Tom Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, who built started as a bookkeeper for a car dealership but became a billionaire, is dead at the age of 90 after being hospitalized for the flu, the team has confirmed on its website.
“Tom Benson, 90, passed away peacefully Thursday, March 15 at Ochsner Medical Center with his wife Gayle Marie Benson at his side. Mr. Benson was hospitalized with the flu Feb. 16,” the team wrote. In 2015, The Advocate reported that, upon his death, Tom Benson would transfer ownership of the clubs to his wife, who married Tom in 2004. She had worked for a custom jeweler and as an interior designer, according to The Advocate.
Benson lived the quintessential rags-to-riches tale.
Thomas Milton Benson, Jr. was born on July 12, 1927 in New Orleans to Thomas Milton Benson Sr. and Carmelite Marie Pintado Benson, according to the team’s statement. “Raised in the 7th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans, Mr. Benson graduated from St. Aloysius High School (now Brother Martin) in 1944,” the team reported. “Following his high school graduation, he enrolled at Loyola University New Orleans to study business and accounting. He interrupted his education to enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he was assigned to the USS South Dakota. Upon the conclusion of World War II, Mr. Benson returned home to New Orleans and continued his business administration studies.”
Benson built his net worth – estimated at $3 billion – by starting at the bottom in a car dealership and working his way up to owning a series of car dealerships. “Tom Benson started out as a bookkeeper at a New Orleans Chevy dealership and funneled his earnings into car dealerships, local banks and sports teams,” Forbes Magazine reports. Benson’s survived by his wife, Gayle. His relationship with his family was fractious at times.
“Benson spent the past few years locked in a bitter dispute with his daughter and grandchildren over control of much of his fortune.
The nasty feud, in which family members claimed he was mentally incompetent to run the teams, ended in February 2017 with a confidential settlement,” Forbes reported.
Benson has owned the Saints since the 1980s. “In 1985, Mr. Benson purchased the New Orleans Saints after learning that the NFL franchise was on the verge of being sold to parties interested in relocating the team. Mr. Benson purchased the Saints on May, 31, 1985,” the team says. He added an NBA franchise to his repertoire. “In 2012, Mr. Benson purchased the National Basketball Association’s New Orleans Hornets franchise from the NBA, which the following season, he rebranded and had renamed the New Orleans Pelicans,” the team statement said.
“Benson, who parlayed his beginnings as a car salesman into an auto dealership empire, purchased the Saints in 1985 for $70 million and the franchise made the playoffs for the first time two years later,” USA Today reported.
He wasn’t always wealthy. As NFL.com wrote, “When he was a child in New Orleans, Tom Benson used to walk to and from school a few miles from his home in the Seventh Ward, pocketing the precious few pennies his family gave him for the streetcar because he didn’t like spending money he instead could save.”