By Rick Brown, Principal Charity Classic Senior Reporter
Nick Cecere grew up in Utica, N.Y., and started his professional career in upstate New York before his job took him to California. He came to Des Moines to work for Principal in 1996 and is now a senior vice president in charge of distribution. In August 2017, the former professional hockey player was named president of the Principal Charity Classic board of directors.
RB: How has hockey played a role in your life?
NC: I played college hockey at Elmira College. I left after my junior year to pursue professional hockey. I played two years and at the same time, worked on completing my degree (in economics from Utica College) during the summers. I wasn’t naïve enough to think I was going to play in the National Hockey League. But I had to get it out of my system.
RB: You’re still involved with the sport as a coaching director for the Midwest Amateur Hockey Association, an affiliate of USA Hockey. Why do you do that?
NC: That’s my give-back to the sport. Both of my sons played (NCAA) Division I hockey. Nick played at Niagara, and Garrett just finished at Northeastern. Both were captains of their teams. We’re hoping Garrett lands someplace in the American Hockey League next year. I was hoping the Iowa Wild here in Des Moines would give him a shot. And they still might.
RB: What is your favorite sports memory?
NC: This past February, Garrett’s team won the Beanpot Tournament in Boston. It had been 30 years since Northeastern had won that event. It was the most exhilarating experience, like winning a World Series.
RB: Is there a sports figure you admire most?
NC: Wayne Gretzky, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not because he was good at hockey. It was the way he handled himself. He always had poise and character and confidence, and he was a guy who never big-timed anybody. I would also say Mario Lemieux. Probably the two best hockey players ever. I know both of them, and they’re the nicest people in the world. We don’t talk about hockey. We talk about our kids.
RB: What do you enjoy the most about Des Moines?
NC: Hands down, it’s the people. Great people. Friendly, honest. And our greatest friends are here. My wife, Barb, moved to Des Moines sight unseen. We love it here.
RB: Do you play much golf?
NC: I do. My golf swing is a hockey swing. From a driving perspective, I can hit the ball a long way with a short swing. Sometimes I’ll hit my 3-wood because I can hit it straighter. I play at Wakonda Club, probably 10 to 12 times a year.
RB: You also play lot of business golf. Do you find it true that you learn a lot about a person during a round of golf?
NC: Vey much so. I like to listen. I ask questions about people as a sales person. If people are going to buy something from you, they have to trust you. And if you’re spending four hours with a person on a golf course, you get to know them. You ask about their family and get them to talk about things that are important to them. I listen to their story. That’s the fun part about it.
RB: How did you first get involved with the Principal Charity Classic?
NC: I first got involved through the tournament’s Pro-Am, which is a great opportunity to bring business customers out to the course and have them play a round with a PGA TOUR Champions golfer. It’s an experience they never forget. And I’ve done that for about 10 years now. Last January, (Principal CEO) Dan Houston and (Principal CMO) Beth Brady asked me to join the tournament’s board of directors. And I became board president in August.
RB: You said it’s like a full-time job, but what are the rewards?
NC: A recent experience comes to mind. Variety – the Children’s Charity of Iowa is one of our Tournament Charity Partners, and they lead a program that donates specialized bikes to children with disabilities, as well as traditional bikes to children in need. In March, I was part of a Variety bike donation to a great family that lives in a small town near Iowa City. Their 10-year-old son, Landon, has faced a lot of challenges since birth. And Variety had customized a bike just for him. When his little brother rode it out to surprise him, his face just lit up. It was priceless. A few weeks later, Landon’s parents sent photos of the brothers riding bikes near their home. They’d never been able to do that together before.
RB: Was it an adjustment, stepping up to be the president of the board?
NC: I don’t get nervous about a lot of things. But I can tell you, when they said, “You’re going to be chairman of the board of this thing,” I started to sweat a little bit. Because when you look at the quality of leadership in that room, from Dan Houston to Suku Radia to Rich Willis – I could go right down the line. Everybody in that room is a mover and a shaker. And it’s intimidating.
RB: What is one of the first things you did?
NC: I scheduled a meeting with every single person on the board. I spent at least an hour with each of them. And I took my notebook with me, like a good salesman, and I asked a lot of questions.
RB: What kind of questions did you ask?
NC: I asked them all three questions. On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate this tournament from an event perspective? What do we need to do better? And what are we doing that’s working? I wanted to see if there was anyone on the board who didn’t want to be there. And every single one of them said, “Nick, I’ll do whatever you ask me to.” Everyone was committed to the tournament and to what it does for the community.
RB: As president of the board, what is one of your most important goals?
NC: One of my goals is to ensure that Principal isn’t just footing the bill for the tournament and putting in all the legwork behind the scenes. Same with Wells Fargo, our great presenting sponsor. We always want to get other people involved, other local leaders and businesses. This is a true community event – everyone is welcome and encouraged to get involved, in whatever capacity they can. The tournament currently has more than 350 sponsors, from small, family-owned businesses to large corporations. Hundreds of volunteers join us from local partners each year. And we’re really proud of that engagement. We’re excited to keep building on it.
Last year, the Principal Charity Classic raised a record amount for Iowa children’s charities. More than $3.5 million in a single year. Incredible. And the tournament has now raised more than $13 million since Principal became title sponsor in 2007. That level of giving wouldn’t be possible without community engagement and a shared belief in what the tournament is all about. As Dan Houston always says, “Remember, it’s about the kids.”
RB: Do you feel this event improves the image of Des Moines?
NC: All my friends, my mom, my in-laws back on the East Coast watch the Principal Charity Classic on the Golf Channel, and they say, “What a great town you have.” People here don’t necessarily realize the exposure our community gets as a result of this tournament. And that’s really important. Because it’s not only about helping kids. It’s about growing our community and being part of something special here.
RB: Would you say volunteers are an important part of the tournament?
NC: Absolutely. Think about 1,200 volunteers. That’s how many it takes to run the tournament. It’s a lot of people who volunteer their time – and not all the jobs are glamorous. They choose to give back at the Principal Charity Classic because they believe in the event and what it does for the community. They work hard and make every day fun. We’re so appreciative of their support.
RB: Is one of the challenges to bring new and different things to the fan experience?
NC: It can’t be déjà vu all over again. You’ve got to spice it up a little bit. When fans walk out of the gates, I want them to say to themselves, “That was a lot of fun. We got to watch some great golf together, right here in our community, and it was all for a good cause. We’re coming back next year.”