Growing up, all of us have dreams – to become a doctor, a vet, a lawyer or whatnot. Somewhere out on a ranch in the Hill Country of Texas, one young girl didn’t dream of getting up at 4 a.m. to feed the cows, muck out stalls or become a 4-H phenom. Bookish, she dreamed of literature – and of football. Not playing it but the possibility of working for one of the family businesses. The business? The New Orleans Saints. The girl? Rita Benson LeBlanc, who with her grandfather, Tom Benson, owns the Saints.
As an owner and on a number of National Football League (NFL) committees, LeBlanc holds her own against some of the most powerful men – and football team owners – in the U.S.: Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Al Davis (Oakland Raiders) and Dan Rooney (Pittsburgh Steelers); not to mention her grandfather. But she isn’t always the only female in the room – LeBlanc is one of five female owners in the NFL – Virginia Halas McCaskey, Chicago Bears (the team has won a Super Bowl during her ownership); Marie Denise DeBartolo York, San Francisco 49ers; Georgia Frontiere, St. Louis Rams (another a Super Bowl winner during her ownership); and Nancy Adams, co-owner with her husband, Bud Adams, Tennessee Titans.
Yet, despite being front and center for what is a high-powered, high-pressure job, LeBlanc hasn’t become cynical and retains a guileless charm – though she’s a bit guarded. She’s in the spotlight but still wants to have some semblance of privacy – I was told a few things about her private life that I was asked to keep off the record. LeBlanc is professional but has the same enthusiasms someone her age has – when asked who her favorite musicians were and I didn’t recognize the names, she shared samples of their music with me from her computer. LeBlanc was open to suggestions from me about musicians (Gillian Welch) and books (The Blind Side by Michael Lewis).
Yet with all of her business smarts she values her right brain as well. She’s a self-described bibliophile – and also speaks about being a writer. Her other artistic pursuits are relegated to “drawing a diagram of the stadium to show where we’re going to put the game day operations,” she says.
LeBlanc has strong roots to the bayou – she was born in Houma, when her family lived in Cut Off (her mother is Tom Benson’s daughter) – and considers herself from both here (“Down on the bayou, it was always about food,” she says) and Texas. It’s an interesting mix – she is, in a true sense, a person to watch.
Age: 30 Profession: Owner and executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans VooDoo Born: Houma, La. Raised: Hill Country in Texas Resides: Old Metairie Education: Graduate of Texas A&M University with a bachelor of science in agribusiness; a certificate in international business at Texas A&M’s Mays School of Business; member of the inaugural class of the NFL Managers Program at Stanford University’s Executive Education Graduate School of Business. Favorite book: There are so many. I read, collect – I’m a bibliophile. An old stand-by is The Count of Monte Cristo. I like Mexico by James A. Michener – that book was lost, then found years later and he revised passages. As a result he also wrote My Lost Mexico, which is about how he wrote and re-wrote the book. I’ve always picked up books about writers talking about their writing experiences. Favorite restaurant: Commander’s Palace. And I also like Clancy’s and Emeril’s. Favorite food: Langoustines [large prawns]. I have to control myself with the bread and butter. I love rich foods, like macaroni and cheese. Favorite movie: I love art house movies, historical dramas, and BBC films. I think Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett is incredible. I really like epic stories about history. Favorite musicians: Kenna, Jeff Buckley, Chantal Karviazak. I admire singer/songwriters. I also like soundtracks because I like to visualize the story. Favorite vacation spot: Europe – London, Paris, Tuscany, Spain. I lived a semester during college in Tuscany.
I have to ask – you majored in agribusiness – what is that? Were you planning to use that degree at your mother’s ranch? It’s more of a business management degree partnered with an agriculture economics degree. There was this part of the program called “Skip Lunch” at which students got to know their professors – over free pizza, which of course attracted us. These guys were serious intellectuals but spoke about their experiences – it was more applied to the industry, not straight theory. Agribusiness isn’t about running a ranch, it’s more about the companies that move commodities and how the world functions – food, textiles and other items. There’s an agricultural element to almost everything.
No 4-H for you? I didn’t do 4-H. I wasn’t into it – I never wanted to do the competition thing. We had animals on the ranch but I was a bookworm; I just wanted to read. But you can’t grow up in that environment without having an understanding and appreciation for it.
