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THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS - THE FERTITTA FAMILY

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America’s Youngest Billionaires and the Father with the Foresight to Start It All
THE FERTITTA FAMILY

 

It all started with Dad.  

It was over 50 years ago when he borrowed $100 from a friend so that he could move to Las Vegas with his wife and their baby daughter, Delise.  It was 1960 and Frank Fertitta Jr. wanted to find a better life for himself and his young family.  He decided on a career in the gaming industry.  Over the next 16 years Fertitta worked in practically every end of the casino industry: bellman, dealer, pit boss, baccarat manager, and general manager.  Yet it was his foresight that saw the need for a place for locals.  That spark of genius would ultimately lead to the family’s incredible fortune.  

His name was Frank Fertitta Jr.  Frank was born on October 30, 1938 in Beaumont, Texas, to Frank J. and Deady Fertitta.  Graduating from Kirwin High School in 1956, he then went on to marry Victoria Broussard two years later.  It was over 50 years ago when Fertitta borrowed $100 from a friend so that he could move to Las Vegas with his wife and their baby daughter, Delise.  It was 1960 and Frank Fertitta Jr. wanted to find a better life for himself and his young family.  He decided on a career in the gaming industry.  In the early 60’s Vegas was an opportunity waiting to happen.  Frank started at the bottom.  His first job was as a Bellman at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino.  While there, he learned to become a dealer.  Over the next 16 years he worked as dealer, pit boss, baccarat manager and general manager at properties including the Stardust, Tropicana, Circus Circus, Sahara, and the Fremont in downtown Las Vegas.

Fertitta believed that there was a gap in the market for casinos.  He thought there was a burgeoning need for a place that locals could visit and where casino workers could come after work.  Fertitta Jr. based his concept on the premise that he could attract residents if he offered value and great service.  Sin City was pretty much a desert back then.   The majority of people in the industry thought he was crazy.  Some said he was out of his mind.  They claimed that he was going to lose everything.  “There’s no way that place can be successful,” they said.  Ignoring the conventional wisdom of the time, he opened his first local casino in 1976.  Frank Fertitta Jr. dubbed it, The Casino.

Before The Casino was built, residents had found a place to hangout.  It was downtown Las Vegas.  Access, however, had become a problem, because most had to drive miles from their homes in the newly sprawling city.  Casinos closer to their neighborhoods gave people a place to gamble and meet friends after work.  The Casino was a 5,000 square foot, 100-slot facility attached to the Mini-Price Motor Inn on Sahara Avenue, just a short drive from Las Vegas Boulevard.  It was a huge success.  The gambling parlor quickly expanded to include a sports book, restaurant, buffet, bingo hall, with of course, additional gaming.  Frank Fertitta Jr. renamed his establishment the Bingo Palace.  The operation maintained its focus on local customers:  the people that lived and worked in Las Vegas.  He was a true pioneer.  He brought bingo to the locals.  It was also his idea to create easy access parking.  These are commonplace perks now at locals’ casinos, but new innovations at the time.

The Bingo Palace was ultimately renamed the Palace Station Hotel & Casino and it eventually featured over a thousand rooms.  It was an overwhelming success and marked the beginning of the “locals market” and of Station Casinos…one of the biggest local casino operations in Las Vegas.  The Palace Station went through thirteen separate expansions, because the banking environment was much different back in the 1980’s.  Frank Fertitta Jr. said he lost count of the revisions, but his sons went back and added them up.  “Even though he was making money, it was tough to get loans and expand,” Frank Fertitta III said in 2006.  “All the expansions were done out of cash flow.  We would knock out a wall and add a coffee shop or a fish house or put in more slot machines.”

Frank Fertitta Jr. loved the casino business.  For him it wasn’t work, it was one of his passions.  Palace Station grew into a local empire of 10 major properties.  The Palace Station on Sahara Avenue begat Sam’s Town at Flamingo Road and Boulder Highway three years later.  The Palace and Sam’s Town were on the edges of town, not far from the Strip, but far enough that skeptics still predicted failure.

As the new market developed, so too did the cross town rivals.  The competition first came from Michael Gaughan, who owned the Barbary Coast on the Strip.  He opened the Gold Coast on West Flamingo Road in 1985.  Inside were the first casino movie theaters and a meeting and convention center.  It also featured a bowling alley, an amenity that would become a staple of future locals’ casinos.  Of course, the naysayers criticized Gaughan, as they had Fertitta.  Investors also cluck-clucked at George Maloof, who opened the Fiesta in North Las Vegas in 1994.  He waited three years to obtain financing. “It was tough to put it together,” Maloof said.  “A lot of people questioned the location.  I looked at the growth in the area and was convinced it could work.  I just had to convince other people.”  The Fiesta expanded three times before being sold to Station Casinos in 2001.

