Monday, Feb. 20, 2012 | 12:39 p.m.
- Ask Mr. Sun: What do the letters P and T stand for in the PT’s chain? (Oct. 18, 2010)
- Fertitta remembered for ‘kindness, generosity, integrity’ at funeral (Aug. 29, 2009)
- A dichotomy unfolds at Sahara and Tropicana; a birthday to celebrate for a Vegas matriarch (May 18, 2011)
- More gaming stories from VEGAS INC
Consider the ram, and its significance in the life of Blake Sartini.
It is the official animal of his home state — Nevada. When he hunts big game, Sartini often tracks the powerful and elusive desert bighorn sheep.
The head of a ram that unwittingly entered Sartini’s crosshairs hangs from a wall near the entrance of his Golden Gaming office on Interstate 215 and Jones Boulevard.
Golden Gaming’s two-story headquarters shares a parking lot with a Sierra Gold tavern bedecked in desert décor — inspired by Southern Nevada, naturally, and featuring the mounted head of a ram peering over bar patrons.
Sartini can identify with the ram. He appreciates its strength, its resilience and, mostly, its willingness to dive horns-first into competition.
“I love to compete. Absolutely. I have always loved to compete, I have always loved the challenge. I’ve always had a lot of perseverance,” Sartini said during a lengthy conversation at the Gold Bar, on the top floor of Golden Gaming’s corporate headquarters. “From a very young age, I’ve welcomed all that came with being good at what you do. If it was basketball, I wanted to (defend) the best man on the other team. When I was pitching in baseball, I wanted to go against the best hitter.
“It was just something that was compelling to me, and I loved every bit of it.”
Sartini is the founder and chief executive officer of Golden Gaming Inc., which operates 40 PT’s Pub and Sierra Gold taverns (38 in the Las Vegas Valley and two in Reno). For a decade, Sartini’s company has fostered a taut link to Southern Nevada, a bond further strengthened in September when the privately held company announced it was taking over the slot route formerly owned by Affinity Gaming.
The move was akin to Pac-Man gobbling up slot machines, thousands at a time. Golden Gaming acquired 6,000 machines — or “devices,” in industry-speak — and now operates 8,500 slot and video poker machines statewide in 650 locations.
Thus, Sartini is the overlord of the state’s largest slot machine route, operating machines in areas not actually inside casinos, but rather in taverns, grocery stores and convenience stores. If you plug $20 into a video poker machine at an Albertson’s or CVS, you’re playing a Sartini-owned game.
As part of the transaction, which is pending approval by state gaming regulators, Sartini sold his three Black Hawk, Colo., casinos (Golden Mardi Gas Casino, Golden Gates Casino and Golden Gulch Casino) to Affinity, and purchased that company’s two casinos in Pahrump (Terrible’s Town and Terrible’s Lakeside Casino and RV Park).
In shedding the Colorado properties and bolstering his hold on the slot route business in his home state, Sartini has put his business where his heart is.
“We’re a Nevada family. I’m claiming to be a Nevada native, I’ve been here since I was 5 years old,” Sartini says. “This transaction resets us to our roots, back into the state of Nevada, 100 percent, in a major transaction, and I guess it goes back to embracing our roots, embracing who we are, and embracing my family’s history in town.”
It’s a history in which some of the key figures in Sartini’s life are those who helped shaped the city’s maverick image.
For 15 years, Sartini was an executive with Station Casinos, helping build the Fertitta family’s company into one of the region’s most powerful and successful locals-targeted casino companies. Founded by the late Frank Fertitta Jr. and currently operated by his sons Frank III and Lorenzo, Station is at the core a company that was built on family ties.
In Sartini, it had a certain familial connection. In 1983, Sartini married into the Fertitta family when he wed Delise Fertitta. At the time, Sartini was working for Michael Gaughan at Barbary Coast. Sartini became a member of the extended Fertitta family with his new bride, and he still holds a strong affection for the man who brought him into the family business.
