SAN MARTIN, Calif. – Mary Petrovich has always walked her own path.
She became the first female caddie at a country club near her Michigan home, earned a college scholarship, competed as a student-athlete and parlayed those experiences into a position as a chief executive officer of a multi-million dollar business.
The oldest daughter in a family of eight, Petrovich saw her mother widowed at age 32 and having to make ends meet despite meager wages and no life insurance. The only way for a 12-year-old to make money was to inquire at Franklin Hills (Mich.) Country Club about being a caddie, where her older brother worked. Though the club gave her a try reluctantly, she did 200 loops that first year, worked six days a week and spent eight summers with the club.
“If I didn’t caddie, I wasn’t able to get money so I could get my sneakers or get my baseball mitt,” said Petrovich, who admits she was a tomboy growing up, playing all kinds of sports in the backyard with her three brothers and their friends. “It was a matter of survival. I needed to prove I could caddie. I knew I was strong enough.”
Franklin Hills was a caddie-oriented country club. The caddie shack was adorned with posters touting the Evans Scholars Foundation, which has been sending deserving caddies to college since 1930. She knew these scholarships could be life-changing and the encouragement was powerful.
She earned a scholarship and enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she was a preferred walk-on on the Wolverine softball team and took on one of the school’s toughest undergraduate majors, engineering.
“Two of my biggest memories are making the softball team and [being voted] captain,” said Petrovich, who graduated with a 3.3 grade-point average, earned four varsity letters as an infielder, and was named the university’s top female scholar-athlete in 1985.
The next step was earning an MBA from Harvard University. From there Petrovich stepped into a business world of 80-hour work weeks and international travel in a male-dominated industry. She relied on the perseverance she gained in her eight years as a caddie.
“I never thought about it as being a woman, although it was very obvious in the caddie yard,” said Petrovich, who has served as senior advisor to The Carlyle Group’s industrial and transportation group since 2011. “I had to prove myself capable. You can talk all you want but at the end of the day you need to get results. That’s how I won them over.”
Petrovich used her leadership skills and the team approach learned from her Michigan softball days to become a CEO at age 30 and help transform struggling global manufacturing businesses into industry leaders. Under her direction, AxleTech International (formerly Rockwell) went from a near-bankrupt company to profitability and was eventually sold to General Dynamics for $800 million.
“You can’t think of yourself as a woman; it’s how do I be the best that I can be,” said Petrovich, who was chosen one of Crain’s Top 100 Women in Business and was the recipient of the University of Michigan’s Industrial and Operations Engineering Alumni Merit Ward in 2007. “You have to get results but there is also an element of personality, too. I have a rapport in the work environment. You still have to work with people, and as a team, and they have to gel.”
Golf has continued to be part of Petrovich’s life. She is a director for both the Western Golf Association and the Evans Scholar Foundation, and she participated in her first USGA championship last year at the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur. This is her first USGA Senior Women’s Amateur, having made the field at 50, her first year of eligibility. “It’s another challenge,” she says. “It’s always cool to be near the top of the pyramid; that you can compete with the best of the best.”
Having learned the ropes as a caddie, she has not forgotten about giving back and staying involved. Petrovich was installed as the president of Michigan’s Letterwinners M Club two years ago and has tackled the job with typical zeal. The result is a group of professionals who are operating the club like a commercial enterprise.
“It’s rewarding to see the cycle repeating,” said Petrovich, who compares the postgraduate scholarships offered by the M Club to the chances for advancement golfers have on Golf Channel’s “Big Break” series. “People appreciate the opportunity. I see little glimmers of me out there and that makes me proud to help them.”