Native son sets his own path for the future
November 1, 2012
Children often accept the world they’re born into without question. The places and objects of childhood are simple. They pulse with magic. They have yet to be identified with the complex, grinding schemes of the modern world.For Christopher Bently, such places were the tunnels burrowed beneath the shrubbery around the district office on Mono Avenue, where he attended grade school before moving to Gardnerville Elementary. Such objects were the workers’ desks he crawled under in the old creamery building in Minden, “finding the trapdoors.” Or the baby lambs he bottle-fed on his father’s Buckeye ranch, and the strange, musical language of the Basque sheepherders, which “opened my eyes to the beautiful world.”Now, those memories constitute something beyond nostalgia. They intimate a connection to each other, some vast and compelling enterprise, and the insistent call of the future.“I am the sole heir, and it is a huge responsibility. I’ve had my whole life to prepare for it,” Bently said in an Oct. 16 interview with The Record-Courier. “I’m not trying to fill my dad’s shoes. I’m trying to walk in my own.”His father’s shoes were trailblazing. Don Bently, who died Oct. 1 at the age of 87, was the epitome of ingenious engineers. His breakthrough products in machine monitoring helped place Carson Valley on the world stage. At 42, the young Bently does not look like an engineer. His signature fedoras change color depending on the day and occasion. His suits, his shirts, his boots and belts gleam with sophistication. “I couldn’t be anything further from an engineer,” he said with a grin. “I’m not interested in how a watch works. I’m interested in how a watch looks. Is it beautiful? Is it right? How does it feel?”Although heir to an engineering legacy, the son’s genius apparently lies in aesthetics — art, architecture, fashion. His meticulously trimmed beard, rusty white and pointed, frames the intense, but not overbearing, focus of his eyes. His voice is disarmingly soft and kind.“I’m excited about the future. I feel like I’m part of the community again,” he said. “Coming back to Nevada, it feels like home. I don’t know what that means, but, at the least, I feel as at home here as I ever have before in my life.”Still, the future is crowded with questions. What will happen to the companies his father started? What will happen to the massive tracts of agricultural land held by the family trust?Bently is forthcoming with answers. Clear and simple answers. The native son, the sole heir, is ready to discuss the future.
Born in Reno, Christopher Bently grew up in Carson Valley while his father was building an international powerhouse of a company. Bently Nevada was founded in 1961 with three people. When the company sold to General Electric in 2002, it employed more than 2,000 people worldwide, including 1,200 employees in Carson Valley. Bently has fond memories of his childhood in Gardnerville and Minden, especially of playing in the historic creamery building that served as Bently Nevada headquarters for a number of years.“I have a lot of friends from that age that I still connect with,” he said.But he didn’t finish school in the Valley. At 14, he moved to San Francisco with his mother. His new school, Washington High in Richmond District, was quite different. A white kid from the country was a minority. “I got beaten up my first week,” he said. “My car got stolen when I was older. But I was in heaven. I felt I had arrived. I was living in the real world.”Bently ended up graduating from Redwood High School in Marin County in 1987. By that time, he’d fallen in love with the city, though he’d been working for his father’s company as a teenager and now had a seat on the board.He’d also been traveling with his father for business, visiting Europe, Asia, and developing nations in South America. The latter is his favorite continent.“I developed an appreciation and love for pretty much everywhere I’ve been,” he said. Still, the young Bently wanted to set out on his own. As a keyboardist, percussionist, vocalist and sound designer, he joined the electronic music scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, touring for a while and releasing an album entitled “Chaos.” His musicianship stemmed from his earlier days in Carson Valley, when he engaged in “typical teenage band stuff.”“We did battle of the bands in Reno and played at the company picnics at Lake Tahoe,” he said. “I wanted to be the next Van Halen.”In 1997, Don Bently suffered a stroke, and his son, still in his ’20s, came home to run the company.“A lot of people were skeptical, curious,” he said. “But I’m someone who gets great strength from the people around me. I brought a fresh perspective and really took the company in a new direction.”Bently recognized the company had outgrown the creamery building in Minden, a space that couldn’t accommodate modern machinery and robotics, so he helped develop new headquarters at the corner of Buckeye and Orchard roads. The facility would eventually become the headquarters of GE Energy Measurement & Control Solutions. “We built the headquarters, and it was a wild success,” he said. “I have a knack for real estate, and I love the creative process.” Bently continued to make monthly trips over the hill to help manage the company. Working with his father, who’d regained some strength, presented certain challenges.“I love my dad to the ends of the world, but working for him is different,” he said. “He was better as a coach, a guide and an inspiration.” At the start of the new millennium, Bently decided to forgo his music career. He turned to real estate and purchased his first building near Union Square in downtown San Francisco. His interest in historical properties, rehabilitation, and green building practices became the foundation of Bently Holdings.More than a decade later, the company holds nine properties across the globe, including buildings in Buenos Aires and Seoul.“I don’t want to buy something that’s already done and perfect,” he said. “I like to breathe life into it.”Bently attributes some of his financial success to his father’s fiscally conservative principles. When the price bubble burst in San Francisco, he was left standing in decent shape, mainly because he hadn’t overextended or mortgaged his assets. “For that, I thank my dad,” he said.
