Although not well known among the general public on account of maintaining a distance from the media, Gregory Benac is the man behind the Marval Group, an independent company whose first gaming establishment, Club Pierre Charron, has become a benchmark in Paris, as much for the quality of its gaming range as its cuisine and focus on service. Keenly attentive to all innovations and every detail of his club, Gregory Benac is a unique figure due to his professional background: after studying and forging a career in finance in the US, this hedge-fund specialist realized the dream of the young man he was 20 years ago, a true fan of the Parisian gaming circles and poker tournaments. We interviewed this elegant, quick-witted epicurean.
The first establishment you've launched, Club Pierre Charron, describes itself as a Club "created by a player, for players". How did you discover poker? What was your journey?
I started playing modern poker when I was 18, in 1996, at the Aviation Club de France. At the time, Texas Hold'em wasn't popular yet. When I went to play at the Aviation, the games were 30 francs in Dealer's Choice and the corridors mostly held backgammon games. I spent many nights there while studying at Paris-Dauphine. Before that, me and my friends used to play five-card draw and I had many sleepless nights. The funny thing is that during the Gaming Circles era, I was already interested in opening a Parisian gambling establishment. I wanted to create a place where I could bring together everything I love: the beautiful game, the good food, the good wines... but I didn't get any further than dreaming when I realized that setting up as an "Association 1901" was outdated and unsuitable. Later on I won a scholarship to study in the US, after my double master's degree in management and finance, and a spell in banking.
I then discovered the world of hedge funds in the US, which was still relatively undeveloped in France at the time. I landed an exciting job working with a very wealthy American to help him with his business. We traveled all over the world together, and it was very formative, especially at the age of 23. I then joined a major investment fund based in Boston. When I got back to France, I'd hardly played any poker during all my years in the US, and I entered the WPT National in 2012, which was held at the Aviation Club de France – and I won. I've always enjoyed poker tournaments because you meet so many different people from all walks of life and it's the only activity where I can escape and be in my own world. Poker has long been frowned upon in France, but in the US, especially in the investment fund world, companies organize tournaments for their employees so they get an appreciation of good risk-taking. Managing a stack during a freezeout poker tournament is similar to managing a portfolio; and unlike a cash game, you're all on the same level, which erases social disparities.
You got the idea of setting up a Club when the legislation governing gaming establishments in Paris was changed. What was your approach at the time?
The genesis of Club Pierre Charron indeed dates back to 2017, I hadn't given up on the idea of opening this kind of establishment. I was keeping an eye on it, and as soon as the law was announced I contacted friends to do a first round of funding. Originally, the idea was to start a hotel-casino with a friend who owns a large hotel, but that ended up not happening. My younger sister Valerie, who's in real estate, found the current location of Club Pierre Charron. It was very difficult to find a place because you had to have the lease signed before you could apply for your license – especially for someone who isn't familiar with the gaming world. When I first descended the stairs to what's now the Club's main room, which was a swimming pool at the time, I was blown away by the high ceiling and the potential of the place.
Once the financial aspect was secured, I had to hire a team of professionals experienced in gaming and the specifics of the Parisian market to make my dream a reality. The team has changed a lot between the start of the project and now. People reveal themselves over time and with challenges – and there's been a few of these in just three years! The current teams, both management and operational, have proven their know-how and share my vision and high standards.
How did you manage to convince investors outside the gaming industry to commit alongside you?
There was real enthusiasm, the investors were quickly convinced. Lots of people dream about being able to set up this kind of establishment, it's a certain kind of mythology that comes from the movies, from American and French popular culture. There are so many barriers to entry to set up a casino; with the Marval Group (editor's note: a combination of the first names of Gregory Benac's sisters, Marion and Valerie), I gave them the chance to live this dream. Very quickly, the first round of funding was completed. At first, I didn't imagine that I'd be involved in the Club full time after its launch, but it was important to me that my vision should last and become established over time. Almost two years before the opening, I was in contact with the gaming authorities almost daily as part of their investigation. I only wanted to go into Marval if everything was above board. Without the gaming authorities and their omnipresence, I probably wouldn't have opened a Club, they were the ones who reassured me with their efficient checks and procedures. We learned to work together, because at the start they were surprised that someone like me was getting into this business. Little by little, I found myself working day and night for the Club, discovering a completely different world. It's exciting and well beyond what I imagined!
