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1BILLYDEC

Photo courtesy of Rockit Ranch Productions

Billy Dec got his start as a bouncer about a decade ago. Now he has been called the "King of Nightlife" in Chicago. It's Dec's job to think about what makes a room buzz. 


Hipster club owner Billy Dec analyzes the science of Chicago’s scene

by Patrice Poltzer
Nov 13, 2007


BILLYDEC_talking

Patrice Poltzer/Medill

Billy Dec started his nightlife life at the curb, working as a bouncer. He has moved inside as the consummate insider. Here he talks with a patron at The Underground on a recent evening.

BILLYDEC_inclub

Patrice Poltzer/Medill

Billy Dec mingles at his club The Underground, making certain that the perfect room coalesces.

Dec on Dec

Do you have to be beautiful to get into the clubs?

Dec said it is important to be smart about your appearance but prefers that the club has a mix of everything: “You want to create a chemistry in a room that causes positive reactions." Dec said if the room were filled merely with beautiful people, there would not be a balanced positive reaction.  

So then what do I have to do to get into Underground?

“You call and make a reservation.”

Really? It’s that simple?

You would never think of walking into a popular restaurant without calling first, Dec said, so if you know you want to go to Underground on a certain night, just call and Dec’s staff will accommodate you however they can.  

Who are the best and worst celebrities who come to your places?

“All the Chicago guys are great, like Jeremy Piven, David Schwimmer, Michael Jordan, Billy Corgan and Kanye West,” Dec said. He wouldn’t be specific about his least-favorite celebrities, but said that some basketball players have been quick to blow up. “Their idea of their self worth and value is so high that they just sort of give off a feeling they're better than everyone else.”

What does your typical day look like? If you're up partying all night, when do you run your business? When do you sleep?

Dec said that people think most of his business is focused on drinking and dancing, but he said is up at 7 every morning and spends most of his day organizing charity events, getting on various committees for events such as the Grammy Awards and creating ideas for new business ventures. "I don't drink when I work and I don't dance because I never want to lose control of what is happening around me." Dec typically goes for about 12 hours, takes a one-hour nap around 6 and then he is back out for the evening, conducting dinner meetings and attending social events.  

What's missing in Chicago's nightclub scene?

Dec said that Chicago is not really missing much. But he said that there is a lack of creativity in the nightclub business, and that owners in Chicago tend to copy each other rather than going abroad and getting ideas for new venues or coming up with original concepts. “Restaurants used to be like that,” Dec said, “but now they are thinking out of the box and are leading the culinary scene with all the things they are doing that are out of this world. Nightclubs will do that one day too.”

What’s with the Harvard thing?

Last year, Dec started attending a three-year, non-degree program for entrepreuers at Harvard. One month a year he attends classes in Boston from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. He said, “I never thought I would get into this program.” But he wants to surround himself with successful business owners who are moving in all the right directions.

Are you single?

Yes.

Seeing someone?

Dec is reluctant to talk about the private side of his life.

What is your favorite place to chill out -- and don't say your clubs.

True to his Lincoln Park roots, Dec said his recreation of choice is hanging out at Lincoln Park Zoo.

What is your favorite drink?

The yoga practitioner loves his blueberry protein shakes.

Restaurant?

Since we didn't say, 'And don't say your clubs' on this one, his answer was Rockit Bar & Grill, which he owns.

Movie?

Conan.

Color?

Blue.

If you could do this all over, would you do anything differently?

He said he would never do it all over.

What advice do you have for the next Billy Dec?

Don't be Billy Dec.

OK, then, what are some tips for people who want to be like you?

Don’t let people say you can’t get something done. Always be a good boy.

What's new for you?

Dec and his Rockit Ranch team are working on opening up an Asian fusion-themed restaurant that blends concepts from places such as Cambodia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand. Dec visited these countries to spark his creativity.


It's Saturday night and you're standing outside the velvet ropes at the hottest Chicago nightclub, clamoring for entrance with dozens of other scenesters. 

Dressed to the nines, you try to convince the clearly unimpressed bouncer that you shouldn't have to wait in line.

