Willie Nelson performs at Billy Bob’s in 1999. Ben Noey Jr. Star-Telegram archives
Willie Nelson performs at Billy Bob’s in 1999. Ben Noey Jr. Star-Telegram archives

Fort Worth

Will feud over Stockyards development lead to last call at Billy Bob’s Texas?

May 24, 2017 05:31 PM

UPDATED May 25, 2017 09:40 AM

FORT WORTH

For more than 35 years, Billy Bob’s Texas has roped in visitors to the Historic Stockyards, making the cavernous honky-tonk, its bull riding, and headlining acts like Willie Nelson and Randy Travis as much a part of the fabric of north Fort Worth as the longhorns that troop down the street every day.

But now the owners of Billy Bob’s — many of whom have been involved with the massive entertainment venue since it opened in the 1980s — are locked in a barroom brawl of sorts over the future of the iconic watering hole, a fight that is pitting old drinking buddies against each other, and a father against his son.

A lawsuit was filed in Tarrant County civil court last week following efforts to oust Billy Bob’s manager Concho Minick over disagreements about how he was running the club. But differences between the partners began to emerge at least three years ago as controversial plans for “the future development of the Fort Worth Stockyards” made it hard for them to work together, the lawsuit and their lawyers state.

“It appears to me that the owners of Billy Bob’s Texas are in a dichotomy and/or paradox,” Don Jury, the chief financial officer and a former investor, wrote in a memo to the partners earlier this month. He says the conflict has “driven a wedge” in longstanding friendships, something that makes him “sad.”

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“I have over 30 years of experience as CFO of Billy Bob’s Texas — I have witnessed its destruction and have helped to resurrect it,” Jury writes in the memo in the court filings. “I do not intend to participate in those events again.”

Stephen Pezanosky, the attorney representing Minick and a company owned by the Murrin family, which still supports him, wouldn’t make his clients available for comment but conceded that there has “been some personal conflict” among the owners.

We hope that it is not going to turn into something that is ruinously expensive for a Fort Worth legacy. … It is an unhappy situation. It truly is.

Marshall Searcy, attorney for the majority owners

“We tried to settle it outside [the courtroom] and were unsuccessful in getting that done,” Pezanosky said. “The filing of this lawsuit was a last resort. There has been an ongoing deadlock among the owners of the company and he [Concho Minick] has been caught in the middle of it.”

What spurred the lawsuit were attempts by the majority owners, including Brad Hickman and Concho Minick’s father, Billy Minick, to force the younger Minick to resign or be fired. Billy Minick managed Billy Bob’s Texas for 22 years before turning over the reins to his son in 2011.

Concho Minick and the Murrins, who own about 25 percent of Billy Bob’s, convinced state District Judge Mike Wallach to issue a temporary restraining order preventing Minick from being let go. But they also are seeking the appointment of a receiver to possibly sell Billy Bob’s to protect their interest if the dispute cannot be resolved.

Billy Bob’s Texas is a major entertainment venue in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
Tom Pennington Star-Telegram archives

Hickman declined to comment on the lawsuit and referred all questions to his attorney, Marshall Searcy. Hickman and his family members own about 40 percent of Billy Bob’s. Hickman is also behind the $175 million Stockyards redevelopment, something Steve Murrin and others involved with Billy Bob’s opposed.

Acknowledging a split among the partners over the Stockyards development, Searcy and Pezanosky said the lawsuit could have dire consequences.

“It is a family type of business and it has family disputes,” Searcy said. “We’re not gratified that it has turned into a court dispute, and we hope that it is not going to turn into something that is ruinously expensive for a Fort Worth legacy. … It is an unhappy situation. It truly is.”

A rocky trail

Ever since Billy Bob’s Texas opened in April 1981, it has cast a bigger-than-life shadow in the Stockyards.

Located in a 127,000-square-foot building that stored livestock for the Fort Worth Stock Show in the early 1900s and served as an aircraft factory during World War II, its opening acts included Willie Nelson, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Waylon Jennings, and Janie Fricke.

Within its massive interior space were multiple stages and dance floors, a “dry goods” store, and a barbershop. There was also live bull riding. From the start, Billy Bob’s proudly described itself as the world’s largest honky-tonk.

But things have not always flowed as smoothly as the beer at Billy Bob’s. The first seven years it was profitable, but its namesake founder, Billy Bob Barnett, a former professional football player and beer distributor, had a laissez-faire management style that eventually saw the venue go dark in January 1988.

That is when businessman Holt Hickman, Brad Hickman’s father, organized a new investor group that included Steve Murrin and Jury. Minick, who had left Billy Bob’s before it closed, was invited back. The former professional bull rider and rodeo manager brought along his wife, Pam, to help with marketing.

Billy Bob’s reopened 11 months later, in November 1988, with the partnership buying the building from the bank in 1991. Since then, it has successfully held on and bucked the hard times that have confronted other Western music venues.

Brad Hickman, right, of Hickman Companies attends a presentation showcasing the possibilities of revitalizing the Stockyards in 2015.
Brandon Wade Star-Telegram archives

A Yale-educated former energy executive, Concho Minick replaced his father as Billy Bob’s manager in 2011 and now has a 3 percent stake in the company. As “managing member,” he was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the club, but major decisions needed unanimous board approval.

During his six years at the helm, Concho Minick contends in the lawsuit, he established a management structure that included a sophisticated financial modeling and budgeting process. A new ticketing platform generated five times more revenue than the old system, approaching $1 million a year. With him leading the way, Billy Bob’s earned Club of the Year recognition three times, the lawsuit states.

