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The stories, laughs and cigars were plentiful when 76 A. O. Smith wholesalers, contractors and reps were teamed up with several sports and entertainment personalities for a special golf event this fall in Charleston, SC.
Play With a Pro literally began with “a” pro — Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey, whose rise from wrapping insulation around water heaters on the production line at A. O. Smith’s McBee, S.C., plant to playing on the PGA Tour, is the stuff of legends. Gainey would often use his earnings for entrance fees to golf tournaments in hopes of launching his career in the pro ranks. He got his ‘Big Break’ on Golf Channel’s series of the same name in 2005 and 2007, and A. O. Smith became one of his initial sponsors. It’s been a win-win for both in the ensuing years and has led to some great customer reward opportunities for A. O. Smith.
“Our sponsorship of Tommy goes way beyond a mere transactional sports endorsement,” noted A. O. Smith Vice President of Marketing David Chisolm. “He’s a part of our family. We partnered with him early on, so we’ve had the privilege of seeing him bloom into a full-time PGA Tour professional. He loves doing these events with us and often stops by our customers’ hospitality events at the various PGA Tour stops throughout the year.”
Since that first year, Play With a Pro has evolved dramatically. From one sales-contest-winning foursome that had a private dinner and round of golf with Gainey, it’s grown to 18 customer foursomes this year. And the celebrity roster has expanded as well. Among this year’s notables — in addition to Gainey — were former NFL stars Jim McMahon and Sterling Sharpe; MLB greats Ken Singleton and Mickey Tettleton; Hootie & the Blowfish founding members Darius Rucker, Dean Felber and Mark Bryan; legendary Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen; and professional golfers Robert Gamez and Josh Broadaway. And I was lucky enough to cover the event first hand!
Having Charleston as a backdrop for the event drew a big thumbs up from customers.
As Chisolm said, “Charleston is a fantastic city. It offers great weather and has some of the best dining establishments and entertainment options in the country.
There is a tight ‘fraternity’ of South Carolina alums who have had great success in music and athletics and who continue to make “Chucktown” their home in the area, so that lends itself to their participation.”
Part of that fraternity is Paul Graham and his team at South Carolina-based Empire Sports Management — the group that helped to organize the event. Graham became friends with the “Hootie” band members in college and later became their tour manager as they rocketed to stardom.
“Play With a Pro comes together thanks to a seamless collaboration between A. O. Smith’s marketing department and Empire Sports, whose clients include Gainey and other tour players,” praised Chisolm. “They are critical in developing these types of events. The on-site support ensures we deliver a first-class event for our customers. I can’t speak highly enough of the team at Empire, as well as our Marketing Program Manager Kristin Huff, in their ability to execute flawlessly.”
Play With a Pro kicked off on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 2. Leaving no detail overlooked, participants were met at the airport as they arrived in Charleston.
Fred Schwan, President of Mississippi Coast Supply, who brought along his son Freddy Schwan, contractor Bubba Parrish and rep John Woolf, said, “They catered to us every minute from the time we landed. A. O. Smith and Empire Sports did a great job from beginning to end.”
A. O. Smith’s headquarters in Charleston was the Doubletree Suites in historic downtown. Abhi Singh, General Manager at J.H. Aitcheson, a division of Hajoca Corp., noted, “We could not have stayed at a better place. Being in the heart of downtown Charleston was a great location for dining, entertainment, history and fun.” Singh — whose company has been an A. O. Smith customer for more than four decades — brought along Business Development Manager Ed Rodriguez as well as vendor partner Todd Kampfmueller of N.H. Yates.
Once customers were settled at the hotel, they were invited to stop by the event registration area, where they received enviable “swag bags” that included some fantastic take-home gifts.
“Keeping with the theme of making this a first-class event, the ‘swag bag’ is just another example of how we like to treat our customers,” said Chisolm. “The gifts can range from a new pair of Maui Jim sunglasses to a pair of cowboy boots. It’s always something first-class, though. This year, Nike was on-site offering a pair of golf shoes and all-weather pullovers; our customers were certainly well-equipped for a fun day on the golf course.”
Greg Goatcher, President of San Diego Winsupply, was impressed with the generous gesture. “New golf shoes,” he exclaimed. “Are you kidding me? How did they know I needed some? Seriously, every part of the trip was covered in first-class style.”
