Basic gear from mid-twentieth-century Greece

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David Wilson

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Today we move east to Greece, officially the Hellenic Republic, a country in Southeast Europe. Located on the southern tip of the Balkan peninsula, Greece shares land borders with Albania to the northwest, North Macedonia and Bulgaria to the north, and Turkey to the east. The Aegean Sea lies to the east of the mainland, the Ionian Sea to the west, and the Sea of Crete and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. Greece has the longest coastline on the Mediterranean Basin, featuring thousands of islands. The country comprises nine traditional geographic regions, and has a population of nearly 10.4 million. Athens is the nation's capital and largest city, followed by Thessaloniki and Patras.

Greece is home to several basic diving equipment manufacturers.
 
Let us start with the Greek diving equipment manufacturer Balco sub:

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According to Facebook’s Balco Sub site, the manufacturing business also known as Eurobal Diving Company was established in 1954 by two partners, surnamed Ballas (Μπάλλας) and Colaros (Κολαρος), hence the company name Balco (BAL+CO).

At Balco: Οι Ελληνικές μάσκες, βατραχοπέδιλα και ψαροντούφεκα., a Retromaniax forum member posted a 2013 thread entitled “Balco: Οι Ελληνικές μάσκες, βατραχοπέδιλα και ψαροντούφεκα” (Balco: Greek masks, fins and spearguns). According to the thread initiator, Balco Sub was first based in Kifissia, now one of the most expensive northern suburbs of Greece’s capital city Athens and traditionally home to rich Greek families and major Greek politicians.

The original poster continues, and I translate, “(Ballas and Colaros) processed rubber and made masks and fins as well as spearguns; (…) they actually exported to other countries, e.g. Australia, Germany and Lebanon. One of them lived with his father and his wife (the father in a separate house) on the same property and we knew them well; both father and son happened to die of cancer, relatively soon one after the other. (…) I must tell you that when the father and the son died, the property was completely abandoned with hundreds of masks, spearguns and fins stored there in a total muddle. There were also raw materials from the factory, e.g. rubber in small balls and sulphur with a sweet-smelling chemical additive and magnesium salt too, all of these in some paper barrels. There was also a huge pile of paperwork from the company’s offices. (…) the property was not far from us, almost everything there was demolished in 2007 after it was bought by someone else, and nothing remains of these things I am telling you about (they were in storage and in fact in good condition until the end)”.

In 2019, “Balco team” updated this thread with the following information (my translation): “The Company is now called Balco sub. The headquarters is located on the industrial side of Menidi, manufacturing its products with the exact same know-how and quality since the 1970s. There are selected shops and diving centres all over Greece where you can find the products and soon the company’s new website at www.balcosub.gr will be up and running”. Menidi was a northwestern suburb of Athens, Attica, Greece, and renamed Acharnes in 1915. The firm’s present address is EUROBAL DIVING CO. Georgia Frydas. 10 Themistokleous, 13671 Acharnes, ATTICA, GREECE.

More information about Balco sub and its underwater products midweek.
 
From the Greek diving magazine ΚΑΤΑΔΥΣΗ, Number 62, August 1994.

Interview by MANOLIS EUGENITAKIS (My translation):

BALCO: As we say...underwater fishing!

When diving equipment companies from neighbouring Italy have been presented on the pages of this magazine, it is at least an oversight that the same has not been done for some Greek companies, and especially for the grande dame of the Greek diving world, the company whose name has been associated with underwater fishing since the 1950s.

BALCO was founded way back in 1952 by Nikolaos Balas and Apostolos Kollaros and was the first company involved in the manufacture of diving equipment in our country. Its facilities were initially located in Ag. I. Rentis and in 1980 it was transferred to the privately owned factory 7,500 square metres in area in Kifissia.

In 1984 BALCO will change ownership. It is bought by Aris Liakos and Sotiris Frydas, and the company will follow an upward trajectory, to become a leader company in the country of Greece.

The name BALCO has been synonymous with underwater fishing for three generations of spearguns in our country and a survey carried out in 1991 on the Greek market for its readability, gave rates from 37% to 42% for the company’s products.

Our visit to the BALCO factory took place in May, and after our tour of the company’s facilities, we had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Sotiris Fryda, owner and director of the company.

K.: We will start our discussion with a statement. The tour we did at BALCO’s production sites showed us a vertically organised industry which does not have much reason to envy its counterparts abroad.

S.F.: Indeed, the company’s production method is quite vertical. Most of the products we manufacture start from the raw material without the intervention of sub-manufacturers. Of course, we also use sub-manufacturers, such as for plastic components, for example, but for the most part our production is vertical and this enables us to have a reduced cost list, since the products are not burdened with the industrial profit of any other company.

K.: To which consumer categories are BALCO’s products addressed?

