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Tilman Fertitta talks failure, fun and looking forward

Dayna Steele
Tilman Fertitta with Social Sparkling Wine principals

Tilman J. Fertitta is the sole owner of Fertitta Entertainment, the restaurant giant Landry’s, and the Golden Nugget Casinos and Hotels. He’s the star of Billion Dollar Buyer, a prolific philanthropist, especially in his hometown of Houston, Texas, and the owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. The list goes on …

This uber-successful entrepreneur started early, peeling shrimp after school in his dad’s Galveston restaurant. Then with an initial $5,000 investment, Fertitta built a wildly successful privately-owned entertainment empire that has probably touched you in one way or another. You’ve eaten his food, watched his television show, maybe stayed in one of his hotels, won a little at one of his casinos or watched an NBA basketball game.  

Now you can read his book, the New York Times best-seller Shut Up and Listen! Hard Business Truths That Will Help You Succeed, where Fertitta shares many of the insights that have made his success possible. He also addresses the obstacles most don’t even think about – not knowing your numbers, not knowing your strengths and weaknesses, or not being willing to go that extra mile for customers.  

“Every day is an experience in learning for me as well as everyone else. Somebody always does something in a day that makes me a little bit smarter than I was when the day began.”

He adds, “If you’re a leader who’s dedicated to teaching everyone around all that you have to share, you can be every bit as open to learning and benefitting from all they can offer in return.”

Tilman Fertitta, Shut Up and Listen!
Shut Up and Listen! book cover with Tilman Fertitta

Shut Up and Listen! Hard Business Truths That Will Help You Succeed is divided into easy-to-read and digest sections:

  • Hospitality – give the customer what they want
  • You better know your numbers
  • The 95:5 Rule – what’s your 5% that needs fixing
  • See the opportunity, seize the opportunity now
  • Live your leadership, do as you say

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Fertitta and I did countless radio promotions together back in the early eighties when he first opened Willie G’s restaurant in Houston, Texas. This book may be my favorite thing he has done so far. In my Rock Star Principles of Success presentation, principle #3 is knowledge, and knowledge comes not only from reading and training, but it also comes from just listening. Stop talking, stop pontificating, and listen – it’s amazing what you will learn. Fertitta highlights exactly this and what you will learn by listening throughout Shut Up and Listen!

Busy as he is, Fertitta made some time for me to ask a few questions in person for this article.  

Is there a failure or a mistake you learned from that stands out?

Oh, lots, but if I have to name one, it’s you can negotiate too hard and lose. Know when to stand down.  

What do you do for fun, for entertainment?

My businesses are fun. This is what I always wanted to do growing up – be a successful business guy.

What is your 5% right now that you are addressing?

My 5%, your 5%, anyone’s 5% changes all the time, every day, all day. It’s a matter of noticing what is wrong and addressing it. Right now, this moment, I am focusing on the Houston Rockets and more wins.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

There’s always something next. Keep listening, and keep looking ahead.  

By the way, here are some of the “Tilmanisms” that stood out when I first read the book:

  • There are no spare customers
  • Be plappy (you’ll just have to read the book)
  • Learn to be patient
  • Consultants can consult you straight out of business
  • Don’t show a head in the bed if it’s not there
  • And … shut up and listen!

Shut Up and Listen! should be required reading for anyone who hopes to succeed at anything in any industry. With the holiday season upon us, Shut Up and Listen! Hard Business Truths That Will Help You Succeed could be a very successful gift, indeed.

* I have to add a personal note here about Tilman. He was refueling his jet for a trip when he got a message from our mutual friend, NASA Space Shuttle commander Mark Kelly, “Gabby’s been shot.” Tilman immediately switched gears and arranged for the plane to fly to Tucson, with Kelly, his two daughters from a previous marriage, and Kelly’s mother on board. Over the next months and years, Tilman, and his wife Paige, did more than I could ever write here to help the former congresswoman recover from her injuries. In addition, Tilman led the successful effort to name the US Navy Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship the USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10).  

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