PaperCity Magazine

May 2016 - Houston

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Page 38 of 71

PEOPLE COME UP AND TELL HIM THAT HE SHOULD RUN FOR PRESIDENT. BECAUSE OF THAT OTHER GUY. MAY | PAGE 39 | 2016 recaps he's trained his department heads to distill everything down to; the better to see the numbers that truly matter. "I can tell you everything about the company today [Landry's Inc.] basically from these four pieces of paper," he says. The Tom Wolfe Master of the Universe stereotype at times 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 suits — a simple black T-shirt, dark jacket and black jeans or dark slacks represent 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. He has no interest in being one of the first people in the office every morning. Instead, Fertitta lets everyone else get settled while he reads newspapers and looks at emails from his River Oaks home. He'll get in late mornings on the days he's not globetrotting. "I'm not an early person," he says. "I'm a late person. Which a lot of successful people seem to be. Now, if you came here at 8 o'clock at night, this place would be busy. Last night we left at 8:30." T he vibe is casual for a Fortune 500 company. Many of Fertitta's highest-ranking VPs walk around in jeans, with 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 has turned many high-net-worth individuals into TV stars. But 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. Even though he's on top now, Fertitta seems to miss the Houston business scene of the '80s and '90s, 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 here with me in the '80s, because I was so young," Fertitta says. "You used to be able to say, 'Name me five huge business people in Houston,' and you could reel off five names. Stop people on the street and ask them that today. Who are they going to name? Me. 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 the public recognizability seems to have increased a hundredfold since Billion Dollar Buyer's debut, people come up and tell him that 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 he follows Donald Trump's presidential campaign. The extent to which he studies Trump catches one off-guard, though. Fertitta places himself in Trump's shoes and imagines how he'd field the questions Trump faces on the campaign trail … more effectively. "I've taken a lot of those questions and thought about how I would answer," Fertitta says. "There are such easy ways to answer 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 the things he said." O ne of Fertitta's many takeovers is an Atlantic City casino that once bore Donald Trump's name. Everywhere. Fertitta's overhaul crew discovered 5,000 Trump bobble heads while cleaning out the casino for a complete revamp. "They were going to throw them out," Fertitta says. "I said, 'Nah. Let's keep 'em.' Rhonda, did I ever get my Trump bobble head from Tom?" Fertitta calls out his open office door to Rhonda DePaulis, one of two assistants, both of whom 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 bobble heads to have some fun," Fertitta grins. The guy who sees every business angle also knows how to let loose. "I'm not an old man," he says. "I can still go out to a club or whatever. I've just been around for a long time." Fertitta is a longtime family man, and his four children — 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 pride. "The kids aren't spoiled at all," he says. "Do they know how to spend money? Yeah, but everybody will tell you they're nice kids. And so, is that spoiled? My whole deal is how do other people see you. And 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 the biggest sports stars in town show up at your house every year for a Houston Children's Charity party? Fertitta doesn't hesitate for a second with his answer. "I think they had the right mother," he says. That would be Paige Fertitta, the elegant beauty whose smiling picture occupies its own special place in the middle of a table in Tilman's office. TAKING ON THE UNDERDOG If Fertitta is Houston's new kingmaker, he comes at it with a love for underdogs that not only fits his new show, but reflects back on his own start working the floor of his father, Vic Fertitta's, lone Galveston restaurant, Pier 23. And one of Fertitta's more public roles — serving as chairman of University of Houston System's Board of Regents — grew out of his dismay at how UH missed 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 that because the governor [Ann Richards] and speaker of the house were both Baylor graduates, Baylor got in over University of Houston," Fertitta says. "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." A drive to ensure Tom Herman stayed as 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 not only know the Xs and Os, but to motivate. And a lot of times a coach either knows how to motivate or he knows the Xs and Os. The coach at Texas who just retired a couple years ago, Mack Brown, was a great people person and a great motivator, but he wasn't known to be a great Xs-and-Os guy. I think Tom has the ability to do both. He took not a lot of talent a real long way." Sports memorabilia gets pride of place in the glass display cases in Fertitta's office, including an NBA championship ring from his time as a minority owner of the Houston Rockets. If there's 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. 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 a little. "He's funny," says John Gumina, Billion Dollar Buyer's director of photography. "But he gets his point across." 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 Landry's even stays in the restaurant business 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 is 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 or 30 years ago," he 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." Tilman's toys The 164-foot Boardwalk The Post Oak, Fertitta's luxury hotel and residential high-rise, completion December 2017 Tilman Fertitta on the set of Billion Dollar Buyer MAX BURKHALTER

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