Past Lives: Simon Benstead of Toronto Restaurant Marben
'Past Lives' is an ongoing column about the past careers of entrepreneurs and business leaders. The column recounts each person's experience in various industries, from finance to sales, or simply, the nine-to-five grind. More than anything, 'Past Lives' is a story about how one person has reached their potential, and cut themselves loose from what was expected.
Written by Christina Gonzales
Marben Restaurant is a 10-year-old Toronto institution. At the helm is Simon Benstead, ex-trader and serial entrepreneur. Here, Benstead talks to us about his past life as a trader, where the name 'Marben' comes from, and why you should always follow your joy.
"I started at Merrill Lynch in 1999 as a junior trader on the institutional desk. This was the height of the tech boom. On Bay Street, Nortel’s stock was the centre of the universe.
Institutional trading, at that time anyway, was less formal than investment banking. There were opportunities in trading, even if you didn’t have an MBA from an Ivy League school. Investment banking, on the other hand, really required more specific skill sets at the earlier stages, particularly a sophisticated understanding of models. Trading can still be a little bit like taking someone from the street – if you’re a quick learner with some good instincts and an understanding of systems, you can make it work.
My boss at the time put me forth for Merrill Lynch’s MBA training program even though I didn’t have my MBA, and I was accepted after going through a pretty rigorous application process. I went down to Merrill Lynch in New York, and it just so happened that they also needed someone to work on the floor; I ended up working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange when I was about 25.
I stayed in Manhattan for a year and a half, and they brought me back to Toronto with the lure of greater opportunity. Eventually, I was promoted to vice president and senior trader. In 2004, when I was 29, I was recruited by BMO Capital Markets to be a managing director and liability trader on their institutional desk.
The restaurant that was in the space prior to Marben was called Nectar. I was a minority investor in Nectar, and though it was seemingly busy, the business wasn’t doing well. It felt like the right time to explore something new, so I decided to make a larger investment – I became 100 percent owner. This was 2006.
Even though Nectar was technically my restaurant now, it didn’t really represent me. It was fine dining, white tablecloth, very elegant – these are all great things, but I envisioned a place that was more of like a hangout. More of an everyday place.
Nectar’s last night was Valentine’s Day 2007 and even though I was still trading, it just seemed like the right time to make it my own.
Marben was named after the house I was born in. It was a modest home located in a small village in England called Stonham Aspal – so small that you had to name your house because there were no street numbers. Everyone called my dad Ben and my mother is Mary, so she named the house “Marben.”
Thirty years later, I named the restaurant after that house; it’s a representation of my mother and father’s sense of hospitality. My mum had this inclusive, genuine, and sincere nature. Marben was the only name I had in my head because I like real stories; I like authenticity, and sharing that with my friends and guests.
In 2008, everything was falling apart on Bay Street and my job was a casualty, but I wasn’t really upset or devastated. I knew the banking business was really up in the air, and truthfully, my heart wasn’t really in it anymore. The year 2007 was probably the peak year of compensation (a lot of people cashed in seven-figure cheques that year).
It wasn’t as if finance ended, and I was at a loss of what to do. Marben had opened in April 2007, and I was let go in January of 2008. The restaurant had already been open for seven or eight months at that point and I was already enjoying it: we were hosting lots of events; something was buzzing.
I think a lot of people have dreams. For me, having the opportunity to open a restaurant was always at the back of my mind. Ten years later, Marben celebrates a milestone, and I’m grateful for the experience.
The restaurant has gone through iterations: Marben 1.0 was a supper club, Marben 2.0 was farm to table, and Marben 3.0, in its current form, represents my British-Canadian story: A grown-up gastropub focused on hospitality.
As Pablo Picasso famously said, “good artists borrow, and great artists steal.” I’m a keen observer of the things that happen around me. I’m always paying attention to what people like, and what they don’t.
If I could give out any advice it would be to follow your joy. If something makes you happy, and you have a desire to become exceptional at it, the financial rewards will look after themselves. I think I’ve become a lot more aware of that as I’ve gotten older. I lost my mother last year, and she was the inspiration behind a lot of the things that I do.
Losing someone close forces you to question what’s important. The things in your life that make you happy, do more of them, and the things that make you unhappy, do less of them. The rest will really take care of itself."