Before the glamour that comes with two professional sports franchises, before the charity balls and the movie premieres, there was the daily grind of a less flashy business empire: a hunting ranch and a collection of car dealerships.
Battling to keep their place as that conglomerate’s heirs, Tom Benson’s daughter and grandchildren have argued in court filings this week that they played integral roles in the various family interests for decades, pushing back against Benson’s claim that none of them lived up to the role he once envisioned for them.
Whether or not the 87-year-old family patriarch was justified in moving to cut them out of his succession plan in January, their most recent court filing offers rarely heard details about the businesses that Benson owned before he bought the NFL’s Saints in 1985 and the NBA’s Pelicans — then the Hornets — in 2012.
Rita LeBlanc, a former executive with both teams, has played a high-profile role, but much less has been known about how Benson’s daughter, Renee Benson, and his grandson, Ryan LeBlanc, have spent their professional lives.
The responsibilities Rita carried out in the public domain included owners’ meetings, news conferences and marketing campaigns she took part in for years as vice chairwoman of the board for the football and basketball teams. Ryan and Renee had less visible roles.
Renee, the daughter of Benson and his first wife, Shirley, started out in 1979 doing the bookkeeping, tax reporting and vendor communications for a family hunting ranch in Johnson City, Texas — about 65 miles north of San Antonio — that now encompasses 2,600 acres.
Later, she took on other responsibilities, including the care of young horses, scheduling the breeding of mares and the supervision of some 120 thoroughbreds. She kept tabs on expenses and the burning of land used for grazing and hunting.
In the mid-1990s, Benson introduced Renee into his banks and car dealerships. He made her the first woman to serve on the board of directors for those holdings. In fact, the court filing says, she’d been a member since 2002 of the board of directors of Lone Star Capital Bank, which operates seven branches in and around San Antonio, where Benson bought his first car dealership in the 1960s.
On the automotive side, the task of appointing and firing general managers and other top staff at all the dealerships fell to Renee, her lawyers claim.
“She was responsible for reviewing and critiquing financial statements and month-end packages,” they said, overseeing a slew of different corporate departments and managing property rentals, dealership rents and leases.
As for Ryan, he briefly worked as a hand at the ranch before becoming its general manager in 2002. His lawyers said he oversaw improvements to everything from facilities and equipment to the management of deer and cattle. The filing even claims that he helped the business turn its first profit in 2004, when he was still in his 20s.
“His leadership ensured that the ranch’s revenue continued to see increases above and beyond historical benchmarks,” Ryan’s lawyers said.
Ryan moved into the family’s automotive operations in 2010, tasked with reviewing and managing financial statements, sales statistics, service numbers and human resources issues.
Ryan’s lawyers said he helped deliver record profits at his grandfather’s dealerships in 2013 and 2014. Under Ryan, his lawyers said, Mercedes-Benz of New Orleans and Mercedes-Benz of San Antonio won an award given to the country’s top 25 dealerships.
“That was a great accomplishment, especially given that Mercedes-Benz of San Antonio’s Customer Service Index had been ranked as one of the worst in the nation in 2012,” the filing says.
Of course, lawyers for Tom Benson disagree with the idea that Rita, Renee or Ryan have had successful careers in the family businesses.
In competing filings, Benson has argued that none of the three “rose to the task” of proving they could take over for him. And he claims they have never behaved well toward his third wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004, though he has provided few specifics.
After being fired from all the businesses and informed of an altered succession plan that would leave Gayle as the principal heir, Rita, Renee and Ryan filed a suit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court that seeks to have the 87-year-old Benson declared mentally unfit to make such drastic business decisions.
A hearing on that matter has been set for Feb. 10 in front of Judge Kern Reese.