The property has served notice, through a major course and clubhouse renovation, that it plans to be a big part of central Wisconsin’s emergence as a new mecca for golf and other activities.
Reading the greens of the U.S. golf map currently reveals a definite break towards a pin placed squarely in the state of Wisconsin. Whistling Straits has hosted three PGA Championships in the past 11 years and will get the Ryder Cup in 2020. Erin Hills is preparing for the U.S. Open in 2017—and the day after that tournament ends has been set as the target date for the grand opening of Mike Keiser’s Sand Valley resort in Rome, Wis., highly anticipated as the next Bandon Dunes.
About 45 minutes from Rome, in the central Wisconsin town of Stevens Point, the sound of well-read putts rattling into cups could be heard again this year, after two years of silence. The return of that activity to SentryWorld, a daily-fee facility that offers a variety of other recreational and social amenities to the public, was not only another sign of golf’s renewed prominence in the state, it also offered encouragement about the revival of interest in course and resort ownership throughout the U.S.
Marking the Map
SentryWorld is owned by Sentry Insurance, which is based in Stevens Point and has grown, from when it was founded in 1904 to provide coverage for members of the Wisconsin Retail Hardware Association, to Fortune 750 status today. In the 1970s, Sentry, like many major corporations at the time, got swept up in the diversification and globalization movements, and under the direction of its flamboyant Chairman, John Joanis, expanded to become a multinational conglomerate, adding media and manufacturing interests around its insurance activities.
In 1979, Joanis (who died in 1985) also directed the construction of an impressive new headquarters building for the company in Stevens Point. “It was an expression of the company’s ambitions at the time,” says Pete McPartland, Sentry’s current Chairman, President & CEO, of the multi-story, angled concrete-and-glass monolith. “It became a source of curiosity, and people came from many states just to see it.”
The interest that the headquarters building attracted helped to convince Joanis that it would also be good for the company to acquire and use land adjacent to the corporate campus to build a golf course that would also have banquet facilities and other amenities. The new operation, named SentryWorld, was seen as a “further expression” of the parent company’s corporate positioning, McPartland says. Its development was rationalized, he adds, “as a facility that our own employees could use, that would help recruit talent to a small town in central Wisconsin, and that would enhance the community’s quality of life.”
SentryWorld opened in 1982, with a golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. It gained immediate notoriety for its “Flower Hole” and drew national attention as the site of one of the early “Skins Game” competitions.
Over its first 30 years, the SentryWorld course maintained a respected reputation as an enjoyable and affordable golfing experience. Much changed during that time, however, for its owner. Like many other companies that had pursued globalization glory, Sentry Insurance eventually suffered from overreaching that led to serious reserving issues and a significant downgrading of the company’s A. M. Best financial-strength rating. Management retrenched to scale back and focus on Sentry’s core domestic insurance business, through what McPartland describes as an “extremely cost-conscious” approach that called for selling off or abandoning “non-essential operations.”
By the time McPartland took Sentry Insurance’s top position in March 2012, the company’s financial and ratings luster had been restored. But the question of whether SentryWorld was essential had very much come to the fore, especially with the facility now showing the effects of having little allocated for its upkeep, let alone improvement, during the company’s belt-tightening period.
“The greens and bunkers needed rebuilding, and the restaurant was threadbare and worn,” says McPartland. “We needed to face the question of how we viewed SentryWorld, and how it fit our business going forward.”
SentryWorld was indeed shut down at the end of 2012 after this assessment took place, and it remained closed for all of 2013. But in 2014, the answers to how it is now viewed by its owner were revealed in the unmistakeable form of not only a fully renovated golf course, but also a striking new and expanded clubhouse facility.
Part of the decision, McPartland says, to not only retain SentryWorld but reinvest in it significantly, was a nod to its role in helping to put Wisconsin on the golf map, and to how the state’s status in the sport now promises to flower even more.
“We were the state’s first destination course, and we think that helped to usher in the creation of the others that followed,” he says. “We could still benefit from how we contributed to the state’s reputation and appeal, but clearly needed to do something to reach the standards that now go with the expectations that exist for Wisconsin golf.”