Earlier this year, Christopher Bently formed Bently Enterprises as the grand umbrella for nearly a dozen family companies, including Bently Agrowdynamics, Bently Biofuels, Bently Holdings, and Bently Pressurized Bearing Co., among others. He’d been quietly running the show for months, as his aging father was no longer in a position to do so. “I love coming back to the Valley,” he said. “I have this renewed passion for it.”He made a habit of splitting his time between Douglas County and San Francisco. He purchased a home at Lake Tahoe within the county. On Oct. 1, his father died.“He was this legend, this genius inventor,” Bently said. “But I knew him as my dad, and that made him human and approachable.”Although he’d prepared for the loss, although he met condolences with composure, Bently said he finally broke down during a company retreat on the V & T Railroad in Virginia City. The last time he’d been on the train was with his father. “This whole time, dozens of people were coming up to me,” he said. “But it was that 20th person who said something that made me crack and crumble.”Two days before his father’s memorial service, Bently woke up early in the morning. He pulled out his iPad and tried writing his father’s eulogy. He started crying.“My dad was human, vulnerable. He had fears, things he struggled with internally,” he said. “It’s easy to forget with iconic figures, but my dad had a heart. And, like everyone else, it could be broken.”
Of all the questions raining down, Bently has a favorite: what will become of the roughly 40,000 acres of agricultural land in Carson Valley now held under the Bently name?“It’s my favorite question because I love the answer,” he said. “I don’t want to build a single thing on a piece of our land.”A student of architecture, environmentalism, and historical real estate, Bently brings a long-term perspective to the question of development. He’s not a fan of urban sprawl, of “strip malls bookending beautiful, historic downtowns.”“My personal goal is to stop that from happening here,” he said. “I don’t see how you could be looking for development, housing or commercial, to fix economic woes.”It’s no secret that Don Bently had a heart for conservation. He worked on conservation easements to preserve natural lands like the Kirman Field in northern Douglas County. He donated acreage not for tract houses, but for Western Nevada College, which has become a mainstay of the community. He wrote articles on growing tomatoes upside down and on various wildlife frequenting his ranch.Taking much from his father, Bently said his own urban lifestyle has only furthered this “deeper appreciation for land.” He said he understands the contrast between city and country, and the importance of both in society.“I will make every possible effort to preserve open space,” he said.Already, he appears to be doubling down on this promise. Bently Agrowdynamics is pursuing organic certification for 75 percent of its operation. The process will take a minimum of three years, but Bently is confident that the organic brand will benefit Carson Valley agriculture and his company’s product: beef, alfalfa and grain.The ranch is currently certified natural, which generally is less stringent than organic certification but still provides a premium label. Bently wants the two programs to work in tandem. He’s also planning to introduce a crossmarketing and breeding program between his ranches here and grazing lands in Argentina, fully aware that Argentinean beef fetches top dollar.The supply changes will correspond with a new approach to distribution.“We will look at some direct end-user markets locally,” he said, giving the example of Whole Foods in Reno and local restaurants.Agriculture is only part of the picture. Bently wants to infill and redevelop some existing urban properties, namely the historic creamery building and flour mill at the intersection of Buckeye Road and Highway 395 in Minden. He envisions a cultural hub full of mom-and-pop businesses, a bookstore, a museum, an organic market showcasing “local, sustainable agriculture with character.”“We would like to see a pedestrian bridge that goes from the silo building over Highway 395 to the historic district on Esmeralda,” he said.He expects the project to begin within the next few years. In the long term, looking out over a decade, he wants to pursue the holy grail of redevelopment — the return of the V & T Railroad to Minden.It was his father’s dream, and the young Bently sees the appeal on two fronts. In practical terms, the rail would provide much needed public transportation north. In cultural terms, the project would reanimate Carson Valley’s historical assets and unquestionably generate tourism revenue. “We own 75 percent of the right-of-way. The rest is not easy, but it’s doable,” he said. “Bringing it back to Minden is a way to inspire people. It’s going to take a lot of community support. We still don’t have enough to do it on our own.”As for other Bently firms in Minden, without revealing specifics, the new leader said, “there will be some new companies and some changes.”“Some within the next year, and some by the end of this year,” he said. “Nothing will be painful for people. Our people will be fine. Most people will remain right here in a new role as part of the next generation of Bently family companies.”Christopher Bently remains clear about one thing — he, his name and his companies are invested in the future of Carson Valley.“I want to put all the resources I have at my disposal to do some good.”