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From Crain’s Chicago – Business of Life – August 6th, 2007


Billy Dec is looking for more than a good time.

The ever-smiling king of Chicago’s club scene is on a self-improvement kick. He’s studying management at Harvard Business School. He’s making connections on the city’s civic and political scenes. He even bought a suit.

At 34, Mr. Dec is no longer content to mingle with post-graduates until the wee hours.

Now, he mixes with the gray-hairs at charity balls and political fundraisers.

As president of Rockit Ranch Productions, his role has been to generate the buzz that attracts hordes of twentysomethings to the company’s Underground nightclub and Rockit Bar & Grill. But playing the hipster frontman while Rockit Ranch CEO Brad Young and Chief Operating Officer Arturo Gomez ran the company behind the scenes wore thin. Mr. Dec wants a bigger management role and some respect as a businessman.

“I know all there is to know about marketing a company, but I’m going to Harvard because I want to learn how to manage the company better so it will grow. It’s something I needed to do,” says the 1994 economics and pre-law graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The question is whether his quest for respectability will compromise the hipness that brings crowds to Rockit Ranch’s clubs. Mr. Dec says he’s schooling underlings in the promotional role he has played up to now.

“The functions I did as a promoter are now done by younger people who I’m coaching,” he says.


Mr. Dec straddled both worlds on a recent Friday night.

Early in the evening, dressed in a navy work shirt, jeans and his ever-present Rockit baseball hat, he mingled with a middle-aged crowd at a fundraiser for Piven Theatre Workshop at Rockit restaurant. Guests in suits and cocktail dresses sipped wine and martinis and chatted over subdued background music.

An hour later he bolted for Underground. Techno pop thumped as twentysomethings in T-shirts and mini-dresses danced on couches and shouted for beer and well drinks.

Mr. Dec says he’s cut his clubbing to three nights a week from seven. He spends most of his time overseeing the company’s marketing and consulting arm and working on new restaurant and nightclub ideas.

Last year, he started Harvard’s three-year non-degree program for business owners. He spends one month a year at the school in Boston, taking classes from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Real estate developer Albert Friedman, who owns 50 buildings in the River North area, including those housing Rockit Ranch’s restaurant, nightclub and corporate offices, has noticed changes in Mr. Dec since their business relationship began five years ago.

“He came to me as a quarterback. He was highly skilled — especially in marketing — but he couldn’t always put all the plays together. Now he’s able to do that,” Mr. Friedman, 58, says of Mr. Dec’s improved skills at managing employees and working with investors.

Mr. Dec (who also holds a law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law, but never practiced) and his partners also have learned some lessons the hard way. Rockit lasted only a year promoting two restaurants at the Hard Rock Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“It wasn’t managed well because they weren’t there enough,” says Richard Tavano, 36, a partner in the venture who says Mr. Dec didn’t have the same cachet in celebrity-studded South Florida that he has in Chicago.

Mr. Dec disagrees. “We did well when we went out there. But what happens at home then slows down, so we realized that wasn’t consistent with our mission statement (to grow entertainment in Chicago).”

That’s why earlier this year, the company backed out of a project to build a Rockit Ranch restaurant in Las Vegas — for which they had raised $13 million. “When it came down to who was going to move to Vegas, none of us wanted to,” he says. “We realized we wanted to stay here.”

Above: In June, Billy Dec joined actor Jeremy Piven, left, and his mother Joyce Piven to host a benefit for the Piven Theatre Workshop. Below left: In January, singer Ryan Cabrera joined Mr. Dec at an event to promote the film “Smokin’ Aces.” Below right: Mr. Dec and actress Sophia Bush at a North Avenue Beach promotional event.  

Newscom photos


Mr. Dec’s latest project is a yet-to-be-named Asian fusion-themed restaurant due to open next year and expected to push Rockit’s annual revenue to $20 million. Research for the project took him to Cambodia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

“I wanted to discover great things that Chicago hasn’t been necessarily exposed to,” he says.

Mr. Dec is finding his promotional skills come in handy in raising his profile in new realms. He’s showing up as a guest speaker at organizations like the Young Professionals Club. He’s also hosting fundraisers for cultural organizations, like the Piven Theatre event and another for the Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Shrewdly, he’s parlaying his reputation as pied piper to Chicago’s young adults into political connections that can advance his business ambitions. He calls Mayor Richard M. Daley “my hero” and hosted a campaign event for him during the last election.

“He’s very much in touch with Chicago’s young professional crowd. That’s a desirable group from a political standpoint but also for consumer retailers and business people,” says Peter Thompson, Mr. Daley’s nephew and former campaign finance director, who’s now CEO of money manager Chicago Asset Management Co.

That explains why Gov. Rod Blagojevich invited Mr. Dec to the signing of the new state law banning smoking in public places. The club impresario’s imprimatur provides Mr. Blagojevich with some political cover for a measure unpopular on the city’s night-life circuit.

He’s also thrown fundraisers for Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. The Obama event in June raised $25,000 for the Democratic senator but also served as a coming-out party of sorts for the new Billy Dec.

In his suit — a dark gray number tailored for him in Vietnam — he introduced the guest of honor to a crowd of 1,000 at Union Station.

“I’ve had other suits but didn’t like them because they never seemed to fit,” Mr. Dec says. “This one feels right.”
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