That evening, the group enjoyed dinner at High Cotton, which was an easy walk from the hotel. The low country cuisine restaurant uses fresh, local ingredients to create award-winning dishes. A. O. Smith had a private dining room with warm décor that featured heart pine floors and antique brick walls.
“When you fill a room full of successful business leaders, combined with successful athletes like Jim McMahon, Dan Jansen and Ken Singleton to name a few, great conversations and memories are made,” said Singh. “I had the pleasure of sharing a dinner table with the three gentlemen I just mentioned. What a great experience!”
Following dinner, guests enjoyed the humor of the Golf Channel’s Charlie Rymer and his former sidekick Holly Sonders, who will be joining the Fox NFL crew next season. The two had a great time teasing each other and entertained the crowd with behind-the-scenes stories from their years at the network. It was one of the highlights of the evening for everyone and generated non-stop laughs. There was also an impromptu “throwdown” between Gainey — an SEC and Gamecock die-hard — and Gamez’s wife Denise — a devoted Big 10 and Ohio State fan.
“The entertainment was great and we loved all the banter,” said Schwan, an A. O. Smith customer for 25 years.
Later that evening, the fun continued at nearby local watering holes including the outdoor covered deck at Tommy Condon’s. It was a relaxed and casual atmosphere and an ideal opportunity for A. O. Smith’s customers to kick back with the celebrities.
“Undeniably, this is one of the best parts of the trip,” said Schwan. “Hanging out with Jim McMahon, Ken Singleton, Tommy Gainey and others makes for a fun time. They were extraordinarily gracious in remembering our names and making it a personal experience.”
Goatcher added, “I was impressed that Ken Singleton, who I played with last year, actually remembered me considering how many events he does each year and the amount of people he comes in contact with all the time.”
Added Singh, “It was like they had known us for years. We ended up going out after dinner and had a blast sharing stories and a lot — and let me stress, a LOT — of laughs!”
“Seeing our customers have such a good time is the best part for me,” said Chisolm. “There’s just something special about seeing a lifelong Bears fan go crazy over getting his picture taken with Jim McMahon. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. To see our customers enjoying themselves, making memories and to know that we are able to provide that experience simply because of our collective efforts.”
While the foursomes themselves were set in advance, choosing their celebrity teammate was done through a draft during the pairings breakfast the following morning.
“We do it differently every year based on how the various groups qualify, but lately we’ve been doing a drawing to determine a draft order,” Chisolm said. “We reveal the full list of celebrities and professionals and give a brief bio on each one. At that point, we go into a highly competitive draft. First-round picks in previous years have included John Daly and Tommy Gainey. This year, it was Holly Sonders.”
Selecting the ideal celebrities to participate is key to making this event so memorable for contest winners.
“Over the years, we’ve found the secret sauce,” Chisolm said. “We like to have a good mix of star power in addition to folks who are down to earth and enjoy letting their hair down a bit. At the end of the day, this is a celebration. We want our loyal channel partners to walk away knowing that we are truly appreciative for their partnership, and the celebrities/professionals who we select go a long way in helping us communicate that message.”
Rucker is always a favorite among A. O. Smith customers. The South Carolina-born entertainer continues to stay true to his roots and his longtime friends.
“Darius has always been very gracious with his time and is so accommodating with our customers,” Chisolm said. “He’s been coming for the last four or five years, and we are always thankful for his participation. Another highlight for our customers is Charlie Rymer from the Golf Channel. He likes to have a good time and makes folks feel at home. Charlie is one of the funniest guys on the planet and has a knack for getting folks to let their guard down and enjoy their time at the event.”
Singh, who grew up playing golf and says some of his best memories and life lessons came from being on the course with his dad, and his group chose Mark Bryan, who he described as a “great, laid-back guy.” Along the way he discovered that Bryan grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, where Singh now lives. “It was a perfect icebreaker, and made for a lot of conversation as we were able to share stories about places we’ve both been,” he said.
Schwan added, “We drew #9 in the picks, and my playing partners felt really strongly about Mark Silvers because like Gainey, he is also a past winner of the Big Break and plays on the Web.com Tour. Mark is a great player and a lot of fun. We let him hit last in the lineup, which gave him a chance to cut loose on the tee and get a good read on the greens. I expect to see him on the PGA Tour in the future. He made us feel comfortable, and we wore him out asking questions about his experience on the Big Break and life in professional golf.”
