Years from now Mississippi golf fans will tell of how chicken — or, more specifically, a chicken empire — saved the state’s spot on the Professional Golf Association tour.
The rescue required convincing Joe Sanderson Jr. and the board of his publicly traded company that chicken and the sponsor-less True South Classic belonged together under the new tournament name of the Sanderson Golf Championship.
The persuasion job belonged to Johnny Lang, a Jackson financial investment adviser with Morgan Stanley and president of Century Club Charities, a golf-centered organization that serves as the charitable arm of the state’s PGA tournament. The sinking finances of Century Club Charities and the strong likelihood that the PGA would yank the tour stop away from Mississippi unless a sponsor came forward added to the urgency of Lang’s task.
Lang had approached seven corporate entities in Mississippi. Sanderson Farms was the only one not to reply in the negative.
His first pitch to Joe Sanderson didn’t bring a “yes.” But importantly, the CEO “didn’t say ‘no,’” Lang says.
At the urging of former Century Club Charities president and restaurauteur Tico Hoffman, Gov. Phil Bryant pitched in with a call to Joe Sanderson to emphasize the value of the tournament to Mississippi and the urgency to keep it.
Lang recalls that first contact he had with Joe Sanderson: “To his credit, his initial reaction was to speak as CEO of Sanderson Farms.”
First, as a publicly held company, Laurel-based Sanderson Farms’ venture into a sponsorship role would have to show a potential for a return on investment. “We can’t sell chicken over the Golf Channel,” Lang says Sanderson told him.
It was January 2013 and the Sanderson Farms board would be meeting. It would not, however, hear CEO Sanderson propose taking on the sponsorship. “I had to think about that,” Sanderson says. “I told my board I was not ready to recommend anything yet.”
Sanderson Farms’ television advertising market targeted women ages 25 to 65 – not a prime audience for an all-male golf tournament that lacked big names like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Sanderson concluded he could not sell his board on the advertising value of the sponsorship. But he could propose an entirely new profile-building approach for the company. “Sanderson Farms had never done any public relations or corporate profiling. I had to come at it from that angle,” he says.
The sponsorship would also mark a change in an approach by which Sanderson Farms did its philanthropy out of the public eye, according to Sanderson. “Every year in October we make our gifts to various charities and institutions. We never publicize it. We always felt like when we support a charity or a college that that was not something we needed to stand on a street corner and tell about.”
The philanthropy includes matching employee donations to the United Way and making contributions to colleges and universities in the states in which Sanderson Farms operates.
As Sanderson thought over the tournament sponsorship, he kept thinking of the financial benefits Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital in Jackson receives through money Century Club Charities raises from the PGA tour stop. “My granddaughter had been a patient at the hospital on more than one occasion. I certainly did not want the hospital to lose the proceeds from that tournament,” Sanderson says of the pediatric medical facility on the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus.
He also dwelled on the potential loss of the $25 million economic boost the tournament gives the state annually. He worried about Mississippi’s image as well, Sanderson recalls. “I thought it would have been an embarrassment for the state to lose that PGA event,” he says.
Between the January and February board meetings, Sanderson met with tournament organizers and his own executive staff. “We discussed this as a way for public relations instead of advertising.”
Like Joe Sanderson, company CFO Mike Cockrell struggled to see the value to shareholders. However, the value soon came into focus, he says. “At the end of the day, we thought it would fit our brand and benefit our shareholders to help those children. Once we began to think of it that way, it was an easy decision.”
So was the September 2013 decision to take on a three-year sponsorship extension, Cockrell says.
The marketing analytics folks say the frequent mentions of the Sanderson Farms name throughout the televised tournament make the sponsorship a bargain. Couple that with the enhancement of the corporate image, and the investment’s value is even clearer, the CFO says.
“I think our shareholders benefit from every penny” spent on the tournament.
Meanwhile, after the calls from Lang and Gov. Bryant, Sanderson decided he’d recommend giving the tour stop sponsorship a one-year tryout. He invited Lang to come to Laurel to help sell the board.
“He gave me 15 minutes to come down and tell the story,” says the former Ole Miss golfer and several-ime amateur competitor in the Magnolia Classic golf tournament, predecessor to today’s Sanderson Championship.
Lang says he strongly emphasized the tournament’s economic punch, its importance to Mississippi’s image and the significance of the event as a fundraiser for the children’s hospital. To continue, the tournament critically needed an engaged sponsor, Lang says he told the Sanderson board.
By March 2013, Lang had an agreement from the board. It came with a specific instruction from Sanderson, Lang notes: “Have the best possible tournament event we can have.”
That 2013 tournament generated a $400,000 contribution to Batson Children’s Hospital. This year’s check, to be presented in January, is expected to be more than $1 million, Lang says.
“It’s all because of Joe Sanderson,” he says. “They have been all-in ever since” accepting the role of sponsor.”
With the move of the tournament from Annandale Golf Club in Madison to the Country Club of Jackson this year, tournament organizers could add new events and amenities. That all added to revenue that brought the winner’s prize from $540,000 in 2013 to 2014’s $700,000-plus. The enhancement also allowed for the increased contribution by Century Charities.
Further, the Sanderson Farms Championship’s total purse rose by $1 million from 2013’s level to $4 million for last November’s tournament.
The move from the thunderstorms and heat of July to crisp fall weather in November proved a winning idea, says Steve Jent, who took over as the tournament’s first full-time executive director slightly more than a year ago.
The move to November also put the Sanderson Championship at the front end of the 2014-2015 schedule, which the PGA predicted would lead players to use the Jackson event to get out of the gates fast and strengthen their early standing in competition for the FedEx Cup.
The hiring of a director and Jent’s full time staff of four came at Joe Sanderson’s insistence. Organizers had previously used Birmingham’s Bruno Sports Marketing and Event Management to put on the tournament.
“The scope and size of the tournament has been elevated,” says Jent, who came to the Sanderson Championship from Greensboro, N.C., where he led sales and marketing efforts for the Windham Golf Championship.
“Moving to the Country Club of Jackson really lays the groundwork for the future,” Jent adds.
A “future” was not at all a certainty for the tournament two years ago. Without a title sponsor, money to put on the event had to come from Century Charities’ dwindling reserves, Johnny Lang recalls.
After the loss of Viking as main sponsor, the tournament became the True South Classic, a name the sponsor-less PGA event adopted to reflect the contributions received from the state Division of Tourism, which promotes the state with the slogan “Find Your True South.”
By the end of 2012, Century Club had “burned up most of our reserves,” says Lang, who is in his final year as president of the charitable organization.
The tournament came to life in 1968 as the Magnolia Classic in Hattiesburg and gained its first title sponsor in 1986 with the Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic, which remained in Hattiesburg until the move to Annandale in 1994. With the acquisition of Deposit Guaranty by what is now Regions Bank, the tournament got a new sponsor and name change to Southern Farm Bureau Classic. It became the Viking Classic in 2007 and remained so until 2012.
As 2013 approached, Lang and company were feeling the pressure to get a name sponsor. “Had we gone to the tour and said we don’t have a sponsor, they would have found us one,” Lang says. “But when the contract ended, they would have moved out of Mississippi.”
The tournament had to operate at a loss of more than $200,000 to keep its place on the schedule. “We were literally down to our last year when I visited Joe in 2013,” Lang says.
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