Keene's Robertson a 'true Renaissance man'


By Joan Geary Contributing Writer for The Keene Sentinel

For 20 years, Ben Robertson, 46, pursued a lucrative global career in banking and finance. Then on a whim he took an on-camera acting class in New York City — and got hooked.

Today he lives in Keene, where he grew up but never planned to return.

He’s a business strategy consultant with his own firm, and an award-winning professional film, television and stage actor. And in September, he published his first book, a young adult historical novel and Amazon bestseller.

He makes a lot less money but is following all his passions.

“It’s a choice,” he said. “I want to live my life as an adventure.”

First, there’s his company, Menadena Consulting. Through it, Robertson, who holds an MBA and is fluent in Chinese, provides strategy and management consulting to investment firms, start-ups, nonprofit organizations and Fortune 1000 companies throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. Local clients include Hannah Grimes Marketplace and the Sharon Arts Center.

Besides that, he’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild with credits in film, radio, television, commercial work and theater. His credits include the film, “In Your Eyes,” written and produced by Joss Whedon. In 2011, he won the New Hampshire Film Festival award for Best New Hampshire Performance for his role in the short film, “Anywhere But Here,” written and directed by Ross Thomas.

And finally, there’s writing. Not long ago, Mary Ann Kristiansen, executive director of the Hannah Grimes Center, connected him with an area resident who was looking for a writer to create a book incorporating issues that bothered him about today’s world.

He underwrote Robertson’s expenses through the first draft of his young adult historical novel, “The Last Generation,” about the final days of Greenland’s Vikings. Available online at Amazon, and locally at Toadstool Book Shop in Keene, the book has been praised for its historic detail, accuracy and merit.

“It’s not going to be ‘Harry Potter,’ “ said Robertson. “But it’s good. It got decent reviews. And, for the right venue — schools, museums, libraries — it’s a useful, energetic tool. It’s not easy promoting a book. It’s not like we’ll make money. But it feels great.”

Kristiansen, who’s known him for several years, is a good friend and a fan.

“Ben and I get together periodically to share big ideas,” she said. “We talk about business strategy, about nonprofits, about book ideas. I really enjoy those conversations. It’s just fun.

“He’s very talented, skilled, and good at making connections. I find him fascinating. Money isn’t the most important thing to him. Living an interesting life is. He has a rich life.”

Robertson, who was born in Kentucky, initially grew up there and on Cape Cod, Mass. His mother is an artist; his father, a teacher. They eventually divorced, and both remarried.

His mother’s second husband is Alec Wilkinson, a writer for The New Yorker magazine. Robertson was greatly influenced by him and Wilkinson’s mentor, William Maxwell, the American novelist and the magazine’s longtime renowned fiction editor.

He originally lived with his mother in a New York City walk-up apartment, but at 12, went to live with his father and family in Keene. He attended what was then called Keene Junior High School, and Northfield Mount Hermon School.

There he was active in theater, sang in the choir, wrote for the school paper, was on the crew team, and earned a varsity letter in performing dance. He also first studied Chinese.

He went on to enroll in the Asian Studies program at Wesleyan University, spending his junior year in Beijing. He was there during the historic June 1989 Tiananmen Square student protest and massacre. Fluent in Chinese, he wound up working as an interpreter for CNN, the television news network.

Soon after graduating in 1990, he launched his banking career as assistant treasurer with Chase Manhattan in New York City, and became a licensed stockbroker and financial services representative. A few years later, he left to work as an equity analyst in Taipei, Taiwan, including at ABN Amro Asia.

“When I arrived in 1995, China was firing missiles over Taipei, and war seemed to be on the horizon,” he said. “I first worked for Yuanta Securities. I was the only white guy and the only English speaker in the office. But it was a lot of fun.”

Four years later, he was accepted into the MBA program at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, one of the top feeder schools to the finance industry in the country. There he studied with Robert Fogel, winner of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. He also led a team in the Edward L. Kaplan New Venture Challenge, where students turn ideas into real businesses, and won the $20,000 first prize. He graduated in 2001.

For a few years, he was employed as an equity analyst in New York City. In 2006, he became founding partner of New Jersey-based Fuel Bio Holdings, then the largest biodiesel manufacturing facility on the East Coast.

In August 2008, Robertson spontaneously took a five-week intensive acting class with Penny Templeton, a well-known New York acting teacher, and loved it. A month later, in mid-September, the stock market crashed.

He went on to study with Harold Guskin, noted actor, director, author and acting teacher, whose clients included James Gandolfini, Glenn Close and Kevin Kline.

He landed background work in the HBO television series, “Boardwalk Empire,” and roles on the History and Biography channels. And from there, his resume just kept growing.

“It was so much fun,” he said. “I was so excited. People kept saying, ‘You’re talented. You have a future in the business.’ I started getting work very quickly.

“Things started happening. I needed a break — from things I’d seen — from 9/11 to the market crash of 2008. Acting was a way to do it. I was having a great time. Next stop L.A.”

Not so fast.

Instead, he met Curt Felix, founder of Plankton Power, an algae-based biofuel developer headquartered in Fitzwilliam with field offices on Cape Cod. At Felix’s invitation, he joined the firm as a partner and financial executive, and moved to Keene in 2009.

The two are now also good friends.

“Ben is a true Renaissance man,” said Felix. “He’s one of those rare people with a broad set of experiences, skills and interests. He has the ability to jump into any situation and do well. No matter what challenges a company faces — marketing, sales, finances, business development — he brings broad experience in the U.S. and China, raising capital, managing and restructuring companies.”

Soon after settling in Keene, Robertson took acting lessons from Aaron Wiederspahn, a local film director, and was cast in one of his short film productions. Besides that, he’s had dozens of acting roles, often traveling to Boston and elsewhere, on a regular basis.

For example, earlier this week he did a modeling shoot in Boston for a pharmaceutical commercial, and Friday was in Greenfield, Mass., to film a short movie. For the past couple of years, he’s also served as a volunteer script reader and social media manager for the New Hampshire Film Festival, and is treasurer of the Monadnock International Film Festival.

Jay Edwards also serves on that nonprofit organization’s leadership board.

“Ben’s fantastic in his willingness to dig in and do whatever needs to be done,” said Edwards. “ As treasurer, he’s very knowledgeable and a real student of detail. He’s a great addition. As an actor, he has great contacts, and has brought a number of movies to the film festival for showing.

“He’s a very worldly guy. He’s been around, done different things, and isn’t afraid to use his experiences to support his abilities.”

For now, Robertson is concentrating on promoting his book. He plans to write another in the foreseeable future. Besides the novel, he writes a business blog on his website, and publishes posts on LinkedIn, an online business-oriented social networking site.

He’s a popular contributor. A recent post sparked 3,000 views, 200 “likes” and 30 comments.

Along with that? He’s figuring out his next steps doing what he loves. Every now and then, he thinks about his former peers in New York City, who are making eight-figure salaries.

But he’s happy living in Keene, and with his choice.

“I’m still struggling to make it all happen,” he said. “I’m happy the pieces are coming together. Poverty is underrated. I wouldn’t mind making more money. But these are the best years of my life.”