Most bouncers ignore you: They hear the same, impassioned speech dozens of times every weekend.  

But if you happened to be in line at a hot nightclub in the early 1990s, chances are you were shouting to then-bouncer Billy Dec.  

And he was paying attention.  

Kinetic Energy

Defined as the energy resulting from the movement of an object.  The more something moves, the more kinetic energy it has.

Dec is only a decade away from his door duty. He said when he was working the rope he made a point of connecting with every person in line and making each feel important. Because of that, people started coming to the clubs to see Billy. 

“Slowly I became that guy who created a happy feeling for people," Dec said.

This creator of happiness is unassuming. His wardrobe ranges from baseball cap to blue jeans. To see him on the street, you might think frat boy, not realizing that what you’re looking at is a successful, business-savvy nightlife czar. 

Dec relaxed over lunch on a recent afternoon at Rockit Bar & Grill, the brainchild of Rockit Ranch Productions, to talk about his business and, reluctantly, himself.

He formed the company in 2002 with partners Brad Young and Arturo Gomez: "I was filling rooms, making owners happy, and realizing it would be better if I was the owner."

After saying this, Dec glanced out of the corner of his eye at the two people with him – a personal assistant [Katie Rose] and a young protégé.

"Ask Katie Rose,” Dec said. “I am really shy.”

Today, the 35-year-old Lincoln Park native, who studies management at Harvard Business School in his spare time, is informally known as the "Nightlife King.”

Dec reigns over two of Chicago's A-list spots, The Underground and Rockit Bar & Grill. Regular guests include Jeremy Piven, Kanye West, John Mayer and Michael Jordan.

And while Dec's guest lists may read like a page out of US Weekly, he is quick to say that his staff treats celebrities the same way they treat everyone else. He shuns the concept that stars deserve preferential treatment simply because they are famous. 

"The goal is to take care of a million Chicagoans," Dec explained. "I just want them to have a good time." 

A good time; the perfect night; the best party ever.

Dec’s eyes danced as he talked about this notion. Using phrases such as "happy, harmonious energy," "positive and negative reactions" and "chemistry of the mix,” he sounded like a scientist hovering over a Bunsen burner in a chemistry lab.

And arguably Dec is a scientist, a social scientist who is working on throwing the perfect party.

Dec remembers the early 1990s, when he was in his own laboratory—the nightclubs—still learning. 

Chain Reaction

Defined as a reaction in which the products from one step provide the reagents for the next one.

While growing up in Lincoln Park, Dec said he never aspired to be master party host when he was a teenager wandering the halls at the Latin School of Chicago.

“I never would have thought there was a future in that,” Dec said.

His future, when he was an economics and pre-law student at the University of Illinois at Urbana, was to follow in his father’s footsteps and becoming an attorney.

It was only when he started bouncing at Chicago nightclubs on the weekends to pay for school that he realized he was a natural host.

Soon, Dec figured out a business model – by sheer observation – and began to see his weekend job as potential for a lucrative future.

"Certain people [night club owners] had nights that were empty," Dec said. "There were consumers out there who wanted to see and be around certain people and enjoy a certain environment, and they couldn't find it with all the other places."

So Dec created the environments for the consumers and he began personally calling party seekers he had met in line to invite them to the club.

Dec filled empty nights at the nightclubs and soon the word around town was that he threw the best night in the city.

This was a time in Chicago when the massive warehouse nightclubs still ruled the party circuit. Anyone who could regularly fill a club to capacity was already a master of the game.

“It started to spiral because the people I called brought their friends,” Dec said. “And their friends brought friends.”

“That was a huge tipping point,” Dec said. Suddenly, parties became something serious for him. He soon had a Rolodex that would allow him to execute his next move: opening his own club.

The final push Dec needed to go out on his own, besides investors, came in 1994 during his senior year of college.

Dec claims that a prominent club owner shorted him on cash he had earned from the parties he hosted at the nightclub.

Angry, Dec said, “I left and I decided I was going to go on my own. And I did.”

But first, law school.

In 1995, Dec entered Chicago-Kent College of Law. He also simultaneously opened up his first nightclub, “Solo.” 