But going forward with SentryWorld’s makeover also hinged on reaffirming its ongoing strategic value to Sentry Insurance. And that part of the assessment, McPartland says, showed that if anything, the facility has “more strategic relevance” today than it did when it was first created.
“We’ve evolved back to a business-to-business brand, so there’s a benefit in having a place like this where we can bring customers,” he notes. “And for ourselves, we still have the same issue, as a large employer of white-collar professionals, of attracting talent to a town of 26,000 people and helping to provide a good quality of life for them once they’re here.” SentryWorld’s value as an appealing benefit for employees has actually kept growing over the years, as the facility extends its privileges to an expanding pool of retirees.
Given these incentives for proceeding, McPartland states, Sentry’s management decided it “didn’t much matter,” as the fate of SentryWorld was contemplated, that the golf industry as a whole was viewed as stagnant and a poor risk. “We were fully aware that golf course construction had slowed and that younger generations are not embracing golf as much,” McPartland says. “But the overarching conclusion was that there were still many good reasons why we should not only restore [SentryWorld] to its original grandeur, but take it to new levels.”
Fortunately for Sentry, many of those who made important contributions to creating SentryWorld could still be tapped to help with the restoration and enhancement efforts. Robert Trent Jones Jr., who has called the SentryWorld course “my Mona Lisa,” was brought back to give it new expression, this time in partnership with former associates Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi. And Golf Course Superintendent Gary Tanko, who has been at the property since starting as an irrigation technician during the course’s initial construction and grow-in, directed the changes that renewed every aspect of its infrastructure, from turf to bunkers to cart paths.
The renovation also involved major alterations (including significant tree removal) to the parkland course layout—but perhaps the most dramatic change of all was the decision to now close the course on Mondays, to give Tanko and his staff time to recondition it properly after heavy weekend play.
For the upgrade of the SentryWorld clubhouse, Director of Hospitality Susan Placzek, who first came to the property as Director of Sales in 1986, led the team that worked with architect John Sather of Swaback Partners in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The extensive makeover included the addition of an atrium to expand available meeting and event space. Within its existing space, enough new design “wows” were produced at every turn—from the entryway and grand staircase to the rebranded PJ’s restaurant to the second-floor Great Hall ballroom, with its enhanced golf-course views—to earn national interior renovation awards.
The biggest “wow” of all, though, was generated through the transformation of the building’s exterior, which now extends a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired, Northwoods theme around all sides, creating strong first impressions when guests drive up that become lasting ones as they continue to see the building from the course, or sit under it in popular new outdoor areas.
Bringing It All Home
SentryWorld’s facilities are now under the direction of Mike James, PGA, a Stevens Point native who worked in the SentryWorld cart barn as a teenager, before embarking on a career path that took him to management positions in high-end properties including Ritz-Carlton’s Tiburon resort in Naples, Fla., and The Resort at Glade Springs, the sister property of the Greenbrier in West Virginia.
James became SentryWorld’s new General Manager in May 2014, and immediately drew on his experience to instill service and hospitality standards that would match the upgraded facilities. All staff members are given pocket cards that contain a mission-statement credo, guidelines for success in their jobs, and 17 service standards they are expected to follow and encouraged to be prepared to recite when asked, to earn service pins and awards. The standards mix the practical (“I personally escort guests to their intended destination, instead of pointing the way”) with the inviolable (“I am committed to the Sentry Insurance Code of Ethics and Conduct”).
James instituted the renewed emphasis on standards not only because he knows it will be critical to operational success (the facility, McPartland says, is expected to perform as a business unit that can “stand on its own and cover day-to-day costs”), but also because he feels, and wants all to share, a special passion for, and connection to, the property.
“This was really a unique opportunity for me, to come back home and help to restore the luster,” James says. “I know from growing up here how much a place like this can do for the community, both by providing enjoyment for those who already live here, and by attracting others from outside the region to come here and see how nice it can be.
“When I see high-school seniors coming over here to take their class pictures in front of our fireplace, that’s what it’s all about,” James adds. “There aren’t too many other places where you can be part of that kind of thing every day.”