Few individuals have impacted the hospitality and entertainment industries in recent years as much as Tilman J. Fertitta, a Galveston, Texas, native who as sole owner of Fertitta Entertainment presides over an empire that includes Landry’s restaurants, hotel and casino holdings, an NBA franchise and even a starring role in a reality television show.
Thus, one could argue that even the terms hospitality and entertainment are one in the same in his brand kingdom, as Fertitta’s labels all cater to the customer through the prism of providing entertaining experiences that deliver a specific, tangible impression, no matter what segment they serve.
Landry’s restaurants cater to all tastes and price points and include many popular group dining options in major convention center entertainment districts, from casual themed restaurants such as Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, Claim Jumper, Rainforest Cafe, McCormick & Schmick’s and Joe’s Crab Shack, to upscale eateries in the Signature Group like Morton’s The Steakhouse, Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse, Grotto and The Oceanaire.
From Golden Nugget Casinos and Hotels and Galveston, Texas’ San Luis Resort to the ultra-luxe The Post Oak Hotel at Uptown Houston offering set to open in March (see sidebar on page 58), a variety of hotel, resort and gaming customers are satiated.
With other recent moves that have included the purchase of the Houston Rockets for an NBA franchise record $2.2 billion and the starring role in CNBC reality TV show Billion Dollar Buyer—which just entered into its third season of production and gives entrepreneur contestants the opportunity to pitch Fertitta on investing in their products—his businesses reach into the disposable income of every segment of society and are perpetually in growth mode through acquisitions and innovation.
Fertitta began his rise in the real estate development business, opening his first hotel when he was 26 years old, and then became a partner in Landry’s, eventually buying out the Landry brothers in 1986 and embarking on a restaurant-opening spree. Following the economic collapse of 2008, Fertitta decided it was an ideal time to up his game.
“When the world fell apart in 2010, it gave me the opportunity to go private again,” he said, adding that his company will do more than $4 billion in revenue in 2017.
His Landry’s operation alone owns more than 600 properties in 36 states and 15 countries at last count, and is one of the largest employers in the U.S., with more than 60,000 on the payroll. Forbes recently estimated Fertitta’s net worth at $3.6 billion, landing him the #212 spot on the Forbes 400, with the publication calling him “The world’s richest restaurateur.”
Not bad for s self-made man who dropped out of both Texas Tech and the University of Houston but now chairs the latter university’s board of regents as well as serving on the boards of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Texas Heart Institute.
“Some people are good multitaskers—that’s something that’s a gift,” Fertitta said, in more than a bit of an understatement. “I’ve had a lot of people with me for many years, which helps tremendously.”
Besides what one could interpret as a bit of Texas-size branding bluster when watching him on Billion Dollar Buyer—in one CNBC promotional spot he actually described himself as being, to paraphrase, a "mother f-er,"—during a recent interview with Meetings Today, Fertitta was quite the reserved, mannered gentleman, giving the credit to his team, which extends to and is nurtured by his management philosophy.
“If you look at the people who work for me, that answer to me directly, they probably average over 20 years,” he said. “I think what people like is there’s not a lot of games, and I tell them what I want and where they can improve. I think people respect you as a leader if you shoot straight and you take care of them.”
The bluster, such as in the aforementioned CNBC promo, is all part of elevating the brand.
“That’s drama,” he said, with a telling laugh that seemed to convey a little bit of blush about having crossed the line a bit in the spot promoting the show and the larger-than-life persona he exudes on it. “I have brands that are all over the country. It’s another way my brand is exposed. It doesn’t look like an infomercial—it’s definitely not an infomercial. It gets me out to see what’s new out there. It’s as much educational for me as it is mentoring for them.”
Another side of Fertitta is his philanthropic endeavors, including serving as chairman of the board of both the Houston Children’s Charity and Houston Police Foundation, and his work on the executive committee of one of the largest charitable organizations in the U.S., the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. He also recently kicked in $1 million to victims of Hurricane Harvey through the Landry’s Hurricane Relief Fund.
“It’s just kind of the way it is,” a modest Fertitta said, recognizing the responsibility of those who have amassed great wealth to give back. “We’re all in very visible business…they’re just different organizations that I’ve always been involved with.”
But as nice as it is to be nice, and as any professional basketball player would attest, the competition is always hot on your heels, and the dynamics of the game are always changing, so letting up is not an option.
“Stay on top of your game,” he said. “There are no spare customers. Treat every customer like they’re your last.”
That philosophy also extends to those in the business of planning meetings and events.
"I think that you always try to be innovative, especially when you’re dealing with meeting planners,” he said. “You want to roll out the red carpet and treat them better than everyone else. Anyone who does not know how to treat a meeting planner is pretty stupid. What we preach here is make your meeting planner look good.”