“I had met Delise, and we started dating and I got to know her father. I started to realize that he was one of the single greatest individuals I’ve ever been around, for a lot of reasons,” Sartini says, smiling at the memory. “That goes for business, personal and otherwise. He was a truly significant asset to this community, in many ways. In regards to giving back, there are very few individuals who, I think, would even come close to giving back what he’s given back to this community. I had the fortune of knowing him personally, intimately, and he was exactly that same way in a family setting, in a casual setting, as he was in public.”
The Fertitta patriarch knew Sartini was working for Gaughan and developing a feel for the resort business. And he started asking questions.
“After some time — I don’t remember how long it was — we were having dinner at the house and he said, ‘Hey, what do you think you want to do?’ ” Sartini recalls. “I said, ‘I’ve got a pretty good thing going in Michael’s organization, and I’d like to pursue that.’ He kind of left it at that.”
Within a year, Fertitta and Sartini reheated the conversation.
“Sometime later, six to nine months later, I think it was, he had a more serious conversation with me and said, ‘I’d like you to come work for me. I think you’re going to be very successful,’ ” Sartini says. “And as I recall, he said, ‘It’s one thing to be successful. It’s another thing to do it for your family.’ That was his family, and my family, and my wife’s family. That resonated with me.”
Soon, Sartini made the change.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to do anything unless I’m earning my way through this opportunity,’ ” Sartini says. “I was very concerned about that. So I started as a floor man at Palace Station.”
Sartini charted his own path when he started Golden Gaming in 2001, but still had significant holdings in Station through its move to become a private company in 2007. His only connection to the company today is a family link, as the brother-in-law of the men who run the company.
Gaming observers have wondered just how family functions play out when Golden Gaming makes a business move that can affect Station Casinos. The latest and most prominent example is when Sartini’s company gained approval to use sports betting kiosks operated by Leroy’s Sportsbook its sea of local taverns. This gives sports bettors yet another wagering option, outside of entering a casino sports book at such casinos as Palace Station.
Sartini is fast to note that he is not in competition with Station, or any casino company, when offering that betting option.
“I don’t believe the tavern business, the tavern model and the casino model are the same. I’ve said that both publicly and privately,” he says. “It’s a different customer base. It’s a different experience. It’s a much different environment. If there wasn’t a need for taverns, they certainly wouldn’t exist. People enjoy them, they enjoy going to them. But that doesn’t mean that they are taking trips away from other places they would frequent. It’s a different business model. I see that, I know that, I’ve run both businesses ... We can’t provide what a casino provides, in terms of amenities. We can’t compete with what the Orleans provides a guest, when they go make a sports wager and then they want to go bowling, or want to see a movie or they want to go to a coffee shop, or they want to have a steak. We don’t compete with that.”
As for how business decisions play out in the Fertitta-Sartini family dynamic, Sartini says: “I have tremendous amount of respect for what Frank and Lorenzo have done. I was fortunate to be part of that right up through 2001, right when Green Valley Ranch opened. I think we have a very strong personal relationship, and I think we have a very strong business relationship in that we respect what each other has done. In the end, the family component is still as strong as it ever was. … It’s still a close family.”
And Sartini keeps his wife informed in the business of the immediate family, saying: “There’s full disclosure. We talk about our business like we talk about everything else. But Sunday nights don’t involve business. Sunday nights involve family, or whatever get-together it may be.”
The Sartinis were not always a gaming family. Nor have they always been a Las Vegas family. The family farmed in California’s Central Valley before moving to Las Vegas when Blake was a kid.
“My family is solidly, rurally middle class. We were farmers and ranchers, but my father was not too excited about continuing that path, following my grandfather, who farmed tomatoes and asparagus, getting up before dawn and home after dark,” Sartini says. “My father went to junior college in Stockton and wanted to move into the business side of the world.”
Sartini’s father, Arthur, took a job as the assistant executive director of the Las Vegas Housing Authority.
“I have pockets in my memory of my mother (Sandra) just crying in the car all the way here because we were leaving family,” Sartini recalls. “This was an 8-, 9-, 10-hour drive.”
The family moved into one of the complexes operated by the Housing Authority. Within two years, they moved to a house off Jones Boulevard and Mallard Street.
