Low Key at Wharfside Village, the very first business to open in the controversial shopping center. (The original rent was $300 a month, a deal he couldn’t refuse.)
She’s The Brains
“She’s the brains behind the whole thing. I dive and drive, she does the rest,” Bob says about Ann Marie.
Now, anyone that knows Bob and his ex-wife Ann Marie understands that I don’t mean the kind of soul mates that grow blissfully old together. Bob and Ann Marie aren’t that. They divorced well over a decade ago. A cat partnered with a dog is a good description of their relationship, but it’s obvious they are very complimentary when it comes to business.
When I finally cornered the elusive and private Ann Marie for her interview, she smiled when I told her what Bob said about her weeks earlier.
Ann Marie responded, “People give Bob a hard time, but they shouldn’t. Believe me, he has put many long hours and his heart and soul into this business to make it succeed. Neither of us could have done this alone. Low Key is our child.”
The Low Key Family
Ann Marie’s personal life is her own, her story is all about the business. She says the success of the dive shop is its relationships. Low Key has one of the most impressive employee retention rates in the VI. Considering the transient nature of workers in the VI’s seasonal tourism market, this is an accomplishment. Employees of Low Key stay on with the company for an average of over two years. Many in management stay with the company for well over five.
Notably, Janet Simonsen, wife of photographer Steve Simonsen, managed the shop for almost fifteen years. Steve too started his photography career taking photos of Low Key divers exploring the underwater landscape of St. John and St. Thomas long before the days of digital. In those early days he sold prints and slides out of the shop. Despite Steve’s current status as one of the most renowned photographers in the region, he continues to take photographs for Low Key’s advertising and website.
The list of notable locals that started their careers at Low Key doesn’t stop at the Simonsens. Carlos DiBlasi of Morgan’s Mango was Low Key’s first dive instructor and Doug Stevens of the Banana Deck was also an instructor in the early days.
This dedication extends beyond the staff of Low Key. Many divers have been with them since the beginning, retuning through the decades. Mark Hillsman, a St. Thomas attorney and radio host, has joined the Low Key dive almost every Saturday for 30 years.
This loyalty is earned through dedication and love for everyone involved with Low Key – staff and clients alike. It’s one big family, and this Low Key family is growing with the addition of new owners Ted and Kathee Kramm. Low Key Watersports was not on the market when the Kramms, long time divers, approached Bob about buying the business in 2016. Ted and Kathee had purchased Ocean Runner and wanted to expand their water sports presence in the Virgin Islands. They did not, however, want to take the management away from Bob and Ann Marie.
“Why fix what isn’t broken?” said Ann Marie. “They want to let Low Key continue to succeed as it is and I love running this company, so it’s win, win all around.”
For the Kramms this truly is a family affair. Joining the Low Key team are son Jonathan and niece Hanna. Son-in-law Branden is in management at Ocean Runner.
When asked to sum up the key to Low Key’s longevity, Ann Marie admitted, “We were in the right place at the right time. It would be so difficult to recreate what we did. The 80s and 90s were a different world. We grew as *PADI grew. We evolved as the sport evolved. The pay off is we get to provide full service including repair, the best diving technology available, and a lifetime of experience to our clients. Passion, tenacity and attention to detail, that sums up our key to success.”
* Professional Association of Diving Instructors
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About Catherine Turner
Catherine Turner spends her time sailing in the Caribbean, blogging from her MacBook Pro on the beach, and sipping coconut water from the nuts that drop on the sand next to her. Before tuning in and dropping out Catherine was a nightclub owner and a resort showgirl. A lifetime ago, she spent a decade chained to a desk as a computer programmer/data analyst. She loves to write, paint, snuggle, and to practice yoga. If she doesn’t answer her phone, she is probably in the middle of the ocean somewhere. Leave a message.