Another milestone in the locals market also belonged to Station, in the form of the first locals’ casino costing more than $200 million.  Some so-called analysts called Sunset Station risky “missionary work” when it opened in Henderson’s growing suburbs.  At more than 130,000 square feet, Sunset Station is Las Vegas’ largest suburban casino, located in one of the busiest commercial corridors in the valley.  The structure includes a stained glass atrium above a bar in the center of the casino.  The casino floor, as well as the one at Sam’s Town, is bigger than those at the Luxor and the Mirage on the Strip.  The most profitable of the Las Vegas-based casino operations, Station attributes its high return on investment to repeat slot machine play.  Despite the addition of retail stores and movie theaters, slots account for about 80 percent of the casino revenue at Station properties.

As times changed, and Vegas grew, we first witnessed the casinos on Fremont under heavy fire from the mega resort hotel casinos that popped up on the Strip and which they, in turn, are now being outflanked by the casinos from the burbs.

Frank Fertitta Jr. not only loved the casino business, he loved life in general.  His employees always referred to him as Mr. Fertitta, not out of fear, but out of love and respect.  His kindness and generosity was known throughout the Las Vegas gaming community.  An example of his generosity was the Fertitta family’s contribution to sports.  They donated $1 million to the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 1993 for the construction of the Frank and Vicki Fertitta Tennis Complex.  The Fertitta’s contributions also made it possible for Bishop Gorman High School to build a new state-of-the-art campus, including a new football stadium.  Mr. Fertitta loved football and he loved watching his sons and grandsons play for Bishop Gorman.  Fertitta Stadium is named in recognition of his love and support of Bishop Gorman football.

Station Casinos gradually became a family business, but not “family” as in the sense of the mob-run Vegas lore.  Frank and Vicki Fertitta were blessed with two additional children:  Frank J. Fertitta III, born in 1962, followed 5 years later, by his brother, Lorenzo.  Mom and Dad Fertitta instilled in their children the passion for faith, family, sports and for helping others.

Frank J. Fertitta III attended Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas.  In 1984, he graduated from the University of Southern California, where he received a BA/BS degree.  By 1985, Frank became an Officer and General Manager of Stations Casino.  In 1986, he was awarded the position of Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, and then President of the corporation.  Today Frank J. Fertitta III is the CEO of Stations Casino.

Younger brother Lorenzo Joseph Fertitta obtained a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of San Diego in 1991 and an MBA from the Stern School of Business at New York University in 1993.  Lorenzo honed his education becoming a successful businessman, casino executive, sports promoter and entrepreneur.  Since 1993, he has occupied various executive positions within Fertitta Enterprises.  From 1991 to 1993, Fertitta served as Vice President, before becoming President and Chief Executive Officer, where he was responsible for managing a healthy investment portfolio consisting of marketable securities and real property.

The family now runs 18 casinos: Aliante Station*, Barley’s*, Boulder Station, Fiesta Henderson Palace Station, Fiesta Casinos Fiesta Rancho, Gold Rush Casino, Green Valley Ranch*, Lake Mead Lounge, Palace Station, Red Rock Resort Spa and Casino, Santa Fe Station, Sunset Station, Texas Station, The Greens Café*, Wildfire Boulder, Wildfire Casino*, Wildfire Lanes, Wild Wild West*  

*Six out of the 18 are 50% joint ownership with Greenspun Corp.

In 2001, Lorenzo was contacted by his childhood friend, Dana White, about purchasing a violent fight club called Ultimate Fighting Championship (the UFC).  He quickly took the opportunity, making the purchase a month later.  Zuffa LLC was immediately co-founded, as the parent company, with brother Frank to establish an entity to manage the assets of the newly acquired Mixed Martial Arts promotion organization.  Thereafter, White became president of the company and received 9 percent of the company’s shares.  Six years later, Zuffa acquired the World Extreme Cagefighting and Pride Fighting ChampionshipsWorld Extreme Cagefighting was absorbed by the UFC.  On Monday, March 14th, 2011, Zuffa LLC officially announced that they purchased Strike Force LLC, a rival MMA organization, and on August 18th, Zuffa LLC announced an 8-year partnership (rumored to be valued at $90 million per year) with Fox Broadcasting Company.

Many an evening the 12,000 seat arena at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas would be packed with celebrities, such as home run king Barry Bonds, or hip-hop impresario Jay-Z, along with high rollers and rabid fans.  Like spectators at a gladiator fight, they were there to witness the highly-charged and bizarre spectacle of men bloodying each other…mixed martial arts.

Lorenzo would wander around the arena, drop in on the broadcast booth to pepper producers with questions about which countries would be receiving the night’s pay-per-view event and then check in with the commentator to learn more about the matchups.  He made small talk with some of the 18 fighters on the bill before joining the crowd to watch the fights taking place inside an eight-sided ring surrounded by a chain-link fence.

