STEVENS POINT – These are the kinds of decisions that can cement a legacy, for better or for worse, and for Pete McPartland, it came without a safety net or any time to second-guess.
When McPartland took over as CEO of Sentry Insurance in 2012, he immediately faced a big decision that would ultimately define the company’s future: What to do with SentryWorld Golf Course?
Wisconsin’s first destination golf resort, which opened in 1982, foundered after not getting the attention it needed and no longer lived up to the vision then-CEO John Joanis had for the course when he commissioned Robert Trent Jones Jr. to create the original design.
McPartland figured he had three options: sell the course and get out of the golf business; let it continue on the path it was on with perhaps some modest improvements; or make an investment in the course with the hope that it would pump life back into a dying dream.
“The management team that had been running Sentry had not invested in the golf course, and I think, not to speak for them, but they felt it was a subordinate and possibly even distracting part of our business,” McPartland said Wednesday, while sitting in a hospitality suite overlooking the 18th green.
Sentry CEO McPartland makes a difficult decision
It was a monumental decision for anyone, let alone someone who still felt like the “new guy” on campus.
He solicited feedback, which was mixed, but ultimately the decision was his alone.
“It had been a sensitive subject to talk about,” he said.
After much deliberation and craft, McPartland decided. Sentry wanted to go “all-in” on the golf course and what he calls the hospitality business, and that changed not only SentryWorld’s fortunes, but the insurance company as well.
“I didn’t feel pressure,” he said. “I absolutely knew it was the right thing to do. But I also knew that the conscious willingness to let the golf course and for that matter restaurant that we have atrophied was a conscious decision that I was flying in the eyes of the previous management. There were many people who felt, for reasons of financial discipline, that spending money on recreation essentially represented inherently unwise judgment. I knew there were a lot of people who thought that.
“But I knew it was definitely affordable given the size and success of the business and this would attract more customers and we needed, as an insurance company, to engage more with our own customer base. We weren’t as outgoing as a insurance company that we should be.”
Restoring SentryWorld was the first step
A decade later, the fruits of McPartland’s decision were evident this week as the United States Golf Association brought the US Senior Open to central Wisconsin for the first time.
McPartland said it was important at the time to return SentryWorld to its place in history as the state’s first destination golf course.
“This course means a lot to central Wisconsin. … It ushered in an era of Kohlers and Erin Hills and eventually Sand Valleys and so on,” he said. “This course had a place in history that was important.”
The first step in bringing SentryWorld back to life was getting in touch with Jones Jr. in 2013 to ask about redesigning his original layout with his young protégé and highly respected golf course designer Jay Bilasi.
“We asked Bob then, is there anything you would have done in retrospect, now that you’re an older designer, and you were a young designer when you built SentryWorld? And he said, ‘You know, there’s five or six holes that have been bothering me for a long time.’ We said, ‘Good, you’ve got a do-over.’ So he had an overhaul and redesigned it,” McPartland said.
The course reopened in 2015 to rave reviews. That was followed by the revitalization of the restaurants at SentryWorld, the USGA bringing the US Junior Girls Championship to the course in 2019, and construction of The Inn at SentryWorld, a hotel that runs along the 18th fairway, opening in 2022.
The USGA was so impressed with SentryWorld in 2019 that it announced in February 2021 that it would bring the US Senior Open to SentryWorld in 2023, prompting another round of course renovations over the past two years to prepare for this week’s event .
“Everything this golf course wants, it gets”
McPartland calls SentryWorld a “support piece” for the insurance company, with the massive resources of the core business being used to maximize the hospitality side of the business.
“The golf course became — I use this term when I talk about it — the golf course became the spoiled daughter of the insurance company,” McPartland said. “Anything this golf course wants, it gets. Anything (general manager) Mike James, who runs all of this, wants for the golf course or anything else for that matter, he gets.”
McPartland believed that the golf course, an adjacent hotel and other amenities at SentryWorld would make it more likely that customers and business partners would come and see them, rather than Sentry employees having to travel to visit them.
“We reasoned that having a really nice golf course would make our campus and people’s desire to come and see us more attractive,” he said.
It has worked exactly as McPartland had envisioned. Not only has the USGA found a home with SentryWorld, but Sentry has found a home with some of the greatest players in the world of golf.
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Sentry has a prominent place in golf
In 2017, Sentry became the title sponsor of the PGA Tour’s season-opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. That deal was extended last August to run through 2035, and Sentry has become active in the Maui community, bringing many of its customers and business partners to the island over the years.
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan also asked if Sentry would like to get involved with First Tee, a program that introduces younger, often economically disadvantaged children to the game of golf.
“If you become part of the professional golf fraternity, if you’re a well-behaved, good member of it, and I think we certainly have been, other types of equipment will come to us,” he said. “Didn’t ask for it. Didn’t push for it. It became part of it. So somewhere along the line I think we fit in and we were kind of taken under the wing of the PGA Tour and the USGA and others.”
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So with all that has happened to Sentry and SentryWorld, it’s natural to wonder if McPartland is thinking about the road not taken.
What if in 2012 he had decided to get the company out of the golf business for good?
“I dare not think about that, because my mind stops. I don’t want to think about that,” he said. “I kind of think if we hadn’t done everything we’ve done, where would Sentry Insurance Company be, and the answer is we wouldn’t be as big, we wouldn’t have grown within our Fortune 1000 rankings on the the way we’ve grown. We’ve grown significantly as a Fortune 1000 company. So the branding, the customer engagement, the degree to which it helped define the culture for us as an insurance company, we couldn’t have done it without the game of golf and without the investment that we has done in hospitality on this campus.”
As he watched the game’s top senior golfers and thousands of fans walk around SentryWorld over the past few days, McPartland couldn’t help but get a little sentimental about what’s happened since taking over in 2012.
“It really hit me this week,” he said. “Here we are, a big USGA tournament, and we have our own golf course, and I hear from the players about our own golf course on our own campus. So this week it hits me like a frying pan all that we have done. It’s very hot.”