What makes Club Pierre Charron different from other establishments?
This Club is above all a living space. For example, I think it's great that people come here just to have a drink, have dinner or just walk around, not necessarily to play. It's a second home where people should feel comfortable. As someone who enjoys wine, good food and cigars, I wanted this to be reflected in Club Pierre Charron: a fantastic cellar, a very talented chef who excels at his job, Eddy Bajeux, who came from Hôtel Costes, and a spacious smoking room with a nice selection of cigars. One passion I haven't yet made a reality in the Club is the piano, but I'm thinking of having one installed one day, with a pianist at certain times of the day. For the kitchen, I really wanted to put the product in the spotlight, with a chef who only works with high-quality products brought together in a simple and comforting menu, and daily creations. I think this is very easy to make complicated but very difficult to make simple. This is one of my biggest sources of satisfaction: opening a restaurant that offers this kind of quality late at night is rare. On the gaming side, we have an exceptional team and have taken the best of what's done around the world: RFID chips to keep the game flowing, tables and mats made in Italy, inspired by London clubs, very comfortable seats... It's in the details that we make the difference in terms of welcoming our players.
And I feel that the welcome, the service and the relationship with the players help to differentiate us from our competitors. At all levels, the Club's teams provide both a reassuring technical framework and a real talent for service, which the regulars particularly appreciate.
Now, in March 2022, you're celebrating the second anniversary of an event that made a big impression on French poker, the WPT being held in Paris in 2020, which was a phenomenal success, foreshadowing the success of Club Pierre Charron. What's your takeaway from the first few months of business disrupted by the pandemic?
Together with Ziad Farhoud, Director of Operations at the Marval Group, I held, from the beginning and with the utmost discretion, discussions with the two greatest brands in poker – WSOP and WPT –, with whom we've signed unique partnerships to offer the WSOP and WPT tournaments exclusively in Paris for several years. The big feat of WPT 2020 was working out how to organize it in less than four weeks and to find that incredible room at the Palais des Congrès, because the work on the Club hadn't been completed yet. No one believed in it, but the result exceeded all expectations in terms of the number of players and the responsiveness of our teams, which we'd just hired. It's often in adversity that people's natures are revealed, and we were able to see this at the time, but also recently during a brief period of social unrest: the solidarity that came out of that complicated time helped to bind our most loyal teams together. Adversity has been an opportunity and in spite of itself has served the Club's interests. So, if it wasn't for the lengthy construction work on the Club, we wouldn't have put together the WPT Paris that we did. And without the social unrest, we wouldn't have been able to identify the Club's strengths so clearly and therefore accelerate its growth!
The WPT Paris in 2020 was almost a miracle, because the Covid epidemic shut down the country a few days after the competition ended. In fact, we only have one year of business on the books, if you count the various administrative closures, and we're very happy with the Club's results, as we're number one in the sector in Paris, and we're progressing every month in terms of volume and gross gaming revenue (editor's note: sales). We've never wanted to force things, we like to develop new products, sometimes with Parisian firsts like the recent Progressive Jackpot at Ultimate Poker, which is so successful that there are sometimes queues to play just like in poker! We're also refining our future tournament offerings, the idea always being to offer our customers the best product. When I created the Marval Group, I wanted excellence to be the name of the game, and for us to be able, in the long run, to develop several establishments, whether in gaming or hotels, that match my vision of the art of living. It's still a bit early to talk about it but the next few years should, I think, bring us some nice developments.