Americans will never understand cricket.  The British can’t grasp American football.  But you can’t get much more universal than the UFC.  Every single person on the planet gets it.  It’s just two guys beating each other up.  The Fertittas and White transformed the UFC fight-fest from a business once labeled by Senator John McCain as “human cockfighting” into a billion dollar sports empire.

Marketers salivate over their audience.  “UFC has a deep, passionate fan base,” said Mark-Hans Richer, chief marketing officer for Harley-Davidson, which along with Bud Light, is a corporate sponsor.  “Advertising to such an engaged group of young males is important to us, because we want and need to be selling to the next generation of motorcycle riders.”  Ultimate fighting has also spawned a few side industries, which UFC doesn’t own.  Sportswear firms like TapouT, American Fighter, and Warrior Wear sell an assortment of workout clothes and accessories such as wallets, key chains, stickers, etc.  The UFC is bigger than boxing or wrestling and probably bigger than the two combined.  It has become the flavor of the month.  Forbes Magazine even referred to the UFC as the “ultimate cash machine,” worth around $1 billion and counting…the ledger books of Zuffa are private.

In March of 2008, both Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta were rated as some of America’s youngest billionaires in Forbe’s annual list.

Hard times and sorrow struck the Fertitta family on July 28, 2009.  Station Casinos filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.  The filing listed $5.7 billion in assets against $6.5 billion in debt.  In Station’s case, bondholders complained that the $8.8 billion management-led buyout in 2007 to take the company private put too much debt on it and squeezed out lower-tier investors.  Then, on August 21, 2009, Frank Fertitta Jr., the founder of Station Casinos and father of the Fertitta brothers, died from complications of a heart condition.  A Roman Catholic funeral Mass was conducted at the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer near Las Vegas Blvd. and Tropicana Ave.  The funeral attracted a large gathering of Las Vegans and notables from the arenas of business, sports and government.  Palms owner George Maloof, Elaine Wynn of Wynn Las Vegas, UFC President Dana White, Anthony Marnell III of the M Resort, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons and U.S. Senator John Ensign, were among the nearly 2,000 people who attended the service.

Frank Fertitta Jr. was 70 when he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he was being treated for a long-standing heart condition.  But whatever Fertitta did, he always did it to the best of his ability, his son Lorenzo said: 

     "No matter what job he was doing… as a bellman, as a dealer, or whatever it was…he would do it to perfection.  He prided himself at always being the best at what he did."

But it was not his business skills that made his father a great man, the younger Fertitta said.  “When I thought of the words that would best express who my father was, the words that came to mind were:  kindness, generosity and integrity,” he said.  “He was loyal, affectionate, humble, humorous, never selfish, and more than anything, he was loving.” 

In what played like an improbable feel-good story, the casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta successfully guided Station Casinos out of bankruptcy protection after two years of in-court restructuring.  The successful completion of the restructuring process that began in 2009 and ended in June of 2011 meant that all of the company’s properties remained together under the Station Casinos’ umbrella, nearly 13,000 local jobs were preserved, and as the result of the reinvestment of nearly $200 million, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta are the company’s largest shareholders, owning 45 percent of the restructured company.  Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and their existing management team also remained the manager and operator of all of the company’s properties.  They exited with $4 billion less in debt and with creditors putting the company’s 18 casinos back in the hands of the Fertitta family.

It was another major coup for the casino brothers.  The bankruptcy was considered to be the largest in-court debt restructuring by a gaming company…ever.

The Men Who Made Las Vegas has been a series by Byron Craft, chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.

 

The Fertittas and the UFC

 

Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta’s $2 million investment in the UFC back in 2001 has turned from a black hole into what Forbes magazine has said is a franchise valued at $1.2 billion.  A sport once described as ‘human cockfighting’, has become mainstream and is still growing daily.  With over 500 employees hired to work their offices in London, Beijing, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas as well, the Fertittas keep expanding their venture.  “It was more passion than business,” states Lorenzo.  “Growing up in Las Vegas, where there were no professional sports teams, my father couldn’t take us to the games.  Las Vegas was the “Fight Capital of the World”, so my father took my brother and me to see all the big fights.  When I was eight years old, he took me to see the Ali versus Spinks fight at the Hilton, and I literally became enthralled with boxing after that.  I had a bit of OCD in there, in that I became obsessive about the sport,” revealed Lorenzo.  At age 27, Lorenzo became the youngest member of the state athletic commission.  Shortly after he started the job, Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear during their famous fight.  “I was one of the guys who had to tell Mike to pack up and go,” Lorenzo has said.  

At a wedding in 1995, Lorenzo ran into a former classmate, Dana White, who had become a boxing manager, handling some UFC fighters.  The Fertitta brothers, became instant fans of the sport, although the no-rules gladiatorial fights were so vicious and violent that almost every state had banned them.  Lorenzo was introduced to MMA fighters at local gyms and partied with jujitsu wizard John Lewis.  He became addicted to the “no holds-barred” contest that uses boxing skills, jujitsu, wrestling and karate.

