Mark Benevento might not have become one of South Jersey’s most successful businessmen if he were not also one of its most generous people.
The Bergen County native was driving to the bowling alley one rainy evening when he stopped to help a stranger fix a flat tire. The man turned out to be an executive at the newly approved Caesars casino in Atlantic City, who eventually offered the helpful teenager a job dealing cards.
Benevento turned that stroke of good fortune into a series of savvy business moves that got him to where he is today. Almost 30 years after moving to Atlantic County, Benevento is president of both Greate Bay Country Club and Greate Bay Racquet and Fitness Club in Somers Point, and co-owner of five miniature golf courses in Ocean City, Sea Isle City and Avalon.
“I heard way back when that the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with success. I work very hard, and I’ve been very lucky.”
Benevento, 52, has also done a lot to help the less fortunate. At his golf courses, he raises money for the First Tee of Greater Atlantic City, at his gym he generates funding for Spin for the Cure, and at his miniature golf courses all of the coins from the fountains are collected to be donated to charity.
In 2009, he received the 15th annual Bailey Award from The Press of Atlantic City, which recognized him and Greate Bay for their charitable work in the community.
“He believes that when you do good, you do well,” said longtime friend and business partner Pat Croce, the former Philadelphia 76ers president and entrepreneur.
Benevento does all of this while maintaining an understated demeanor. Both he and his friends say he prefers to stay low-key, even when he is constantly active.
The father of a teenage son and daughter lives in Somers Point. His favorite hobbies are traveling, golfing and playing squash.
He describes his accomplishments as a series of opportunities he seized after relocating to southern New Jersey in 1980.
After dealing cards for four years at Caesars, he became a supervisor at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino for three years. During that time, he met Gary Massey, who’s now one of the co-owners of Greate Bay Country Club.
“I guess we had mutual respect for our loyalties and our work ethic,” Massey said. “We had a lot of common values that led us into some common ventures together. I think (Benevento) is dedicated, and I think he’s willing to take action and take chances.”
Benevento’s first chance at business also came during that time, when he took ownership of a 6-by-8-foot cannoli stand on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
Soon afterward, he built his first miniature golf course on the Boardwalk and decided to move to Ocean City. He rented a unit there and still remembers the first conversation he had with his landlord, who turned out to be Croce.
“He came down around Memorial Day, and he owned the rental,” Benevento said. “My dad was a smoker — still is a smoker — and he was smoking on the porch. The first conversation I had with Pat was, ‘Hey Mark, nice to meet you, your dad’s not going to smoke in the house, is he?’”
The two spent a lot of time together that summer, and that was the start of a long friendship and working relationship. Benevento credits Croce with teaching him much about the business world, and Croce said Benevento is one of the most ambitious people he’s ever met.
“I might have mentored him, but it’s vice versa as well,” Croce said.
Many of Benevento’s business interests are derived not only from an entrepreneurial spirit but from a love of sport.
He said he learned to love golf as a kid playing at miniature golf courses, and he had always dreamed of owning his own course. He views his miniature golf businesses as ways to draw tourists and grow the game of golf at the same time.
His passion for squash, a racquet sport similar to racquet ball, stemmed from his interest in golf, too. He first played because he could not get a membership at Atlantic City Country Club years ago as a golfer, but he could join the squash club it once had.
Now, he is a major advocate of the game. St. Augustine Prep high school in the Richland section of Buena Vista Township created its first squash club this year partly because of Benevento pushing the idea, and the athletes practice at his fitness center on Mays Landing Road in Somers Point. The school plans to make it a varsity sport.
He is also trying to persuade Ocean City and Mainland Regional high schools to pick up the sport, which he says is arguably one of the best bets for getting an athletic scholarship to a top-tier school.
“If you go in the back of our squash club, you’ll see a lot of dinosaurs playing,” Benevento said. “The game will become extinct if we don’t put some new blood in there. So we know that new blood is in the high schools, and this is a wonderful sport for these kids to get into a wonderful school.”
His son, Mark Jr., is a sophomore at St. Augustine, where he plays both golf and squash in tournaments around the country and even in other countries.
Benevento said he wanted Mark Jr. to play those sports but did not want to push him. He tried that with his daughter, Victoria, 19, taking her out on the golf course for hours, and she wound up hating it.
So he took some tips from one of Phil Mickelson’s books and brought Mark Jr. out to play for brief intervals, stopping just as his son was starting to have fun so he always wanted to go back.
“When he was 7 years old, he would sit on the stairs, dressed like a golfer, begging me to take him to the golf course,” Benevento said.
Six years later, Mark Jr. was defeating his dad at the game, and he even impressed Tiger Woods about four years ago during an event at the professional golfer’s course in North Carolina.
Benevento hopes he can help even more young people learn golf, which is partly the mission of the First Tee of Greater Atlantic City, a main beneficiary of much of Greate Bay’s charity.
In general, he is a major proponent of attracting more visitors to the shore and advertising the unique amenities there.
“I think we have fantastic golf courses down here in South Jersey and Atlantic City has fantastic rooms, and it’s a great match,” he said. “If you go down to Myrtle Beach, they don’t have what we have here, so we have something special, and I really believe we should market it that way.”
He says “we,” because even though he did not grow up in southern New Jersey, the region is now a part of who he is, just as he has made his mark here.
“I might not be from this area originally, but this is my home,” he said.
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