How did you start with the Saints? Ever since I was young, my interest in football was as it being one of the family businesses. I began as an intern – I would come to New Orleans during school breaks – and worked in every department. The experience was invaluable.
What’s it like to be one of the few women owners in the NFL? I’m used to – and like – being around powerful men and always felt at ease in business circles. The NFL owners are an interesting mix of people: some are family legacies, others are self-made men. The strength of the league comes from their diverse experiences.
In addition to being an owner, what do you do within the NFL and the Arena Football League (AFL)? I chair the NFL Employees Benefit Committee, serve on the NFL International Committee and represent the Saints at NFL owners’ meetings. For the AFL, I’m the co-chair of the AFL Properties Committee and the Executive Committee.
How much time do you devote to the Saints and VooDoo? During each team’s season, that’s where the focus is on. But off-season we’re preparing for that team’s next season, training camp, renegotiating contracts, ticket renewals and planning what events we’ll do with our sponsor partners.
I also think tradition is important – I like to keep things consistent – but remember that we’re entertaining the fans. There are little things we can do for them. There are a lot of details involved.
Such as? We are trying to observe and explore where the sports marketing dollars are going. We always hear when we’re negotiating deals about what other sports do or why they’re spending more money in that sport. We are trying to critique our competition – how do we make ourselves better? I haven’t been to a NASCAR event – it’s something that’s wildly different but is known for being courteous to their sponsors, very involved and the sponsors enjoy it.
Whatever your industry is, you should always look at your competition. And now, as we’re getting more interest from core national campaigns, as far as sponsorships go, then we’re in a way competing outside of our market and that just strengthens the team for here.
What are your thoughts on New Orleans and the Saints? The health of the economy is directly tied to our [the Saints] health.
We have to make the city’s education strong. The New Orleans business community takes a greater role in the community than citizens realize. The team contributes to a number of local groups – through the New Orleans Saints Hurricane Katrina Fund or the Saints Foundation.
What is the hardest part of your job? Being everywhere for everyone. What is your favorite part of the job? Having the chance to be a leader in the community.
Do you talk business with your grandfather? Daily – we’re office buddies when he’s here.
What excites you about the Saints this year? All the possibilities. Never have we had this mix of coaches and there’s so much talent – all of whom are working so hard. In what charitable endeavors do you participate? In addition to taking a role in the New Orleans Saints’ community efforts, I serve on United Way’s Board of Trustees, the New Orleans Business Council, Loyola University’s Board of Trustees, the Shirley Landry Benson PACE Center at St. Cecilia and the Obate Missionary Partnership. I’m also involved in the efforts to support coastal preservation and flood protection. I’ve participated with Women of the Storm and the Coastal Guardians.
I also work closely with the NFL securing grants that benefit youths and charitable efforts in the Gulf South.
We have a mutual friend – Robert LeBlanc [Ed. Note: owner of Republic and Le Phare, (no relation) and a New Orleans Magazine “Person to Watch 2007”] … We have a connection through Loyola University. He’s a wonderful story about a young person who could have gotten a business management job anywhere but he started a small business here and it’s a success. We’re in a group of young people that are all trying to help each other. Ours is a generation that’s very much into service and caring.
Sometime before or after the storm I attended something at which an expert on generational marketing told stories about young professionals, those in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who – like me – want to be part of reshaping a community. I remember during a meeting of another group I’m involved with, one of the more senior members told others that they needed to interact and meet this generation because they are reinspiring us to why it’s important to maintain our culture and way of life – it’s because we love it!
And whether people had been here before the storm or popped through it in life, the whole community is attracting such an interesting mix of people. It’s exciting.
If you could play any position on the football team, what would it be? Tight end. Because you can block and smash people, as well as run plays and score. It’s the best of both worlds.
True confession: It’s sort of a happy dream to one day spend more time writing and creating. I’ve always had a passion for writing, books and literature, [per my writing] nothing overly with structure yet. I’m a fish-in-water with literature and everyone thought I should become a writer but I wasn’t willing to be a starving writer. So I feel that once everything is set and comfortable, I’ll share what musings I’m willing to share.