In 2001, with the fighting bouts banned from most cable TV outlets and with its finances looking dismal, the original UFC owner, Meyrowitz, told White he was interested in selling the league.  “When I heard the UFC was for sale, I thought that if it was treated like a sport, not a spectacle, we could make something out of it.  Consultants said I was out of my mind, and my attorneys said I was crazy, but I felt the term Ultimate Fighting had relevance, because it introduced America to the sport,” Lorenzo told Fighters Only magazine.  “What you don’t understand, is I’m getting the most valuable thing that I could possibly have, which is those three letters:  UFC.  That is what’s going to make this thing work.  Everybody knows that brand.  Whether they like it or they don’t like it, they react to it.”  So Lorenzo and Frank made a deal using private funds to buy the UFC for $2 million, and then put White in charge of the company.  After getting the sport legalized in Nevada, Lorenzo got the UFC back in front of the nation on Pay-Per-View.  Viewers in the U.S., Brazil, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Ireland and Italy could now access UFC on Pay-Per-View, as could another 150 countries in 22 different languages worldwide.    

The Fertittas came up with the idea to make The Ultimate Fighter a reality television show with up-and-coming MMA fighters, giving the fighters a six-figure UFC contract.  Spike TV took it on, although the Fertittas had to agree to pay the $10 million production costs themselves.  The show was very successful and gave the UFC a huge amount of exposure, and the money numbers started to grow.  The show made stars out of fighters Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar and Tito Ortiz.  Pouring tens of millions of their own cash in it to lure the 20 to 30 year-old fans, the show continued to make stars out of fighters like Gray Maynard and Frankie Edgar.  “It was taking your passion into these things that you love and then making them profitable ventures,” described Frank.  After a 6-year run on Spike TV, The Ultimate Fighter will start airing (with their two major sponsors Harley-Davidson and Anheuser-Busch) on the FX channel in the spring of 2012 with Bud Light as the exclusive beer of the UFC.    

On ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Lorenzo said:  “Out of the gates it was a money-losing venture.  This investment was a black hole and we didn’t know when it was going to end, so it became a little daunting.  As the losses started adding up, we started to question ourselves.  We were probably about $44 million in it before it turned.  We are now very valuable, and along the way we’ve opened up huge opportunities for the fighters and other companies to make money with their websites that sell UFC things.  It’s the most valuable franchise in sports.  We have a sport that transcends culture and audiences.”  Recently, a single Pay-Per-View UFC spectacle generated $30 million.  “Frank and Lorenzo,” White says, “have the biggest balls of anyone I’ve ever met in my life.”  Rande Gerber, who has worked closely with the Fertittas, said that when Renato “Babalu” Sobral went down by a TKO in just 95 seconds to Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell, he saw the Fertittas run to the ambulance taking Sobral to the hospital to slip him a bonus check.  “You see him open the check, and all of a sudden he’s got tears in his eyes,” Gerber says. “All they said was, ‘You’re a champion, and we’re going to see you again.’  They take care of people.”  The Fertittas, who have seen the UFC surpass Station Casinos as the family’s top investment, have a famous clause.  It requires any business disagreements in the UFC to be settled on the jujitsu mats.   

The Octagon or Cage:   UFC fighters fight in an eight-sided cage called The Octagon.  Its walls are made of metal chain-link, coated with black vinyl.  It measures 32 feet across and almost 5’8” high.  There is padding around the walls to protect fighters from falling out.  During a fight, two fighters and one referee are allowed in the cage.    

Attire:   No shoes, no shirts, no long pants, and only approved shorts are to be worn.  Fighters must use lightweight open-fingered gloves, a mouth guard, and a jockstrap with protective cup.  

Music:   UFC: Ultimate Beat Downs, Vol. 1, an album of hardcore music featured in and inspired by the UFC.

Video Games:   UFC: Tapout for Xbox was one of the first of the MMA styles of gaming, and Lorenzo explained that they went directly to:  “EA Sports. This was three years ago.  They said the UFC was irrelevant and that we were wasting their time.  So we went down the street and did a deal with THQ.  So we stick with the guys who stick with us.  Now the UFC video game has been a massive success with more than 3 million copies sold.”  

The Nevada State Athletic Commission currently lists the following as fouls:  Butting with the head, Eye gouging of any kind, Biting, Hair pulling, Fish hooking, Groin attacks of any kind, Clawing/pinching or twisting the flesh, Kicking/kneeing or stomping the head of a grounded opponent, Kicking to the kidney with the heel, Spitting at an opponent, Striking to the spine or back of the head, Striking downward using the point of the elbow, Throat strikes, including grabbing the trachea. 

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