Louisianians of the Year

Eight of Our Favorites Making This State Great

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Entrepreneur

Tom Benson

Metairie
Owner, New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Hornets
Developer

Making Home a Big-League Town

Tom Benson tells the story about the phone call he got in 1985 from then-Gov. Edwin Edwards. John Mecom Jr., the original owner of the New Orleans Saints franchise, wanted to sell, and there was a chance that the city might lose the team to out-of-state investors. Edwards told Benson that he had put together a meeting with some potential investors and would like Benson to attend. Benson recalled that he went to the meeting only to discover: “I was the only potential investor he had.”

Whatever cajoling Edwards did, it worked. Benson, at the time a little-known owner of car dealerships, put together a buyout group and plunged into the world of NFL football. Benson would soon buy out his partners and become sole owner of the franchise he has shepherded since then, building a success in one of the league’s smallest markets and being one of only a minority of owners who can wear a Super Bowl ring.
In 2012 Benson got another call, this time from David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association. We will assume that Stern did not have Edwards’ chutzpah, but here, again, the effort worked. By most accounts Benson was not pleased when the NBA Charlotte Hornets first relocated to New Orleans; now he owns the franchise. In the process he has made deals with the state that are reviving downtown, including an overhaul of the Superdome and his purchase of the adjacent building, most recently known as the Dominion Towers and now called the Benson Towers.

If anything, Benson’s investments are certainly high- profile, including his purchase of television station WVUE-TV (Fox 8), which, insiders say, Benson has energized.

  According to Forbes Magazine, Benson, as of September 2012, was worth $1.2 billion, putting him at No. 360 on the magazine’s Top 400 list. In a state short on the super-rich, Benson’s money has been a vital economic development tool. As a new sports entertainment complex develops in the vicinity of what, through Benson’s efforts, is now known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Benson’s money, in partnership with the state, has given life to an area that badly needed a stimulus.

Not everything was rosy in 2012. The NFL’s bounty investigation was hurtful, but no one blamed Benson, and the final judgment has yet to be rendered.

Unquestioned has been Benson’s philanthropy. Most recently Benson and his wife, Gayle, funded a cancer recovery center at Ochsner hospital. Personally, as well as through the Saints and the Hornets, Benson’s holdings have written many checks for community causes.
Forbes’ description of Benson says a lot about him: “self-made.” Born in New Orleans to a working-class family and armed with a high school diploma, he maneuvered his way to the top. He’s done a lot and presumably has all that he needs, except possibly for two more pieces of jewelry – a ring for an NBA championship and another one for another Super Bowl.

– Errol Laborde

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