Alfredo “Albee” Benitez was never one to dream as a child—because he didn’t have to.
The son of late technocrats Jose Conrado “Jolly” Benitez and Betty Bantug—whose success spanned the fields of government, education, arts and culture, as well as the sugar industry of their native Negros—to describe the young Benitez’ growing up years as merely comfortable is an understatement.
“Our family had everything. We lived a privileged life so that when you ask me what I wanted to become when I was a child, wala nga, eh,” the now accomplished businessman and lawmaker laughed sheepishly at himself in this exclusive interview with The Sunday Times Magazine.
“I didn’t dream of becoming anything precisely because we had everything,” he reiterated without a hint of arrogance in his voice. And as if to explain why he had to risk sounding pretentious all the same, the 51-year-old Representative of Negros Occidental’s 3rd District rushed to recall how a single event in Philippine history turned life as he knew it upside down. Providentially, it also pushed him to finally reach for the stars.
Just like the title of a public affairs program Benitez hosted and produced on ANC in recent years, the Edsa Revolution of 1986 was a “game changer” for his well-to-do family.
“My father was a government official during the Marcos regime. He was Human Settlements Deputy Minister and credited for designing social infrastructure programs that are still relevant today, including the Pag-Ibig Housing Fund. All the same, he was exiled after Edsa and was put in the last plane out that carried the Marcos family to Hawaii,” narrated the political scion.
Then studying college in the United States, Benitez remembered catching his own plane out of Williamsburg, Virginia after school that day to see his dad. And while he managed to finish an impressive course in BS Mathematics at The College of Williams & Mary despite his family’s predicament, there was hardly any promise waiting for him in the Philippines.
“When we came back, wala na talagang naiwan [there was nothing left]. Everything was sequestered and taken away from us. Yung bahay namin tinirahan na ng mga sundalo [the soldiers took residence in our home]. It was a complete reversal from where we were before.”
But rather than wallow in their misfortune, Benitez felt a challenge rise within him as he vowed to become his own man—and yes—as he started to dream.
“I guess if you lived a certain way before and nawala sa iyo [you lose everything], you’ll strive hard to reach that goal again,” he spoke with honesty. “But I also remember an aunt asking me, ‘Paano mo gagawin yan? Hindi mo naman yan madadaan sa mana kasi wala na [How do you plan to make it when all your inheritance is gone?].’ I told her, ‘I just have to work really, really hard’.”
With only fire in his belly, the twentysomething Benitez who never had to work a day in his life until then, embarked on a journey of self-discovery, where he identified his strengths and put them to use.
And while the Benitezes are chiefly regarded as a family of prominent educators [they owned and established the Philippine Women’s University], young Albee was unable to picture himself in the academe.
Instead, he gravitated toward the entrepreneurial nature of his mother’s side which had long been involved in the agriculture business.
“My first attempt was to trade sugar,” he related. Compelled to dream big, he added, “I tried to trade with other markets but that didn’t last long.”
Undaunted, he decided to go into something completely different from the industries he had been exposed to. For this new generation Benitez, it meant “creating my own business.”
“I had this intuition that big shopping malls, which were just starting out at the time, can widen their market by tapping into the mother and baby segment. I thought of that because I noticed that malls only catered to teenagers through to the forty-somethings, so there was an opening to get the moms to come and shop too.
“So I opened a baby stroller rental,” Benitez surprisingly said. “Our office was right below one of the staircases of Megamall, and moms who were too lazy to go malling before because it was difficult to bring babies, started coming in and patronizing our services.”
Getting that innovation right, Benitez felt he was on the right track and continued to look for the next promising void to fill within the mall’s operations.
“Conversely, I asked myself ano naman ang puwede kong gawin para sa mga matatanda? [What can I do for the senior citizens?]. They were also a completely untapped market. And that’s when the idea of bingo came about.”
Anyone who reads the business section—most especially those who play the stock market—will know that Albee Benitez is the man behind the publicly listed gaming empire that is Leisure & Resorts World Corporation (LRWC). Since founding the company almost 20 years ago, LRWC has established itself as a leader in the Philippine retail gaming market by “providing world-class multi-gaming platforms, products and games with a strong distribution network of entertainment facilities.”
Presently, LRWC’s assets include full ownership or majority investments and partnerships in such gaming and leisure establishments as First Cagayan Leisure and Development Corporation, Binondo Suites Manila, Techzone Makati and City of Dreams among others.
