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Culture / Society

Tilman’s World

The Life of Houston’s Most Famous Billionaire — a Rare Inside Look

BY // 05.02.16

It is 9’o’clock on a Saturday night, and Tilman J. Fertitta finds himself engaged in a fourway email thread. The other participants? Pitbull, the American rapper with two career No. 1 hits on the Billboard 100 and 22 million Twitter followers; Michael Milken, the once-disgraced financial wizard infamously dubbed “The Junk Bond King” who’s recast himself as a medical philanthropist; and Scott Kelly, the astronaut who recently returned from a year in space. “I was emailing these three people at the same time, and it dawned on me,” Fertitta says. The billionaire who’s now clearly the best-known businessman in Houston immediately nudged his companion and offered a look at his phone.

“I mean you have three different people from three different ways of the world,” Fertitta says. “An astronaut-scientist, an entertainer and the greatest financial mind of the 20th century probably, who created the leverage finance … ” Fertitta stops himself, still smiling, but clearly packing any wonder away. “But that’s just what I do, so it wasn’t a big deal to me.”

Just a normal Saturday night? “No, I wouldn’t say that was a normal, normal,” Fertitta quickly shoots back, “but at any time, I could be exchanging a call or email with them.” Some of this life comes with the territory of being a Forbes-certified billionaire — as Feritta himself notes, “It’s a nice club to belong to, okay.” But some of it is just Tilman, the guy who has always found it easy to connect with people and turn opposing supernovas into eventual friends.

“I was the person that got these two together,” he says at one point, picking up a framed photo of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush embracing each other and Fertitta. That came on the heels of Fertitta lending Clinton and Bush his private plane to lead the U.S.-aid efforts in the wake of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Fertitta has been brokering unlikely partnerships like this for years — not to mention, the string of acquisitions and takeovers that grew his Landry’s Inc. into the conglomerate that owns and operates more than 500 restaurant, hotel, casino and entertainment properties today with the man himself lording over them all from his Houston headquarters. Still, Fertitta remained something of an unknown figure outside of Texas’ borders, partly by design.

“He’s kept under the radar a bit,” says David Tibballs. Tibballs, the Englishman behind a run of successful reality TV shows, including Property Virgins and Dragon’s Den, the United Kingdom precursor to the U.S. hit Shark Tank, seems intent on changing this. Tibballs quickly tabbed Fertitta as a star after watching clips of a few of Fertitta’s appearances on CNBC and created a new show, Billion Dollar Buyer, around the tycoon who carried his grandfather’s briefcase everywhere as a little kid and told everyone he had his “business” in there.

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The show’s already a hit for CNBC, picked up for a second season after just one episode of the first season. It showcases the 58-year-old Fertitta’s one-liners, everyman charm, business nerd’s love of all things business and a little bit of the toughness that helped propel him to the top. “If anything I probably look a little better (on the show) than I am,” he says. “I get tougher than that.”

Fertitta is more strict teacher than ferocious shark on Billion Dollar Buyer. Each episode matches him up with two striving businesses vying for his life-changing buy. The platform’s tailor-made for a billionaire who remembers what it’s like to be scratching and clawing for one’s business life. When the young twentysomethings behind an Austin cocktail syrup company ask Fertitta how he got into town in episode two, he’s almost apologetic about telling them he took his own helicopter.

“I made it real clear from day one, I’m not going to be an ass, okay,” Fertitta barks to the reporter sitting across from his desk. This is Tilman Fertitta’s TV moment, and he’s going to make sure he controls it.

Seeing Green

 “There’ll be more than one take, believe me,” Fertitta cracks. It is weeks later now, inside the long boardroom connected to Fertitta’s impressive top floor office in the Landry’s headquarters building on West Loop South, and the Billion Dollar Buyer crew is here, filming touch ups. This involves Fertitta sitting in front of a giant green screen, redoing lines from the show that weren’t picked up in the original on-location shoots due to background noise and the like. Sometimes, this means numerous repetitive takes, something that can wear on a man who has 100 million dollar deals working in the next room.

“I’m taking the microphone off,” Tilman declares at one point, essentially calling the day a wrap himself. He reaches under his T-shirt and yanks the little mic off his chest too, triggering some quiet concerned looks from the crew, but he comes back minutes later to reattach it and do another take that Tibballs feels he needs. Mostly, what comes through in this session is how quickly Fertitta’s picked up on TV’s nuances — including the value of breaking up the drudgery for the crew with some light moments and maybe a little good natured ball busting.

Tilman Fertitta's own TV moment is decidedly more real than anything on premium cable.
Tilman Fertitta’s own TV moment is decidedly more real than anything on premium cable. (Photo by Max Burkhalter.)

“Let me read the whole paragraph, I’ve got to get in the mood,” he says, drawing smiles in the midst of one arduous redo. But nothing tops the moment when Tibballs demands that he deliver one explanatory line as straight and emotionless as can be. “I always talk with inflection,” Fertitta moans. He’s right, it takes more than 10 takes for him to pull off a truly monotone voice. The guy’s not boring, even when he’s trying to be.

“Are we picking up that siren?” Fertitta asks at one point, noticing a fire truck’s wail on the street far below. Tibballs grins. The savant is at work again. Darn if Fertitta’s not right, the sirens have ruined the take. “He has that attention to detail thing,” Tibballs says later. “He can spot a busted light bulb at 1,000 yards. That whole thing.”

Fertitta seized on his particular gifts early. “You want to know the truth?” he says by way of explanation. “When I was sitting there as a junior in high school, trading stocks and not studying for a history exam. Just kind of realizing early on — you start looking back to your early years — when you’re a little kid and you’re not watching a lot of cartoons or reading comics, but you’re carrying around your grandfather’s briefcase with your business in it. ‘I’ve got my business in here.’ It’s just like a musician knows or any artist knows, you just know. I never thought I wasn’t going to be successful.”

Fertitta excels by almost instantly identifying why a business is going to be successful or why it will fail. “That’s my gift,” he says. “I can’t write, but I can do that. Big business or little business. You can give me certain numbers — and there are certain numbers I want on any company — and I’ll have it figured out in five minutes. That’s not the problem. That’s just what I do. I just understand it. And it’s just a gift. It’s just a gift. And I thank God for the gift.”

It’s a gift that Fertitta latched onto with the force of a pit bull’s lockjaw bite. He now owns more than three dozen well-known restaurant chains, having acquired them and moved their corporate headquarters to Houston under the Landry’s umbrella, including Bubba Gump (formerly of Monterey, California) Chart House (Chicago), Claim Jumper (Newport Beach, California), McCormick & Schmick’s (Portland), Rainforest Café (Minneapolis), Mitchell’s Fish Market (Columbus, Ohio) and Morton’s steakhouses (Chicago). He owns five Golden Nugget casinos and all the restaurants and nightclubs in them. He also owns six other hotels, including the San Luis Resort, Spa and Conference Center in Galveston and the Westin right across the street from Minute Maid Park. Sometimes, it seems like he owns the world — and Fertitta is not done yet. His newest Houston project — The Post Oak, a gleaming new 35-floor high-rise that will rise on West Loop South, next to Landry’s headquarters building, and include a ultra high-end hotel, luxury apartments with rents running from $6,000 to $9,000 per month, new restaurants, shops and office space — is one of Fertitta’s most ambitious, high-end and personal projects yet. A model and video of The Post Oak is one of the first things visitors to Landry’s headquarters see. He will spend $1 million just to transport and replant large oak trees on the project, slated for a December 2017 completion. This isn’t a development where corners will be cut. In many ways, this will be the showpiece of Fertitta’s ever-growing empire.

Fertitta still obsesses over his numbers. It gives him his edge. He looks at 60 emails every morning before he ever gets to the office, seeing the bigger numbers coming in all the little details. Once he’s in the office, he pours over the one-page informational recaps he’s trained his department heads to distill everything down to, the better to see the numbers that truly matter clearly. “I can tell you everything about the company today basically from these four pieces of paper,” he says.

The old Tom Wolfe ‘Master of the Universe’ stereotype sometimes seems to apply to Fertitta. He sits at a giant raised desk with six monitors behind his head, with several of them showing live feeds of his various properties (blackjack tables at his Golden Nugget casinos, the H2o Lounge at his San Luis Resort in Galveston). Fertitta is not a particularly physically imposing man; he’s of average height and weight. He doesn’t dress in fancy three-piece suits — a simple black T-shirt, dark jacket, black jeans or dark slacks ensemble represents his signature look. Still when he’s sitting here on his throne, it’s easy to see how employees might think he has eyes in the back of his head.

Fertitta is no slave to business convention, though. He has no interest in being one of the first people in the office every morning. Instead, this CEO lets everyone else get settled while he reads newspapers and looks at emails at his River Oaks home. He’ll get in late mornings on the days he’s not globetrotting. “I’m not an early person,” Fertitta says. “I’m a late person. Which seems to be a lot of successful people kind of a standard. Like to work late. It’s kind of weird. Now if you came here at 8’o’clock this place would be busy. Last night we all left at 8:30.”

The vibe’s decidedly casual for a Fortune 500 company. Many of Fertitta’s highest-ranking VPs walk around in blue jeans, there is hardly a tie in sight and the only time Fertitta seems to put on his sports coat is when he has a meeting to attend or filming to complete. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a more down to earth successful billionaire,” says Tibballs, who specializes in turning “high-net worth individuals” into TV stars.

Six monitors are set up behind Tilman Fertitta's huge desk. He really does have eyes in the back of his head. Photo by Max Burkhalter.
Six monitors are set up behind Tilman Fertitta’s huge desk. He really does have eyes in the back of his head. Photo by Max Burkhalter.

Even though he’s on top now, the 58-year-old Fertitta seems to miss the Houston business scene of the 1980s and 1990s, one dotted with characters rather than mammoth corporations. He recalls Houston bankers and power players Walter Mischer and Ben Love fondly and wonders when the next originals are going to join him in the arena. “Nobody is around who was around in the ’80s with me because I was so young,” Fertitta says. “But you still had huge names for 25-30 years. And they’re basically all gone now. You used to be able to say name me five huge business people in Houston and you could just reel off five names. Stop somebody on the street and ask them that today. Who are they going to name? Me.

“In Houston, it’s weird. It’s kind of a shame if you want to know the truth. It really is.”

The Trump Card

 Tilman Fertitta happens to be a billionaire with his own TV show. The comparisons are as inevitable as sticky sweat on a July Houston day. When he walks the streets, especially in a place like New York City where his public recognizability seems to have increased a hundredfold since Billion Dollar Buyer’s debut, people come up and tell him he should run for president. Because of that other guy.

Fertitta likes to claim that the only subjects he truly knows anything about are business, politics and sports. So maybe it’s no surprise that Fertitta follows Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The extent to which he studies Trump catches one for guard, though. For Fertitta places himself in Trump’s shoes and imagines how he’d field the questions Trump faces on the campaign trail much more effectively.

“I’ve taken a lot of those questions and thought about how I would answer them,” Fertitta says. “And there are such easy ways to answer them without offending people. It’s not that difficult. It’s just not that difficult when you’ve already captured everybody. As popular as Trump is right now, I think he could be up another 10 or 20 points if he would have just not said some of things he said.

“I don’t think it’s very smart because obviously he did something to capture people and he could have captured a lot more.”

One of Fertitta’s many takeovers is an Atlantic City casino that once bore Donald Trump’s name. Everywhere. Feritta’s overhaul crew discovered 5,000 untouched Trump bobbleheads while cleaning the casino out for a complete revamp. Fertitta notes, “They were going to throw them out, I said, ‘Nah. Let’s keep ’em.’ ”

“Rhonda, did I ever get my Trump bobblehead from Tom?” Fertitta calls out his open office door to Rhonda DePaulis, one of his two assistants, both of who have been with him for more than 20 years. “Call (Golden Nugget Atlantic City general manager) Tom Pohlman and tell him to send me one.

“There’s got to be something I can do with these bobbleheads to have some fun.” Fertitta grins, the possibilities dancing in his head. The guy who sees every business angle also likes to have some fun. “I’m not an old man,” Fertitta says. “I can still go out to a club or whatever. I’ve just been around for a long time.”

Tilman Fertitta's 164-foot yacht Boardwalk creates plenty of envy in ports around the world.
Tilman Fertitta’s 164-foot yacht Boardwalk creates plenty of envy in ports around the world.

Fertitta is a longtime family man and his four kids — Michael, Patrick, Blayne and Blake — are growing up fast. He no longer worries about them turning into the type of stereotypical rich kids you’d see in a bad reality TV show. Instead, he speaks of them with a father’s unmistakable pride.

“The kids aren’t spoiled at all,” Fertitta says. “You know, what is spoiled? I think my kids are a good example. Do they know how to spend money? Yeah, but everybody will tell you they’re also the nicest of all the kids. And so is that spoiled? My whole deal is how do other people see you. And the other parents see my kids as the most courteous and polite kids. And that makes me happy.”

How do you raise unspoiled kids when family vacations are taken on dad’s private jet; a 164-foot super yacht named Boardwalk is at your beck and call; and biggest sports stars in town show up at your house every year for a Houston Children’s Charity party? Fertitta does not hesitate for a second on his answer.

“I think they had the right mother,” he says. That would be Paige Fertitta, the elegant red-headed beauty whose smiling picture occupies its own special place in the middle of a table in Tilman’s office.

Taking The Under

If Fertitta is Houston’s new kingmaker, he comes at it with love for underdogs that not only fits his new show, but reflects back on his own start working the floor of his father Vic’s lone Galveston restaurant, Pier 23. One of Fertitta’s more public roles — serving as chairman of the University of Houston System’s Board of Regents — grew out of his old dismay at how UH missed out on getting into the Big 12 Conference in large part due to state politics.

“I hate to use the word tragedy because nobody died, but it was extremely unfair because the governor (Ann Richards) and speaker of the house were both Baylor graduates, Baylor got in over the University of Houston. So ever since then they were an underdog for the next 20 years. They got dealt a bad hand so I wanted to help them get out of it,” Fertitta says.

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A drive to ensure Tom Herman stayed as the University of Houston’s football coach after a 13-1 season spurred Fertitta to secure Herman a $3 million-a-year contract last winter. Fertitta sees it as one strong leader recognizing another. “What Tom has the ability to do is that not only does he know X’s and O’s, but he knows how to motivate. And a lot of times a coach either knows how to motivate or he knows the X’s and O’s. The coach at Texas who just retired a couple years ago, Mack Brown. Mack Brown was a great people person and a great motivator, but he wasn’t known to be a great X’s and O’s guy. I think Tom has the ability to do both. He took not a lot of talent a real long way.”

Sports memorabilia gets prominent spots in the glass display cases in Fertitta’s office, including an NBA championship ring from his team as a minority owner of the Houston Rockets. If there is a void in this billionaire’s remarkable story, Fertitta figures this is it. “I would say that’s one thing I’d like to do: Own a sports team,” he says. “If somebody said, ‘What did you not do that you wanted to do? Own a sports team. But the problem is I’m so loyal to Houston, it’d be kind of hard to own something somewhere else.”

Fertitta obsesses over getting more Houston onto his TV show, too. Billion Dollar Buyer’s first episode played out as a virtual love letter to the city with Texas Avenue, the “We Love Houston” sign and the Eatsie Boys food truck all drawing prominent cameos. “I’ve been beating on them about more Houston shots,” Fertitta says. “It’s good for Houston.”

TV’s realities sometimes block the billionaire, though. One hundred hours of footage were shot for Billion Dollar Buyer’s first season — and that’s eventually cut down to the four hours and 42 minutes that make the air. Sometimes, Fertitta cannot help but try and direct it all a little. “He’s funny,” says John Gumina, Billion Dollar Buyer’s director of photography. “But he gets his point across.”

Fertitta relates to fictional TV billionaires as well, professing to enjoying the new Showtime series Billions and its hard-charging New York billionaire Bobby Axelrod. “I think it’s a good show,” he says. “Yes, you could have a person like this one hundred percent. I mean I think that if somebody truly followed me around and you edited it down to the exciting moments over a 30-day period, I think somebody could say the same things about me. You live an interesting life.”

Spend any time with Fertitta and you’re struck by how many people want his time — cocktail hours represent perilous endeavors likely to leave him with a dozen business cards crammed in his hands and at least that many pitches thrown his way — and how he always seem to have some for his friends.

“I have a saying and my best friends totally agree, ‘Make your friends your friends’ and don’t worry about anyone else,” Fertitta says. “Make your friends your friends. Coming out of the ’80s, you had so many people in the SEC frauds. I don’t know if they really did something in that manner or not. But you had a lot of people go to prison. A lot of people abandoned them. I still, when they got out, invited them to parties or whatever. They were my friends.”

Fertitta shrugs. Up here on the eighth floor, seemingly on top of the world, it’s not always easy to see down. Fertitta knows he wants Landry’s to be around for another 150 years, no matter how different it becomes or if it even stays in restaurants at all. “All four of my kids want to be involved in the business,” he says. “None of us are artists or musicians. They like business. They grew up around it.”

The man with the $3.2 billion net worth looks up. “I probably told you too much,” he says. Fertitta looks around, his empire still visible on those screens behind his head on a day when his penthouse office balcony’s shrouded in clouds. The best-known businessman in Houston makes it clear he’s not planning to get off this stage anytime soon.

“I’m really no different than I was 25-30 years ago,” Fertitta says. “Do I have a nicer office or nicer this or that? Yes, but that’s no big deal. I’m still the exact same person. I still get upset over the same stupid things and I still get excited over the same little things.”

Fertitta glances at his phone. “Hold on, I’ve got an issue to take care of.”

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