Tilman Fertitta Shares His Playbook

Houston's celebrity billionaire chronicles his ascent in Shut Up and Listen!, his first book, released last month.

By Abby Ledoux September 25, 2019 Published in the October 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Tilman Fertitta is just like you. He eats snack-sized bags of oven-baked Cheetos—“healthy,” he chuckles—between back-to-back meetings on a long day. But Tilman Fertitta is also nothing like you. He reaches into that bag of reduced-fat cheese snacks wearing a Rolex that costs roughly half the average Houstonian’s yearly salary.

Fertitta, the 153rd-richest person in America, is almost unfathomably wealthy—at over $5 billion, his net worth is more than Fiji’s GDP. As the founder and sole owner of Fertitta Entertainment, he owns more than 600 restaurants, plus hotels, casinos, amusement parks, aquariums, and—oh yeah—the Houston Rockets. “It’s a sense of accomplishment,” he says from his studio apartment–sized office on the 30th floor of his gleaming Post Oak Hotel, the luxurious $350 million property that he opened last year. “How do you measure a businessperson? I think being on the Forbes 400 is the best measurement in America, isn’t it?”

Fertitta chronicles that ascent in Shut Up and Listen!, his first book, released last month. HarperCollins approached the self-made billionaire to pen the project for its Leadership imprint, and the resulting 167 pages are intended as a sort of manual for aspiring entrepreneurs, full of business strategies and Fertitta’s trademark straight talk. And it probably won’t be his last book. “There’s a lot more to do,” he says. “There’s a lot of business stories. There’s a life story.”

The latter goes something like this: Born in Galveston in 1957, a few generations after his ancestors emigrated from Sicily, Fertitta grew up working in his father’s seafood restaurant. He studied business and hospitality at Texas Tech and UH but left after just two years, opting to cash in on early ventures like selling Shaklee vitamins and operating arcade games. He launched a construction company in the ’80s and developed his first major project—Galveston’s Key Largo Hotel—at just 26. In 1980 he'd become a partner in the local Landry family’s first restaurant in Katy; a year later he helped open Willie G’s in Houston; and in 1986 he took over the company.

A self-described opportunist, Fertitta reflects openly—proudly, even—on the hard lessons he’s learned throughout his career. “Always remember, the greatest opportunities are in bad times,” he writes, detailing his experience in the ’80s, when Texas’s bank industry collapsed in stunning fashion. During those tough times Fertitta prevailed: With so many Houston banks shuttering, there was no one to collect the millions in debts the young developer had accumulated. He used the borrowed time—five blissful years without detection—to scrape together capital to grow the Landry’s empire throughout Texas while everyone else fought to keep their heads above water. When the creditors finally caught up to him, he negotiated settlements for a fraction of what he would’ve otherwise owed.

It’s that combination of luck and tenacity that’s continued to define Fertitta through the past three decades as he’s taken his company public, then private again, and added concept after concept, from steakhouses to boardwalks to casinos while, in 2016, throwing reality TV to the mix with Billion Dollar Buyer on CNBC. A year later he bought the Rockets for $2.2 billion, an NBA record at the time. He’s now chairman of the board of regents at UH, the school he dropped out of, and the basketball arena there was renamed for him after his $20 million gift helped fund its major renovation.

From afar it looks like the Tetris pieces of his life were always bound to lock together. Yet Fertitta laughs at the concept of a master plan. “Everything fell into place, but you don’t ever…” he trails off. “It’s bigger than you ever expect.”

His glass-walled office is decorated with a framed photo of him with President George W. Bush, another of his $40 million yacht, and a miniature model of his custom Bugatti Chiron in Rockets colors. And his desk, strewn with papers and stacked with monitors—some depicting live feeds—confirms his reputation as a uniquely hands-on CEO. “There’s not enough hours in the day,” he says.

Fertitta is notoriously detail-oriented—in his book he bemoans drinks served without napkins, four-tops without matching chairs. “Nothing is trivial, ever,” he writes. He’s proud of his reputation for sweating the small stuff and for telling it like it is. “I’m not saying I’m easy,” he laughs. Nevertheless, both of his assistants have worked for him for nearly 30 years. “You can be very tough and have people that are loyal to you, because they think you’re a strong leader, they respect you, and they always know where they stand with you.” People flit around Fertitta in a constant orbit as they attend to his every need, including locating his misplaced lemon water. They’re tasked with keeping him on track—a herculean job when you consider his insistence that no meeting last longer than 15 minutes.

Fittingly, each chapter of Fertitta’s book offers a short burst of information followed by a bulleted list of key takeaways—no niceties, no flowery prose, no wasting time. There and in person, he speaks in what he calls “Tilmanisms,” vaguely avuncular soundbites like “There’s a paddle for everyone’s ass.” The lessons are meant to apply to both business and life in general—and anyway, for Fertitta, the two are one and the same. Does he take days off? “No,” he says. “Business is my hobby and my sport. If I’m getting on a business call on a Saturday afternoon, it’s ’cause I’m excited to work on that deal.”

And speaking of deals, Fertitta says, he’s still fielding them every single day. “I’m no different today than I was 25 years ago. I’m not complacent at all.” He may be 62, with more money than he could ever hope to spend in his lifetime, but he scoffs at the prospect of retirement.

In a way, Shut Up and Listen! is Fertitta paying it forward. Sitting at his desk, he offers fatherly advice to his audience—outshine your competition, be the first one in the office and the last one out—but, ever the straight-shooter, he refuses to sugar-coat anything. “Set realistic goals,” he advises. “People come to me and say, ‘I want to do what you did. I want to be like you.He laughs. “Let’s get you a realistic goal, okay?”

Show Comments