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Angelfish is still his name

December 15, 2018

One of the meanest things I ever wrote about a CEO was aimed at Houston’s one and only Tilman Fertitta.

In 2004, I was a columnist for The Denver Post, and Fertitta was in a tax battle with the city of Denver over the valuation of the local aquarium he’d purchased in a bankruptcy sale. He bought it for a mere $15 million. It had cost more than $90 million to build.

On a conference call with analysts, Fertitta brashly threatened to bulldoze the big fish tank if the city didn’t bend.

“We are at war with the city of Denver and their taxing authority,” he declared on a call recorded for investors of his then-publicly traded company.

In my column, I naturally took the side of the city. In my typical sarcastic fashion, I took pot shots at Fertitta and called him “a big carp.” It was meant to be funny — you know, a fish pun. But I was admittedly provincial and a tad mean-spirited.

Fertitta never complained, though. About a year later, I received a call from his PR maven Dancie Ware, who pushed me to accept an invitation she’d sent to the grand reopening of the aquarium. I told her no. She told me Fertitta kept asking about me. She insisted he wanted me there. This call was followed up several times before I finally agreed to show.

I didn’t know what to expect. I even felt a bit intimidated. But when I got the to aquarium, Fertitta put his arm around my shoulders.

“Anybody who would write a story like that, I got to meet the guy,” he said. He somehow saw beyond the insults and understood my role: “You get paid to write interesting things, and I put it out there for you on a silver platter.”

He then gave me a personal tour of his new aquarium, fish by fish. And soon I decided he wasn’t really carp.

“So what kind of fish are you?” I asked.

“Sometimes people think I’m a shark, but I’m really an angelfish,” he said with a grin.

When I got back to the newsroom, I wrote another column, taking back all the other mean things I’d said. I admited I was wrong to call Fertitta a big carp and wrote that he was really an angelfish. So ended the saga. Or so I thought.

Thirteen years later, I end up as business editor of the Houston Chronicle. I recently had lunch with Feritta’s PR pro Ware and recounted this story. Her eyes widened: “Oh my God, you’re THAT Al Lewis? Tilman has been telling that story for years. He’s going to want to see you.”

Considering the metoric success Fertitta has enjoyed since this petty spat over the taxable value of a once-bankrupt aquarium, I found this amazing. This is the guy who recently bought the Houston Rockets for $2.2 billion. He’s got a hit TV show, “Billion Dollar Buyer,” not to mention restaurants, hotels and casinos everywhere. And lately there’s been news he could get into a deal that would make him the next CEO of Caesars Palace. I had watched from a distance as Fertitta grew from multimillionaire to multibillionaire and figured he’d forgotten me by now.

But no. Last week, I met Fertitta in the H Bar of his Post Oak Hotel — the only hotel in Houston with five stars. It was a reunion of sorts. We had a great laugh about all of this angelfish stuff. Then he took me to a Rockets game where I sat with his entire family.

I bring this up because I think there are plenty of business lessons here:

The media isn’t really out to get you. The media just likes to tell a good story. You can change the story.

Everyone gets dramatic from time to time and says things they don’t really mean. Fertitta wasn’t going to bulldoze Denver’s beloved aquarium. And I wasn’t going to boycott his fine restaurants (in fact, I’m a Landry’s Select Club member and eat at them often). In business, it’s best to put emotions aside and do what makes sense.

Get a sense of humor about yourself. Will ya? If someone is poking fun at you, or challenging you, they obviously care. Who knows, they may turn out to be helpful in the end. Or at least worth a laugh.

Here at Texas Inc. we’re sure to be writing more about Fertitta’s many enterprises and endeavors. Stay tuned.

al.lewis@chron.com

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