Now for those who are just getting to know about Albee Benitez, his overwhelming success becomes all the more fascinating because of its small and humble beginnings.
“When we launched the first bingo for seniors in Megamall, I hardly had any capital. What I did was to use the earnings of the stroller rentals to rent all the equipment for our first bingo operation and to print tickets. What we made from the ticket sales, I then used to buy the tables and chairs,” he narrated.
“When we got everything together, we finally held the game at one of the walkways of the mall—wala pang mga tenants noon [there were no tenants in that area at that time]—and I only requested to use the space for three hours.”
What was for all intents and purposes a community-based bingo operation quickly caught on, until—to borrow from the gaming lingo—Benitez found himself on a roll.
“People ask me why I got into the gaming business when my parents were educators and patrons of arts and culture… I just tell them, ‘Maybe I’m adopted’,” the business whiz chuckled. “But really, it all just came from finding where you can innovate, and from there, taking it further and further in the right direction.”
His father’s son
Bouncing back in an unprecedented way, and barely at the prime of his life, a sense of humility and gratitude, rather than self-righteousness took over Benitez amid his success.
“From losing everything, I was able to make more than I needed,” he reflected. “So at one point, I said this is more than enough—it’s time to give back to society and make a difference.”
But even with LRWC’s strong corporate social responsibility—adopting Gawad Kalinga Villages, sponsoring Palarong Pinoy playgrounds and mounting regular medical and dental missions in the depressed areas that surround their properties—the “do more” attitude that Benitez cultivated while rebuilding his foundation, nevertheless, led him toward the path of public service.
“I know for a fact based on my father’s work that being in government allows you to do more for the people, so I ran for congress in 2010.”
Now on his third and final term as Negros Occidental Representative, he has effectively worked to improve the district’s infrastructure and public facilities, implemented a health card system, boosted jobs creation and authored RA 10659: The Sugarcane Industry Development Act, among others. He has also filed the Administrative Capital City Planning Act and In-City Housing Act, vowing to see them passed into law before leaving Congress.
“It’s interesting how during my second term in 2013, I received word that I was appointed Chairman of the Committee on Housing and Urban Development, when I was asking to head Tourism because it was related to [my expertise in]gaming and leisure.
“Like I said earlier, my dad established the Ministry for Human Settlements, which really has the same function as the Housing committe.
“So when I won again in 2016, I said, let me finish what I started and keep the chairmanship, because like my father’s legacy will show—housing projects that were well ahead of his time—this is one of the most important rights of any human being.
“Ask any Filipino, if they were to dream, if they were given one wish, what would it be? To be sure they will say it is to have a home, because ownership will bring you security, fulfillment, and everything will start from there.
“What I’ve sadly seen for myself as I’ve gone around the country is that many Filipinos have lost hope that they will ever own a home. They’d say, ‘Hindi na ako magkakabahay kasi ang mahal magkabahay.’ They’ve taken that as a fact, which is wrong because definitely there is a way which government should intervene and provide decent and affordable homes for the Filipino—and that what’s we’re doing now.”
Price of success
Even as Benitez has taken care to draw an indelible line between his business venture and government work, he has learned to ignore detractors who insist he is only in public service to protect his interests.
“It’s not far-fetched for people to think that way. That he only went into government to protect his business, propagate it, expand and make more profit. But the truth is, being in government is the reverse—you actually end up spending your personal funds to help your constituents kasi ang daming nangangailangan [so many are in need]. And like I said I’m here to make a difference.
“You ask me is it worthwhile to have people doubt you while you’re just doing your job? Frankly speaking, there are times when you think it’s not. Sometimes you end up thinking I’m better off making a living and enjoying what I’ve achieved in business, especially when all your time is taken up by public service.
“But it becomes worthwhile—and it really is the best experience—when people come up to you and say thank you. When someone says that, suddenly everything that you’ve done is worth it.”
Looking back at his one of a kind life story so far, The Sunday Times Magazine finally asked Congressman Albee Benitez what his transformation from an easygoing rich kid with no ambition to a brilliant businessman and devoted public servant has taught him about himself.
“I realized that what happened to my family back then was crucial for me to reach my potential. I’ve always thought I was a shy person so what I’ve achieved in my life has been surprising to me,” he thoughtfully replied.
“I learned that we all have hidden talents that can only be uncovered because of circumstances—because of the need to rise above a particular situation. So when there’s a tragedy or when you encounter difficulties, you can be sure it will give you a different perspective in life. And from there, it’s up to you where you take it, especially as you discover what you’re really made of.”