That year, Dec said, was “the scariest ride ever.”

Balancing law school and overcoming all the obstacles that typically put 90 percent of clubs out of business in their first year, Dec had a hit with Solo.

On a recent blog post for Chicago magazine, an anonymous Chicagoan reminisced about Solo.

“It was the biggest scene of all. That was when massive dance clubs were all the rage. The nightlife just isn’t what it used to be.”

Dec spent the rest of the ’90s learning the ropes of the nightclub industry as an owner, finishing up law school and building a reputation as a gracious host and savvy businessman who knew how to give people the VIP treatment.

This powerful combination enabled him to attract investors and partners who gave him the necessary money to underwrite other hotspots in Chicago.

By the end of the decade Dec had opened up other top venues in Chicago, including Equinox Café and Wine Bar, Dragon Room Nightclub and Sushi Bar, and Circus, one of Chicago's largest nightclubs.

Dec appeared to have the Midas touch. He bristles at the notion that people say things came to him easily: “I worked my butt off.”

But what was it about Dec that made it click?

Electron Affinity

Defined as the energy change that accompanies the addition of an electron to an atom in the gas phase.  

“Billy has very good instincts," said Rich Melman, founder of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Melman transformed Chicago’s restaurant scene, first with R.J. Grunts, then Ed Debevic’s, Wildfire Grill and Big Bowl.

Dec considers Melman a mentor.

"He has a real hunger,” Melman said, “and that is an important ingredient." Melman keeps tabs on what is happening with the younger crowd through Dec.

Melman said Dec's ability to recognize what he is good at and what he is not good at contributes to his golden touch.

"He figured it out and he just keeps shaking hands," Melman said.

Dec takes it a step beyond mere networking.

He said that he connects with people by using "human nature tools that allow you to adjust to all the different types of people in the entire world."

So does Dec have a transcendent insight into human beings that allows him to connect and consequentially build a perfect party?

The scientist sheds some light.

“There needs to be a careful balance of how we greet people and how we bring them in and where we put them,” Dec explained.

Dec said his staff will think about everything from the lighting levels and what effect it has on his crowd, what kind of music is playing at certain times in the night, what type of servers are serving his guests at any given moment, all the way to how he arranges the people in a room at one of his venues.

At his current hotspot, The Underground, Dec will personally dish out coveted V.I.P. cards that list the customer’s favorite drink, music genre and times he or she likes to come to the club.

Dec’s desire to give his customers the best night ever could almost be seen as borderline obsessive.

This isn’t news to people who knew him before his life in the throb and pulse of Chicago’s nightclub scene.

Former U of I classmate and fraternity brother Brian Hammersley offered this:  "The fact that he is doing what he does now is not surprising to a lot of people who know him."

Hammersley said Dec's skill lies in the fact that "he makes people feel welcome." And Dec has apparently been doing this since he was a freshman in college.

“He was a city kid and most kids down there [U of I] weren’t, Hammersley said.  “He had a different vibe.”

When Dec was asked to ponder why he has been continuously successful, able to prevent being chewed up in a harsh industry, he said it was because of his work ethic and his desire to treat people like royalty.

"The only way I knew how to do anything was to make one person smile and times that by a million," Dec said. "In the process of being that person, they remembered my name and I made a connection in only 10 seconds." 

Aside from the fact that Dec has a flair for bringing together people who have different backgrounds, energy levels, personality traits and business money, Dec has an uncanny ability to make people feel valued.

Eureka

Defined as an exclamation used as an interjection to celebrate a discovery.  

As I rose at the end of the interview to shake Dec's hand and thank him for his time – saying, “It was nice to meet you,” he stopped me dead in my tracks with his response.

“We already met, a long time ago," Dec said.

Dec then proceeded to describe the exact nature and location of a conversation we had on Rush Street several years ago.

Flabbergasted that he would remember such a nondescript and fleeting moment, I walked away realizing what he had been trying to make me understand for the past two hours: “I just want to make the other person feel great,” Dec had said, “and I want nothing in return from them.”

Except maybe their presence in the perfect room for a perfect night.