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THE DENVER POST - March 6, 2003

Landry’s founder rescues Titanics

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Tilman Fertitta has forged a successful career by turning bad ideas into money makers.

The founder and chief executive officer of Landry’s Restaurants, Inc. reinvigorated four ailing seafood chains, including Rainforest Cafe, within the past two years. That has catapulted Landry’s to the top of the casual seafood chain.

Now Fertitta wants Landry’s to run major aquariums.

Last month, Landry’s opened the sprawling Downtown Aquarium in Houston, and Tuesday, it bought bankrupt Colorado’s Ocean Journey.

Ocean Journey had all the markings of what often lures Fertitta: It was cheap. Most business analysts had labeled it dead. And it was a brand name.

“The name of the game is good assets and making money,” said Fertitta, a 45-year-old Texas native that colleagues describe as brash and visionary.

On Tuesday morning, Fertitta swooped into town and quickly outbid Ripley Entertainment Inc. to buy Ocean Journey for $13.6 million in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Fertitta and Landry’s didn’t even publicly come forward in the Ocean Journey deal until Tuesday morning. The aquarium in Denver’s Central Platte Valley had been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy for nine months.

By Tuesday evening, Fertitta, who owns 28 percent of Landry’s publicly traded stock, and 20 Landry’s executives were at Ocean Journey, beginning Day One of their plans for enormous change for the aquarium.

Ocean Journey was so broke that it did not have the money to operate one more day, said Carl Eklund, the Denver attorney who represented Ocean Journey during Chapter 11. That forced Ocean Journey to fire all of its estimated 100 employees Tuesday evening, and many of them re-applied for their jobs with Landry’s officials.

Landry’s officials say they have no plans for major turnover, at least in the short term.

It does have plans for massive change tot he aquarium though.

The facility will be renamed Downtown Aquarium Denver. Within a year, it will include seafood restaurants and amusement rides such as a Ferris wheel, carousel and a mini-train ride.

The current admission price, $14.95 for adults, is likely to go down, Fertitta said.

“What people want is family-oriented entertainment. That’s what Ocean Journey needs to be,” he said.

“Like the aquarium in Houston, you need to be able to go there and do multiple things and have the option to pay for a variety of things, like the train ride and the restaurant. Or pay just for a few things.”

Two years ago, Landry’s bought the ailing Rainforest Cafe chain at a time when Wall Street had labeled the theme-restaurant a bad cliché.

Fertitta slashed prices and got rid of half the items on the menu, cleansing it of anything that “smacked of upscale, like weird pasta dishes.” The chain earned $30 million last year.

Last year, Landry’s bagged three other ailing seafood restaurant chains at bargain prices – C.A. Muer, Chart House Restaurants and Saltgrass Steak House. Using the same formula that Landry’s applied to Rainforest, each unit will turn a profit this year, Fertitta said.

Landry’s earned a profit of $26.9 million last year. It owns and operates restaurants including Landry’s Seafood House, Joe’s Crab Shack, The Crab House, Rainforest Cafe, Charley’s Crab, Willie G’s Seafood & Steak House, the Chart House and Saltgrass.

Tilman Fertitta
Title: founder, CEO of Landry’s Restaurants Inc.
Age: 45
Place of Birth: Galveston, Texas
Brief History: In 1998, Fertitta started the seafood chain Landry’s. Currently, Landry’s owns 280 full-service restaurants operating under nine brand names. Forbes magazine has ranked Landry’s ‘one of the best small companies in America’ for three straight years.
Fertitta’s 2001 Compensation: $2,997,500.

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