“At the time, that was the very western border of the town,” Sartini says, smiling. “That’s when my feelings for the town really began to materialize, enjoying what the lifestyle was all about. I played baseball a lot, spent a lot of time in the desert, like a lot of kids did. I rode my bike a lot, chased lizards around the desert and really started to feel at home.”
As for schooling, Sartini concedes, “I don’t claim to be much of an academic. I made my way through school.”
His attitudes and approach to business, and to life, were forged through athletics. Always large for his age, Sartini was a top tight end and defensive end at Clark High School — fittingly, a specialist in blocking and tackling, making tough catches in traffic, moving the chains after catching a pass for a first down.
“I was always around a sport, which was around a coach who was mentoring me, teaching me or guiding us through whatever process we were going through,” says Sartini, who is still lean and fit at age 53. “I took a lot from that. A lot of things I use to operate my business, a lot of talks that I give, revolve around sports.”
Sartini was recruited to play at the University of Utah. But the arrival of head coach Wayne Howard, who succeeded the man who recruited Sartini, Tom Lovat, tabled Sartini’s scholarship offer for one year. Persuaded to stay on the roster as a no-scholarship walk-on, Sartini worked out with the Utes from the fall through the following spring, and suddenly felt he’d had enough of football.
“I had an epiphany that I was really kind of burned out,” he says. “I went to the coach and told him I needed some time, and he looked at me and said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I put my helmet down. It’s a big regret for me.”
Sartini spent two years in Salt Lake, then spent a year working for an uncle who owned a business recycling mobile home tires and axles (a quite lucrative business in the late-1970s) in Central California. His next epiphany, which arrived as he lay in bed one night, was to return to school. He enrolled at UNLV, and in 1982 earned a bachelor’s degree in business with an emphasis on marketing.
He had become friends with the Gaughan family, and upon graduation was asked by Gaughan to start work at El Cortez. Having just earned a degree at the local university, Sartini expected to stride on the fast track to an executive office.
“Instead, Michael told me, ‘Go down to the dealer’s school and learn how to deal,’ ” Sartini recalls, smiling. “I said, ‘OK!’ Michael told me that in five years, he would teach me everything he could about the business. It was a very compelling thing to hear, and he kept his word. Absolutely.”
Sartini threw dice and worked the cage at the sports book, immersing himself in the business while working for minimum wage and up to $17 dollars a day in tips at El Cortez. Later, he moved on to the Barbary Coast. He often worked from 7 p.m. to 11 a.m., cashing out a long stream of sports bettors who hustled across Flamingo Road from Bally’s, which did not have a sports book in those days.
“There is nothing like actually doing it, actually being in the cage and counting out cash to cash somebody out,” Sartini says. “There’s nothing like breaking down the chips that come off the table and understanding the seriousness of getting it right, and there’s nothing like dealing a game and dealing with customers who are playing that game.
“This is a unique business, where people are offering up hard-earned money and may or may not get something in return. That’s a pretty unique experience.”
Which might be why, when Sartini chooses to gamble, he usually plays single-card blackjack and bets on himself.
“Me, alone, against the dealer,” he says. “I’ll give that my best shot.”
When Sartini was 10 years old, he reached the national finals of the Punt, Pass & Kick competition. He beat out more than 400,000 kids, reaching the finals at the Orange Bowl in Miami.
Sartini remembers that day well.
“I was really focused on my opponent,” he recalls. “They said his name over the loudspeaker — Tom Orosz, from Fairport Ohio. I remember that really well. I had a wayward punt, and he beat me.”
Sartini pauses, then adds, “You know, he wound up punting in the pros for a few years.” True, Tom Orosz was an NFL punter from 1981 to 1984 with the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers. But for a wayward punt, Sartini would have won it all and beaten a future NFL player, to boot.
“Punting,” he says, “was the key to Punt, Pass & Kick.”
You feel he wouldn’t mind a rematch, even today. Kids who entered that competition wore the uniform of the NFL team closest to their hometowns.
The team young Blake Sartini represented?
The Rams, naturally. The Sartini mascot, for all time.