Tilman Fertitta shares the secrets to his success in his new business book, Shut Up and Listen!

By Liz McNeil
September 18, 2019 10:00 AM
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He’s a self-made billionaire, owner of the Houston Rockets and chairman of a hospitality and entertainment empire encompassing over 600 restaurants. But ask Tilman Fertitta where he got his earliest business lessons, and he’ll point to his father’s seafood restaurant in Galveston, Texas.

“I peeled shrimp,” says Fertitta, the 62-year-old chairman and CEO of Fertitta Entertainment and star of CNBC’s Billion Dollar Buyer. “I worked the boiler lines. I fried. I expedited and worked the hostess stand. Whatever needed to be done.”

“I’m totally self-made,” the straight-talking Texan, who’s worth over 4 billion dollars, tells PEOPLE. “There is no family money or anything.”

Fertitta shares the secrets to his success in his new business book, Shut Up and Listen!

Subtle, he isn’t. But his blunt and bold style fueled his trajectory, from the owner of one Landry’s Seafood (which he bought in 1980 in Katy, Texas) into a mogul running one of the largest hospitality empires in the United States, including over 500 Landry’s restaurants, Morton’s Steak House, Chart House, Dos Caminos, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, five Golden Nugget Casinos and more.

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“I always had a good business brain,” Fertitta says. “I did not have artistic talent. I did not have musical talent, but I understood business and numbers. I was born with entrepreneurial DNA.”

By the time he started in his dad’s seafood restaurant kitchen at 12 years old, there was no stopping him. “I remember when I was 13 telling my dad to go home and let me just run things,” he says with a laugh. “He did not let me do that, though.”

Tilman Fertitta filming Billion Dollar Buyer
| Credit: Fertitta Entertainment

“My parents never lived above their means,” he says of his upbringing. “They drove Buicks. They did not drive Cadillacs. We never went to Europe or flew anywhere. We’d go on nice driving vacations. We weren’t poor, but I sure was not living in high cotton.”

“From the time I needed anything, I always worked,” he says. “From cutting lawns at 10 to selling candy at school to lemonade and Koolaid stands. Then I became a lifeguard and then worked in a a hotel front office. I remember every Friday going to the bank to deposit $200 in cash to my savings account in the ’70s. That was a bunch of money back then.”

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To this day, he still stresses the bottom line. Sample book chapters include “You’d Better Know Your Numbers” and “Hospitality: If They Want Scrambled Eggs….” (In other words, even after breakfast hours, always aim to please the customer.)

He bought the Houston Rockets basketball team for 2.2 billion dollars in 2017. And while he’s been pictured sitting next to fellow fans Jay-Z and Beyonce, he says, “I’ve been at it so long that it’s no big deal. I love Jay-Z and Beyonce, but I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of people. I’ve hosted presidents at my house.”

Fertitta grew especially close to President George H.W Bush, whom he calls a true “superstar.”

Tilman Fertitta with Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush.

“I was really friendly with 41,” he says of Bush Sr. “I’ve gone to Kennebunkport and we went out on my yacht together.” When it came time for Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton to combine their efforts to administer aid after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, Fertitta lent them his jet.

“41 knew I was close to Bill Clinton, so he said ‘Why don’t you come up with me since you know Bill?’ So we flew up there and had lunch with Bill and the relationship grew from there,” he recalls. “I told him that day, Bill Clinton loves this country just as much as you do. You’re listening to the pundits telling you other things, but Clinton was a moderate president and the Bushes were moderate and as they got to know each other, they became such good friends. I was just there the day they hit it off.”

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Of such moments, he says, “I’ve been very fortunate, but I also worked very hard.”

Fertitta, the father of four kids, still has more deals on the horizon. “I could never retire,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll slow down and spend more time on my boat or vacationing. But not any time soon.”

It’s only his first book, after all.