Bulls Bay, a private enclave set against the Atlantic Ocean and its tidal salt marshes, was the setting for the golf tournament. The once-flat stretch of Carolina low country coastline was transformed by its designers into a setting similar to the great links courses of Scotland and Ireland. In fact, roughly 2 million cubic yards of earth was moved to reshape the site during development. The result is 75-foot elevation changes and 360° views.
“We love the Bulls Bay golf course,” Chisolm said. “It’s the home course for the Hootie and the Blowfish band members, and it always draws positive feedback from customers.”
Singh shared, “The course was fantastic! The layout was challenging but not impossible, and the views were breathtaking. From the elevated clubhouse to the holes that are right on the bay, there is not a bad hole on the course. Mark [Bryan] is a member, and it was really cool that he gave us a history of the course and took us off the beaten path to see some of the views that only locals know about. I’m looking forward to going back again soon!”
There was a shotgun start and teams played a best ball format. As Goatcher laughingly described, “I can’t speak for everyone else, but I was a little nervous hitting that first shot. I just wanted to get past the ladies tee!”
Gainey, who typically plays in about eight similar events each year, said that to help his group get past their early jitters, “I just try to lighten the mood so we can just have a good time. I like to joke around with them, make fun of myself when I hit a bad shot and give them pointers that might help them hit a good shot or clinch a putt. I like to talk a lot on the golf course so I probably keep people entertained. It’s all about having fun and helping my team win.”
Another celebrity participator was Mickey Tettleton, who played catcher for a number of MLB teams, including Detroit and Baltimore and was also a two-time All-Star.
“It was a relaxed, first-class event,” he praised. “I play in a handful of these events every year, and on the first tee I always let my team know that the day is about having a few laughs and making the most of a day away from the office. I enjoy spending time answering the questions that my playing partners throw at me. It usually revolves around baseball — who I played with and against and things I experienced.
When it came to strategy, Singh succinctly summed up his team’s thinking: “Our strategy was simple. Keep it straight and let Mark and Eddie, who are long-ball hitters, carry us. Thankfully those two were in our group, otherwise Todd and I may still be trying to finish the back nine.”
Obviously, when you get that much testosterone together in a fun, yet competitive setting, there’s a lot of joking that goes on. And in the center of much of it is Rymer. He has so many stories about his years as a golf commentator and has had interactions with players like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. But at the same time, his self-deprecating sense of humor keeps those around him loose and laughing all day. Here’s just a glimpse. When questioned about what he most often gets asked by his playing partners, — and without missing a beat — Rymer said it’s, “How can you look even better in person than you look on television?
And you look damn good on television. Oh, and where’s Holly?”
And those who have witnessed his personality on TV won’t be surprised that he credited his “flatulence” for getting his team loosened up and more comfortable. But on a more serious note, Rymer was full of compliments for A. O. Smith.
“It’s the most fun, most laid back, most enjoyable event that I do all year. It’s the best time of year to be in one of my favorite cities. The golf course and food are outstanding, but it’s the people that make Play With a Pro so special. It’s the amazing mix of personable pros and celebrities who get along well with the A. O. Smith staff and their customers that puts it over the top.”
Sterling Sharpe, a former wide receiver for the Gamecocks and the Green Bay Packers, came in with his group with the lowest score of the day, recording a sizzling 54 for 18 holes.
“It was just a great day overall,” said Schwan. “I started playing when I was 35, which was 32 years ago — ouch — and I play quite a bit. It’s always fun to experience new courses and get a chance to play with a professional to get tips on your game.”
Singh added, “Our business is all about relationships and shared knowledge. Getting the opportunity to spend time with the A. O. Smith folks really showed me who they are, what they are about and how much they care. Our already-strong relationship has grown even stronger after this trip.”
Chisolm summed up the entire experience and why it’s so important for A. O. Smith to make this kind of investment, by saying, “Our customers were blown away. It’s an experience of a lifetime for them to rub elbows with these celebrities in such a personal setting, who make themselves so accessible and really care about being here. We always like to do things first-class at A. O. Smith, whether it’s the products we produce or the events we host. We are a driven, competitive organization, and we like to celebrate our victories, have a good time in the process and share that with our customers.”