But the trail got rocky in 2014. The unusually required unanimity among the partners was difficult to reach, “in the wake of personal disputes and personality conflicts that have little or nothing to do with Billy Bob’s,” a reference to the Hickmans’ attempts to revitalize the Stockyards.

‘Authenticity in danger’

The master plan for the Stockyards is ambitious. It includes taking the dilapidated Mule Barns and turning them into 180,000 square feet of restaurant, shopping and office space. The overall plan for the 70-acre development also calls for a new hotel along Marine Creek, an animal exhibition area, office space and areas set aside for residential units.

Brad Hickman, who took control of the family holdings after his father died in 2014, formed a partnership with California-based Majestic Realty Group to lead the effort. The city of Fort Worth approved $26 million in incentives for the project.

There are some people who have rubbed people the wrong way and I think that is what is going on here. … It has made it harder for them all to work together.

Stephen Pezanosky, attorney for Concho Minick

At the same time, however, Murrin and his son have voiced concern about Hickman’s vision for the Stockyards, a place where they own other properties that are being redeveloped.

Murrin, along with Jury and Concho Minick, spoke out against the initial zoning changes to help move the Stockyards redevelopment down the trail, saying they were concerned about the compatibility of residential housing with the entertainment district, parking and involvement of other Stockyards stakeholders.

“I have been like a lot of other people in the Stockyards blindsided by the time schedule the council has chosen for this zoning request,” Murrin said in July 2014. Murrin, a former Fort Worth City Councilman, is commonly referred to as the mayor of the Stockyards.

They worry about protecting the integrity and the authenticity of the Stockyards, an area many in town associate with their family.

“This fragile commodity that you call ‘authenticity’ is in danger,” Murrin said in 2015.

Pezanosky said he doesn’t think there is a direct link between the dispute over the Billy Bob’s operation and the Stockyards facelift, but “that there have been personal disputes about the Stockyards in general” that have “kind of spilled over.”

“There are some people who have rubbed people the wrong way and I think that is what is going on here,” Pezanosky said. “It has made it harder for them all to work together.”

Billy Bob’s manager Concho Minick and employee Angie Spanos attend a gala in July 2016.
Joyce Marshall Star-Telegram archives

The hard feelings have made it difficult, especially since a 2011 company agreement states that it takes unanimous board agreement to approve major operating decisions, including any expenditure of $5,000 or more.

Brad Hickman and other partners apparently were reluctant to approve a budget for the club in 2014 “due to the other projects taking place in the Stockyards with his partners but not related to [Billy Bob’s] operations,” the lawsuit states.

In 2016, the full board was also hesitant to approve a budget, with Hickman expressing concerns about spending close to $1 million on improvements, citing the “uncertainty of the economy,” documents state. When working on a budget for this year, Concho Minick was again told in an email not to proceed with any of his requests until he got 100 percent approval from the board, court records show. As of the filing of the lawsuit, Billy Bob’s still didn’t have a 2017 budget.

Then in April, Jury directed that $2 million in Billy Bob’s accounts be transferred to Stockyards 2000, a limited partnership of Brad Hickman and other Stockyards investors and owners Billy Minick, Don Jury and Steve Murrin, according to state records.

This squabbling led Jury to write a memo May 1 to the board saying that if the members did not find a way forward, it may “destroy” the company. Jury, while still CFO, sold about 10 percent of his interest to a company linked to Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks general manager. He transferred the rest of his holdings to his children.

Jury recommended a ballot procedure where board members could vote on a budget, on hiring a comptroller and on whether Concho Minick should be retained as general manager. He also recommended changing the operating agreement to say that only 60 percent of the board had to approve decisions involving $100,000 or more.

“The current relationship among the owners has driven a wedge between my friendship with Steve and Billy. That makes me sad!” Jury wrote.

Two weeks later, things had not improved and at a meeting Concho Minick thought would be an “accounting meeting” with his father, Jury and another board member, he was handed a letter seeking his resignation, the lawsuit states. When he refused, he received a termination letter stating that he was being fired for misstating 2016 financial statements to increase bonus payments to selected employees, records show. Minick denies those allegations, documents indicate.

Minick filed his lawsuit a few days later to keep his job, in which he also denies any financial improprieties. He was joined in his lawsuit by Murrin Brothers 1885. Along with the lawsuit is an affidavit from Philip Murrin, Steve Murrin’s son, in which he states the company did not approve Concho Minick’s firing nor the $2 million transfer of funds.

Judge Wallach stopped the other partners from disturbing the status quo, such as locking Minick out or selling any of the assets. He also scheduled a hearing for May 30 to hear arguments for a temporary injunction.

The attorneys hope to settle the disagreement, with Searcy saying, “It is my job to find resolution to disputes, and that is what I hope to do. … We hope that it will be resolved in the short run and not the long run.”

Pezanosky says his clients are just trying to maintain the value of Billy Bob’s. He admits that asking for a receiver is a drastic measure, but “someone needs to break the deadlock.” Turning the saloon over to a receiver could lead to the partners agreeing to a buyout, he said.

Meanwhile, the drinks will keep flowing and the bands will keep playing at the landmark honky-tonk. There won’t be a last dance any time soon.

“I really don’t think there is a danger of that,” Pezanosky said. “No one wants to see it killed, but there has to be some resolution of the deadlock.”

Staff writer Sandra Baker contributed to this story, which contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB