PaperCity Magazine

May 2016 - Houston

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Page 37 of 71

MAY | PAGE 38 | 2016 I t is 9 o'clock on a Saturday night, and Tilman J. Fertitta finds himself engaged in a four-way 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 recast himself as medical philanthropist; and Scott Kelly, the astronaut who recently returned from a year in space. Is this just a normal Saturday night for the billionaire who's now clearly the most well-known businessman in Houston? "No, I wouldn't say that was a normal, normal," Fertitta shoots back. Some of this life comes with the territory of being a Forbes-certified billionaire. Fertitta 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 Gulfstream GV 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 remains something of an unknown figure outside of Texas' borders, partly by design. "He's kept under the radar a bit," says David Tibballs, who is intent on changing this. Tibballs is 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. He quickly tapped Fertitta as a star after watching clips of his appearances on CNBC, and created a new show, Billion Dollar Buyer, around the tycoon. The show's already a hit for CNBC, picked up for a second season after just one episode. It showcases the 58-year-old Fertitta's one-liners, everyman charm, business- nerd love of all things entrepreneurial, and a little 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 with two striving businesses that make everything from bread to light fixtures. If Fertitta likes the product, deems it viable, and places an order for his restaurants, casinos and hotels, the entrepreneur's life will be changed. The platform is tailor-made for a billionaire who remembers what it's like to scratch and claw for one's career. When in episode two, the 20-somethings behind an Austin cocktail syrup company ask Fertitta how he got into town, 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 this 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's 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 deals working in the next room. "I'm taking the microphone off," Tilman declares at one point, essentially calling the day a wrap. He reaches under his T-shirt and yanks the little mic off his chest, triggering some 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 has picked up on TV's nuances — the value of breaking up the drudgery for the crew with some light moments and maybe a little good-natured ball busting. "Let me read the whole paragraph. I've got to get in the mood," he says 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 monotone voice. Fertitta seized on his particular gifts early. "You want to know the truth?" he says. "I never thought I wasn't going to be successful. I was sitting there as a junior in high school, trading stocks and not studying for a history exam. When you're a little kid and you're not watching a lot of cartoons or reading comics, instead you're carrying around your grandfather's briefcase, telling everyone you have your "business" in there … you just know. It's just like a musician knows or an artist knows — you just know." 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. I just understand it." It's a gift that Fertitta locked 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 (originally from Monterey, California), Chart House (Chicago), Claim Jumper (Newport Beach), 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 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 is one of his most ambitious, high-end and personal projects yet: 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 an ultra high-end hotel, luxury residences with rents running $6,000 to $9,000 per month, new restaurants, shops and office space 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. This will be the showpiece of Fertitta's ever-growing empire. F ertitta still obsesses over his numbers. It gives him his edge. He looks at 60 emails every morning before he gets to the office, seeing the bigger numbers developing in all the little details. Once he's in the office, he pores over the one-page informational TILMAN FERTITTA STARS IN A NEW HIT REALITY TV SHOW ON CNBC, AND HIS HANDPRINTS ARE ALL OVER AMERICA, FROM RESTAURANTS AND CASINOS TO AMUSEMENT PARKS — BUT THIS BUSINESS PUNDIT HAS NO INTEREST IN BEING DONALD TRUMP. By Chris Baldwin A RARIFIED TWO DAYS INSIDE THE LIFE OF HOUSTON'S MOST WELL-KNOWN BILLIONAIRE TILMAN'S WORLD

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