Entrepreneurs

Meet Tilman Fertitta, who's buying the Houston Rockets for $2.2 billion

For Tilman Fertitta, buying his hometown NBA team, the Houston Rockets, is "a life-long dream come true," he says.

It seems fitting that a billionaire would have big dreams — the purchase price is a reported $2.2 billion, according to CNBC.

Today, Fertitta controls an empire: His company, Landry's Inc., has amassed more than $3.5 billion in assets, including brands like Landry's Seafood, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Morton's The Steakhouse and Golden Nugget Casinos, and brings in over $3.4 billion in revenue. Fertitta is also the star of CNBC's reality show, "Billion Dollar Buyer."

But being one of the world's richest restaurateurs with a $3.1 billion net worth, according to Forbes, is a long way from where Fertitta started, growing up in Galveston, Texas in the 60s, peeling shrimp at his dad's restaurant after school.

"My dad had a seafood restaurant," Fertitta, 60, tells CNBC Make It, in his signature Texas twang. He was working in the front of the house and in the kitchen by the time he was 11 years old, he says.

"I learned how to check in fresh fish at the back door, I learned how to fry shrimp, I learned how to change oil," Fertitta says.

"It just gave me so many more years of experience than everybody else."

Tilman Fertitta
Getty Images | Michael Boardman
Tilman Fertitta

Aside from getting his hands dirty, "I started learning the numbers," Fertitta says. And that part he loved.

"Back then you used to have a real cashier and everybody would walk up to the front and pay their check, and so I loved to cashier sometimes and balance out the waiters when they would check out."

Fertitta watched how his dad handled the business, and he learned fast.

"At about 13 years old, I can remember me telling my dad, 'Why don't you go home and let me just run this thing?'" he says. "So I was pretty confident in what I could do even back then."

By high school, Fertitta was investing in the stock market. He later went to business school, but dropped out. "God gave me an entrepreneurial business brain and getting my M.B.A. would have done absolutely nothing for me," he says.

Plus, he was making money.

At 23, Fertitta took out a $6,000 bank loan to start his first business, a seaside hotel in Galveston. In 1980, he became a partner in Landry's Seafood restaurant, and then in 1986 sold his hotel to buy a majority stake, according to Forbes, becoming CEO and chairman. Two years later, he started buying up restaurants on the boardwalk in Kemah, Texas, outside of Houston.

By 1988, Fertitta had figured out the business and started making serious money. "I had five restaurants" at the time, he says. "I was doing $16 million, making $2 million a year."

He eventually turned the area into an entertainment complex.

In 1993, Landry's Inc. went public. The business, with Fertitta as majority owner and CEO, continued buying and revamping distressed restaurants and entertainment brands for nearly two decades. In 2010, he took the company private once again with a $1.4 billion buyout, according to the Houston Business Journal.

"You can be much more opportunistic in doing deals," with a privately held company, Fertitta told the publication at the time.

Houston Rockets
Getty Images | Jesse D. Garrabrant
Houston Rockets

And in the end, that's what Fertitta loves — making deals. Whether it's buying another bankrupt hospitality business, like the parent company of Joe's Crab Shack, which Landry's snapped up last month at auction, or the Rockets acquisition. It's his passion.

"Passion is everything," says Fertitta. "You've got to do whatever it takes to be successful."

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Disclosure: Tilman Fertitta is the host of CNBC's "Billion Dollar Buyer."