S.F.: BALCO addresses all categories with three complete product lines. It starts from the beginner spearfisherman, progresses to the individual who has learned a few things and wants to improve his equipment, and ends up with the expert who has specific requirements from his equipment.

K.: Is there any evidence to show the position of BALCO in the European diving equipment market?

S.F.: In principle, we should divide European companies into two categories: Those that produce the entire range of products and those that specialise in one product. BALCO ranks 6th or 7th in the first category, and we consider that very important, both for us and for the rest of the European market. It is no coincidence that BALCO today manufactures air-powered spearguns for BEUCHAT and flashlights for CAVALERO.

K.: What part of your production does the Greek market cover, and to which countries do you export?

S.F.: 75% of our production is directed to the Greek market and the remaining 25% is exported. The countries we export to are Germany, which absorbs 18-20,000 fins a year, France, to which we send air-powered spearguns and torches to the companies we mentioned, Spain, to which we sell the whole package of products, the USA, where we have four agents-importers of the entire product range. It is worth noting here that we see huge potential for exports to America and are already studying the possibility of our participation in DEMA next year.

We also export to Chile, South Africa, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Denmark and some other countries that absorb fewer products but have growth prospects.

K.: How many years ago did BALCO start exporting?

S.F.: As early as 1984, when we bought the company, there was some small export activity to West Germany and one or two other countries. Because the quality of the products allows them to be sold in other markets, we have given importance to exports and every year we successfully participate in the exhibition of our sector in Munich.

K.: In other words, there is an upward trend in the company’s export index.

S.F.: Yes. From 1991 to 1992 we had a 57% increase in exports and from 1992 to 1993 we had 48%. As you can see, the rates are very satisfactory.

K.: A few years ago, there was a strong tendency for the Greek consumer to prefer imported products even when there were Greek products of the same quality on the market. Have you noticed any change in this behaviour in recent years?

S.F.: Fortunately, yes. Xenomania seems to be losing ground all the time. The Greek consumer finally understood that Greek products are equal to, and in some cases better than, the imported ones and changed his behaviour. He understood that buying Greek products not only strengthens the Greek economy, but also enables Greek companies to allocate the required funds for the study of new, more sophisticated products and to become more competitive. And let's not forget that a Greek product means much better prices and direct access to spare parts.

We estimate that today 70,000 spearfishers in our country use our company’s air-powered speargun and this is characteristic of the appreciation of the good quality of the speargun’s manufacture.

If there is no difference in quality, safety and specifications in general, I think it is wrong for the consumer to weaken Greek companies and strengthen some foreign ones. It is not possible for some Greek products to be bought by European companies and not be bought by the Greek consumer. And let’s not talk about the cases where Greek products are imported and sold in our country under the brand name of a European company, as happened with BALCO air-powered spearguns in the past.

K.: What is actually happening with the issue of the specifications of your products?

S.F.: Our fins are manufactured in accordance with DIN 7876 specifications. We are already moving to secure ISO 9002 specifications for the company, which means guaranteeing the production quality of all the products that the company manufactures, and not just some individual products.

K.: In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people engaged in scuba diving in our country. Are you thinking of getting involved in this side of underwater activity as well? That is, with the production of scuba diving equipment?

S.F.: The gradual lifting of the scuba diving ban “opened up” this part of the market and of course BALCO cannot remain uninvolved in it.

K.: It seems to me that we will make news today. Can you tell us something specific?

S.F.: Indeed, it is news, but I would call it slow-burning. The plans are there, but from the moment we are ready, we will let a season pass to test the products, because it is the company’s policy to strictly control the products before they go on the market.

So the news is that BALCO will enter the scuba diving field and will enter with Greek prices.

K.: Are you planning to enter the market with a specific product or the entire product line?

S.F.: Our fins are manufactured in accordance with DIN 7876 specifications. We are already moving to secure ISO 9002 specifications for the company, which means guaranteeing the production quality of all the products that the company manufactures, and not just some individual products.

K.: In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people engaged in scuba diving in our country. Are you thinking of getting involved in this side of underwater activity as well? That is, with the production of scuba diving equipment?

S.F.: The gradual lifting of the scuba diving ban “opened up” this part of the market and of course BALCO cannot remain uninvolved in it.

K.: It seems to me that we will make news today. Can you tell us something specific?

S.F.: Indeed, it is news, but I would call it slow-burning. The plans are there, but from the moment we are ready, we will let a season pass to test the products, because it is the company’s policy to strictly control the products before they go on the market.

So the news is that BALCO will enter the scuba diving field and will enter with Greek prices.

K.: Are you planning to enter the market with a specific product or the entire product line?

