You’d be hard-pressed to find a Houstonian who’s had a more high-profile year than Tilman Fertitta. The Landry’s, Inc. CEO has long been a household name as the owner of 600 properties — including high-end restaurants such as Mastro’s and Morton’s The Steakhouse; mainstream destinations such as Rainforest Café, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Saltgrass Steak House; and five Golden Nugget Casinos.
But it’s his recent acquisition of the Houston Rockets, paired with his alpha presence as the star of the reality show Billion Dollar Buyer, that has rocketed Fertitta into the national spotlight. In its third season, which premieres tonight at 9 pm on CNBC, Billion Dollar Buyer pairs Fertitta with two small businesses in each episode; he samples their goods, gets to know the owners, and assesses their compatibility with Landry’s, Inc. The Houston native points out flaws in products and operations, shares his expertise, and pushes for improvements. In the end, he decides whether to place a transformative purchase order with one of the companies, both, or neither.
This season, five Houston business — BellaBreeze, Eat Drink Host, K&N Custom Granite, Mar-tea-na Tea Company, and Texas Mattress Makers — are among the 12 jockeying for Fertitta’s mentorship — and money. We caught up with Fertitta to talk reality TV, and tonight’s premiere:
CultureMap: You’re an NBA owner, you rub elbows with celebrities in sports, business and entertainment, and your businesses are nationwide. Could you be the next great brand ambassador for Houston to the rest of the country?
Tilman Fertitta: You know, I’ve never thought of that. I think it’s just the nature of Houston. When you take out your athletes — take out J.J. Watt, James Harden, Deshaun Watson — if you went around the country, and asked people to name someone from Houston who isn’t an athlete, it would probably be hard for them. That’s just the way it is right now.
CM: Which puts you in a unique position.
TF: Yes. Look, there are a lot of great business people in Houston, but for me, I think it’s because I have businesses that are across the country, and they’re high-visibility businesses. And now I own the Rockets, and have a TV show. I certainly didn’t position myself this way; it just kind of happened.
CM: Have you tried to create a Houston “feel” on the show?
TF: I think people see the Houston charm and hospitality. I’d like to think wherever I go, I’m an ambassador for Houston.
CM: Your trajectory is very similar to another reality star: Mark Cuban. You were both billionaires in your own right, you bought NBA teams based in Texas, and now are both on reality television.
TF: Wow, you know, that hasn’t occurred to me. No one’s ever told me that. I have a lot of respect for Mark, and it sure doesn't hurt my feelings to be compared to him.
CM: There are five Houston businesses on the show this season. Do you find yourself subconsciously favoring them?
TF: Maybe so. You probably look at a local company a little harder — you want to do deals with the locals. I know mentally I’m probably in that state. I will say: all the companies I meet with are good people, and they’ve been cast because they’re people who want to learn. It’s been a great pleasure for me to get out and meet new people and see these products.
CM: There must be a kinship between host and hopefuls, being that you were once in their shoes?
TF: One hundred percent. I like relating things that happened in my past with them. We’re not perfect — we make mistakes every year. I’ve just been fortunate to make more good decisions than bad.The show is just as much about mentoring as it is about me buying their product. So even if I don’t buy their product, I’m trying to help them as a company.
CM: Do you wish there had been a Tilman for you?
TF: I never had a mentor, but I had people I watched and wanted to emulate their success. I was always intrigued by Vincent Kickerillo. And I’ve been going to Vegas since I was in my teens, so I’ve always been intrigued by people like Steve Wynn. I can remember going to The Golden Nugget downtown and realizing that Steve Wynn’s vision was so far ahead of everyone else’s.
It’s interesting because later in life, I’ve become very good friends with Vincent Kickerillo and Steve Wynn. So I’ve been very fortunate that people I’ve looked up to, I’ve ended up becoming good friends with.
CM: Do you see yourself staying in TV, as a star, and maybe as an executive producer?
TF: Shooting the show takes a lot of time, but I can see it. I can see myself staying in the business.
They had been talking to me about doing a show forever. But I told them that I’m viewed on Wall Street as a serious businessman. So I’m not gonna do a show that has a lot of drama; it has to be more of a teaching show. And it’s on CNBC, which is a business channel. That’s important.
Billion Dollar Buyer airs at 9 pm Wednesdays on CNBC.