Alejandro Benes vividly remembers standing in front of the White House on Oct. 20, 1973, with a group of friends, after President Richard Nixon had ordered the firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Benes, then a college freshman, and friends simply “were watching as people were going in and out of the White House.”
He was witnessing history in the making. The firing of Cox and the resignations of the attorney general and his deputy shook the nation and became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Less than a year later, Nixon resigned. Benes was also unwittingly launching himself on his first career. “Watergate was my serious introduction to journalism,” he says.
Benes is now 51 and director of marketing and communication for the Southern California-based restaurant group Wood Ranch bbq & Grill, where he’s a partner. But that bygone era spurred what turned out to be an intriguing ride as a broadcast journalist. It’s a field he has “retired from” three times-most recently in 2006, when he became a restaurateur at a salary amounting to “somewhat less than” his onetime mid-six-figure network paycheck. “None of it has ever been about the money. Not the news business, that’s for sure,” Benes says with a laugh.
Smart choices. For Benes, the skills he learned as a globe-trotting journalist translate directly to the acumen needed to be a savvy business operator and investor. “If you’re a good reporter, you can ferret out information that helps you understand how things work,” he says. “From a business perspective, you apply that knowledge to making money through smart investment choices.”
In 1977, after graduating from American University with a dual major in broadcast journalism and Latin American affairs, the Cuban-born, bilingual Benes started at abc News in Washington as a desk assistant. Six years later, he was the network’s Latin America bureau chief, living in El Salvador.
In 1989, Benes landed at NBC News in New York, later becoming director of news coverage. While there, he negotiated for the network to produce live Today show broadcasts from Havana in February 1992 and was the coordinating producer for news and sports at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
That year, he began stepping in and out of his Watergate-inspired profession. Among his investment moves in the next few years was as a partner in Wood Ranch, a venture cofounded by a cousin. But Benes didn’t actually “retire” from NBC until 1994, when he embarked on a two-year management stint at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative think tank where he is a founding director. He coauthored with Charles Lewis, the center’s founder, The Buying of the President, on the role of money in politics.
That was followed by a foray with an entertainment holding company, a quick return to journalism as a news director with Univision, then by a second “retirement” from journalism to pursue business ventures in Asia and Australia, in addition to other U.S. investments.
The day after the 9/11 attacks, Benes was at home in Teaneck, N.J., when he was called by a former colleague, an executive at nbc in New York, and lured back with a slightly desperate “we need adults in the newsroom,” he recounts.
Benes thought he would be spending two weeks in the WNBC-TV newsroom. But he was hooked again. Benes stayed on as executive producer of investigative reporting. In 2004, he was recruited to WCBS, as executive producer of investigative and political reporting, by his ex-boss from NBC.
But when the general manager at wcbs said no story could be longer than a minute, a minute and 15 seconds tops, Benes balked: “What the GM was saying is we don’t want complex stories.”
Benes was in a position to walk away. He and his wife, Marianne, had saved enough to have a comfortable retirement nest egg. And Benes had outside investments to keep him busy, including his stake in Wood Ranch, which had grown to 10 restaurants since his initial investment.
Wood Ranch was now grossing over $50 million annually and poised to pursue a more aggressive growth plan-the 11th store is opening this month. Benes’s skills as a communicator could make a difference.
Simple pleasures. The move to the outskirts of Los Angeles from New Jersey meant shifting from a house with a nice backyard and tournament pool table to a two-bedroom apartment, but little else has changed in the couple’s lifestyle. The peripatetic Benes remains a bit of a sybarite, enjoying a Padrón cigar and smooth 23-year-old Zacapa dark rum while shooting pool at the nearby Four Seasons resort in Westlake Village.
While his working hours are somewhat more relaxed now, Benes plays multiple communications roles-internally, with the company’s 1,000-plus employees, and externally, with the 40,000-odd customers the restaurants serve each week. A favorite facet of his new work world is frequent restaurant visits to chat with diners and staff and get a feel for what’s working and what needs attention.
“I don’t miss the news business because I don’t think it exists in the way I understood and valued it,” he says. “I loved the fact that as a journalist you could go places, meet people, talk to people, get an understanding of our world.”
Sounds a lot like the restaurant business, Benes says, only “you don’t have to go through security and take your shoes off all the time.”