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Howard Stutz

Respect was earned for founding father of local casinos

24 October 2014

LAS VEGAS -- It seemed out of place to refer to gaming industry pioneer Frank Fertitta Jr. by his first name.

Other than close friends and business associates, the late founder of Station Casinos was known as “Mr. Fertitta.”

It was out of respect.

To employees, customers and admirers, he was “Mr. Fertitta.”

To Frank Fertitta III and Lorenzo Fertitta, he was simply “Dad.”

The brothers recalled their father as someone who earned respect by his actions. They view him as one of Nevada’s great casino business entrepreneurs.

“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him,” said Frank Fertitta III, CEO and co-owner of Station Casinos, Inc.

The elder Fertitta, who died in 2009 at the age of 70, created a brand of casinos almost 40 years ago that Southern Nevadans now consider commonplace — the locals gaming property.

He connected with his customers, creating promotions and offering prizes that were viewed as ground-breaking.

Fertitta was the first casino operator to give away a brand-new automobile every day for a month. In his casino football selection contests, Fertitta awarded newly built houses to both the person who picked the most winners during a season and the person who picked the fewest. He also gave away $250,000 to anyone who went 50-50 in the contest.

He created the buffet for locals and easy-access parking, which are commonplace now at every locals casino. He was committed to customer service.

“I think that’s one of the things that’s overlooked about my dad,” said Lorenzo Fertitta, who is a co-owner of Station Casinos and CEO of Ultimate Fighting Championship. “He was a tremendous promoter and marketer. He was always thinking up innovative marketing ideas. He was hands on in all our marketing meetings.”

It began with what is now the Palace Station Hotel and Casino.

Frank Fertitta Jr. had an idea that local residents — especially those getting off work from their jobs on the Strip — wanted a place to relax, gamble and find a good meal before heading home.

With a borrowed $10,000 and two partners, he opened The Casino in 1976, a 5,000-square-foot building attached to the Mini-Price Motor Inn on Sahara Avenue, west of Interstate 15. The Casino became the Bingo Palace a year later when he added a bingo hall.

In 1983, an expansion and renovation renamed the property Palace Station.

Frank Fertitta III said Palace Station underwent 13 different remodeling efforts over the years, adding restaurants and other amenities.

Today, Station Casinos has 19 large and small properties throughout Southern Nevada. The company also manages Indian casinos in California and Michigan.

Boulder Station Hotel & Casino was well under construction when Frank Fertitta Jr. retired in 1993, turning the company over to his sons, who took Station Casinos public.

“The Palace Station was like my baby,” Fertitta said in a 2006 interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, prior to the opening of Red Rock Resort. “It wasn’t easy to give it up. My sons had the ideas on how to grow the company beyond what we ever thought possible.”

Born Oct. 30, 1938, in Beaumont, Texas, Frank Fertitta Jr. arrived in Las Vegas with his wife, Victoria, in 1960 from Galveston, Texas.

His first job was as a bellman at the Tropicana while learning to deal blackjack. From 1960-76, he served as a dealer and held other gaming positions including pit boss, baccarat manager and general manager at the Stardust, Tropicana, Circus Circus, Sahara and Fremont.

Lorenzo Fertitta said his father experienced many different management styles during his career.

Added Frank Fertitta III: “He told us that sometimes you learn more from what you see people do wrong than what you see people doing right.”

The brothers described their father as humble and unassuming.

“He didn’t demand respect, he just earned it,” Lorenzo Fertitta said. “He would walk the casino floor every day and talk with the employees. He knew everyone by first name.”

Glenn Christenson, Station Casinos longtime chief financial officer who spent 17 years with the gaming company, said Frank Fertitta Jr. never sought out attention. His charitable contributions were done quietly and privately.

“It all goes back to that respect everyone felt about him,” Christenson said. “He had the confidence to turn the family business over to his sons. He never second-guessed them.”

Even retirement, Frank Fertitta Jr. spent time at the Palace Station. He could be found most days eating meals in Fisherman’s Broiler and visiting with employees and customers.

He was also available to offer advice to his sons.

“He saw the beginning of the downturn and the difficult times,” Frank Fertitta III said. ” He always thought we would figure a way out of it.”

There was just one time the sons rejected their father’s advice: when they purchased UFC.

“Frank and I had the utmost respect for dad,” Lorenzo Fertitta recalled. “We had never done anything he didn’t approve. When he found out we were buying UFC, we were summoned to lunch at his table at the Broiler. He told us he didn’t want us to do it. He didn’t think it was good for the reputation of the company.”

The brothers explained their plans to change the direction of the UFC into a true professional sports league. Dad relented and told his sons it was their decision.

A few years later, he attended a UFC card in Las Vegas.

“He became the biggest fan,” Frank Fertitta III said.
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