S.F.: BALCO will enter the market with the whole package of diving equipment. Some of them will be from large factories abroad that specialise in their kind and some will be manufactured by us. And this is because it is not possible for any one company to manufacture everything. It is not possible e.g. to make cylinders. What we can do, however, is to ask them to manufacture for us c ylinders with the specifications we want. The only thing that is certain is that all the products will meet and exceed all the safety, quality and good functioning conditions required, and will be at very attractive prices.

K.: What is the number of products manufactured by BALCO?

S.F.: About 650, and if we consider that each size is a different product, their number reaches 700.
 
Interview continued...

K.: Would you like to tell us a little about the company’s new products?

S.F.: There is a saying that if you need to spend 5 drachmas to be first, you need to spend 15 to stay first. Thus, every year the company enriches its range with products aimed at the most specialised part of the market, without, of course, leaving the rest. This year we completed the series of Hydrojet fins, a well-designed and very successful fin, suitable for many years of hard use, which is also in great demand in foreign markets.

Other new products are the line of spikes which includes tridents and pentanes. For their construction, we use “nails” from MUSTAD and what makes them stand out is their enormous strength, which is ensured by a metal carrier on which the “nails” and the socket are attached, which, it is worth noting, is made of stainless steel. This creates a solid construction with unimaginable resistance to use and a very good price.

K.: Do we have anything new in spearguns?

S.F.: No, we didn’t bring out a new speargun. However, we improved the Strike and released a new rubber with a compound that we made. It is 16 mm in diameter and has performed very well in our tests. We also brought out a range of boots, gloves and snorkels.

K.: When we went through the suit cutting and sewing department, we saw a new model on the production line. Is this a new pattern?

S.F.: The new suit we are preparing is called COMFORT, and its design is indeed new. The new pattern is due to Grigoris Kasotakis who studied, as a user himself, the points that trouble the diver and we improved the design to eliminate any discomfort. We removed e.g. the seam present in all suits around the diver’s neck, making the suit smoother and easier to wear. It is made of very good quality 4mm thick ultra-elastic neoprene, with or without a zipper, and will be on the market at a very good price.

K.: Can we find out the price or is it still too early?

S.F.: We estimate that its retail price will be between 45,000 and 50,000 Drachmas.

K.: I would like if you could tell us a little about the future plans of the company regarding the production of new products.

S.F.: Among our plans is the design and production of a new rubber-powered speargun that will combine the properties and quality characteristics of Strike with the design that the European and Greek market demands today. With this rubber we intend to open new markets abroad.

Also, a range of silicone masks, some of which are now in the final stages of moulding and we may have them ready for next season, and silicone snorkels. At the same time, we are also preparing some cheaper products for the other part of the market that we mentioned earlier.

K.: Are you considering moving into long-bladed fins for freediving?

S.F.: We intend to move into long-bladed fins but not immediately.

K.: To close our discussion, we would like you, if you can, to give us some numbers to get an idea of the size of the market. How many pieces does a successful type of diving equipment sell in our country?

S.F.: I will answer you by giving you data from the sales of the spearguns. Well, the Arrow sells 9,500 to 10,000 pieces a year, the simple Strike with the 7 mm spear 5,000 pieces and the Strike with the Tahitian-spear, 3,000 pieces. The air-powered gun sells 10,000 pieces and the Junior sells 14,000 pieces.

This is where our conversation with the director of BALCO ended and a little while later, driving on the national road, I was trying to imagine what will happen in the market when the calm “giant” who lives inside the 7,500 square metres starts implementing his plans.

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I shall finish here today. The interview was accompanied by a number of photographs of the interior of the Balco plant. I shall leave those for next time, at the weekend.

Here is the first photo as an "appetiser":

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a) In the foreground, pieces of rubber of different composition and hardness. At the rear, the big presses that will hot-mould them. Final product the Hydrojet fins. Right next door, smaller presses produce the rubber parts for the company’s masks.
 
Thanks for the like, Iowwall.

Back to that interview with the director of Balco sub in the Greek diving magazine and more particularly photographs of the interior of the company plant.

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b) The raw materials and the rubber-kneading machine in the background.

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View of the suit cutting and sewing section. On the production line is the new “Comfort” model.

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Assembling parts of the rubber-powered spearguns...

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...and air-powered spearguns.
 
The photographs continued...

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Last check by Grigoris Kasotakis before packing the Arrow air-powered spearguns.

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Assembly of trigger mechanisms of rubber-powered spearguns.

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In the metal processing department, the experienced craftsman welds the stainless steel “claws” of the trident to the metal carrier one by one.

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Mr Frydas explaining some technical details to us in the rubber goods production department.
 
The photographs continued...

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The machine that creates notches in rubber-powered speargun rods in operation.

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General view of part assembly.

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O. G. Kasotakis at the tank where the spearguns are tested.

So much for the article. Next time, midweek, we shall turn to the Balco sub repertoire of basic underwater equipment, starting with diving masks.
 
https://www.shearwater.com/products/swift/

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