Tillman Fertitta

‘Buy’ and Large

For billionaire Tilman Fertitta, starring in a reality show is ‘just something fun.’ But reshaping the Galleria-area skyline is the culmination of a lifelong dream.

Tilman Fertitta takes the cake. Well, the cookie. The Liber boys, three Austin brothers who make flavored syrups for cocktails, have dropped by the hospitality mogul’s Grecian-column-wrapped corner office atop his Landry’s, Inc. HQ near the Galleria to give him an oversized chocolate chip cookie. The treat is a thank-you for Fertitta’s six-figure purchase of their ginger and grenadine versions for his restaurants and resorts, on the first episode of his Billion Dollar Buyer reality show on CNBC, which returns for Season Two this fall. The show finds the magnate vetting vendors offering products from sheets and soap to cookies and jam for his properties.

Fertitta excitedly pulls himself away from his desk and its multiple video monitors, keeping closed-circuit watch on his five Golden Nugget casinos, to greet the men with whom he dishes about the behind-the-scenes antics that didn’t make it to air. He apologizes for his sometimes gruff onscreen persona. “I never want to come off as an a**hole,” he says.

Then why do a reality show at all? After all, Forbes says Fertitta is among the richest people in America, citing his net worth at $3.1 billion. The father of four, who’ll turn 60 in June, could afford to wind down and enjoy the fruits of his labor. “It’s just something else to do,” he says, almost blithely, “something fun … something else to see if you can be successful with.”

And that’s not all. Besides his sometimes controversial philanthropic pursuits — he’s giving $20 mil to UH, where he chairs the Board of Regents, to rebuild its basketball arena, which the school will name after him despite having already named it after a judge — Fertitta is opening at least a dozen new restaurants, expanding his casino in nearby Lake Charles, La., and building a mixed-use high-rise complex next door to his corporate offices. The latter project, The Post Oak, boasts a yet-to-be-named luxury hotel, the first Texas location of high-end Mastro’s Steakhouse, two vast ballrooms, deluxe office spaces for rent, and a two-story showroom for his Bentley and Rolls-Royce dealership. Here’s the billionaire on his busy fall.

Which new project are you most excited about? The hotel in The Post Oak. It’s in my hometown. It’s nearly 500 feet tall. I have no partners; I’m just doing it myself. I’ve always wanted to do it, and I think it’s going to be great for Houston. We’re the only city in America that’s one of your top 30 or 40 cities that does not have a first-class hotel. And it’s exciting to bring an office space with perks and benefits. You’re going to have helicopter service if you want it, and you’re going to have 24-hour room service. There’s a concierge. We can do things that other people can’t do.

Somebody described you as a frustrated wannabe architect. When you go into jobs and you see them all screwed up, that’s because the owner isn’t there to fix it. It’s really not being an architect; it’s being a designer. I’ve said, [The Post Oak will] look better if we tier it up [like the tiers of a wedding cake], not just make it straight. I came up with the solid-glass two stories, 50 feet in the air, for the Bentleys and Rolls [showroom].

Is there one thing that top entrepreneurs have in common? Drive. Wanting to succeed. And I think all entrepreneurs all have an A.D.D. problem. If you talk to every one of the great entrepreneurs — this is what I’ve picked up from just sitting around with guys like myself — you have to multi-task. You can’t just sit there and do one thing. That’s what drives an entrepreneur crazy.

Is Houston a good city for entrepreneurs? Anytime you have land, there’s possibility. I think it’s still harder in a city like New York or L.A. Our land is still cheaper than the other major markets. I look at it as a land of opportunity. Do I think that I would have been successful anywhere, and any good entrepreneurs can be successful anywhere? Yes, I do. But it was easier here.

So I’ve started my own magazine. I’m an entrepreneur now. Any advice for me? You can take a lot more than you think you can. Times are really going to get tough, and you’re going to want to throw in the towel. You might think, “How am I going to make payroll this week?” Then, all of the sudden, that one check comes in. Remember that. You don’t have to throw it in until they come and take it from you.

So there’s a multimillionaire running against a multibillionaire for president. Would a billionaire be better qualified than a millionaire? Not in this case.

When will you retire? People like me don’t ever retire. It’s not in our DNA. Number one, you couldn’t retire, just because you have to manage the assets that you have. Could you slow down one day? Yeah, but I’m beginning to think now that I’ll never slow down. I think I will die going 90 miles an hour. I look at as many deals today as I did 20 years ago. I have 60,000 employees; I’d like to have 100,000. It’s kind of fun now. The next 20 years should be even more fun. There’s a lot to accomplish out there.