If you’re a 20-something in Chicago, odds are you know club owner Billy Dec. And restaurateur Billy Dec. And TV and radio personality Billy Dec. Oh, and social media guru Billy Dec. In an age when we’re all being constantly advised to turn ourselves into a brand, Dec, the CEO of Rockit Ranch Productions, has succeeded in making himself downright ubiquitous.
But most of the time, the impresario would prefer to be at the farmers market or the Lincoln Park Zoo kicking it with his son instead of bouncing around the bars and restaurants he runs. He told us about the concessions he’s made to balance family life with a schedule that doesn’t rev up until the sun goes down. It starts with running a tighter ship.
“Back in the day, if I lost an extra 20 minutes of sleep or I lost an extra 30 minutes of free time, it wasn’t really a big deal. I could deal with that employee or manager,” he says. “But nowadays, if you take 20 minutes, it’s not acceptable. You cannot take 20 minutes away from me and my family.”
“Who do I need to be, workwise, to make my family work, to make my life work?” he says. “There are a lot of people I got rid of that I chose not to be part of my life [because] they were not dependable or negative or inefficient or wasteful. There’s no tolerance for that anymore.”
Dec burns the candle at both ends, staying out till the wee hours at The Underground, his nightclub, before waking up around 7 a.m. On Thursdays, his sleep barely qualifies as a cat nap before he’s up at 6 a.m. to prep for his morning television segment on “Windy City Live.” He’ll also thumb through reports from each of his venues. In addition to The Underground, his restaurants include Rockit Bar & Grill, with locations in River North and Lakeview, and Asian spot Sunda, among others. He reviews the number of customers, which dishes were flying out of the kitchen and the parties that were happening. Then he’s showered and ready by 7:15 a.m., at which time he scoops up his 18-month-old, Mik.
“He’s this little supercute dude,” Dec says. “I come in at 7:15 and grab him and we [go] look out the window — now, in the summer, we go outside and we watch the dog walkers.”
Most days after Dec downs a smoothie and feeds Mik, he works from home until 9:30. Dec’s wife, Kat, takes care of their son. On Thursdays, he’s out by 8:15 to review his lines, breeze through makeup for “Windy City,” and start his segment at 9 a.m. Once he’s done, he walks across the river to his office, where he huddles with his assistant to review his schedule and go through emails, then check in on social media.
At 11 a.m., Dec chats food trends with his PR team, coordinates with chefs and gets updates from his event team. At noon, he does his rounds at the restaurants.
“I’ll meet with the managers, talk to regulars and introduce guests to the managers and the staff, and give them feedback,” he says.
When the lunch crowd has died down, he dines over a 1 p.m. meeting — sometimes with people in his company, sometimes with movers and shakers.
Dec is currently being filmed for CNN’s docuseries “Chicagoland,” which Robert Redford is executive producing. After a meeting about that, he’s off to a chef’s tasting with his partners, sometimes sampling as many as 10 courses. At 3:30 on Thursdays, he records a weekly segment on charity events for top-40 station KISS FM.
When he needs to get away, Dec hops on his bike to visit some old friends.
“I go right up to the zoo,” he says. “I sit right in front of the seal tank for like 15 minutes. I think everybody knows because they see me there — I’ve been doing it since I was a kid.”
He wraps up the first part of his workday at 5 p.m., when he heads to the Peninsula for a workout.
“That’s my place to go if I super need to get away and think about stuff,” he says. “It’s over the city — it’s really peaceful and helps me pull away when I’m making crazy decisions.”
“[I] get home no later than 6:30 and I’m back with Mik,” he says. “And we just goof around. I literally hit the floor and I’m laying on the floor with him just wrestling and eating and being stupid.”
Dec’s schedule revolves around his son’s waking hours, when the family enjoys bike rides and trips to the Green Farmer’s Market. “I get quite a bit of awake time. I’m the first thing he sees and the last thing,” Dec says.
After Mik’s out cold, Dec is back at it.
“By 9, I’m running around all the venues, making sure the vibe is right, the environment is right, the customers are happy, introducing important customers to the staff and giving coaching and thanks to the staff.”
After a dinner meeting to sample the night’s food, he’ll head to Underground until 2 or 3 a.m. or later.
“Last weekend I had to go till 4 because Robin Thicke walked in on a Thursday, which means 6 a.m. to 4 a.m.,” he says. “That’s a long day — 22-hour day.”
That doesn’t leave much time for sleep. But that’s what Sundays and Monday are for. Even after late nights at Underground, he’s up to grab Mik in the morning. Luckily, his son, like most toddlers, has an affinity for noontime naps. “Right around noon, [during] that nap time of his, I’ll hit this ridiculous wall and then I will just be horizontal,” Dec says.
“I am really in bad shape by that point. Your body’s not supposed to do that,” he says. “Working yourself into exhaustions until you die on Sundays is not good.” But ultimately, that’s the compromise that Dec has brokered between his professional ambitions and his desire to watch his son grow up. Although the two compete for his attention, he draws a bright line between work and family.
“If you’re going to work, go be the best at it, then turn it off and come home,” he says. “That’s when you’re going to be amazing at home. It’s not a mish-mash. I don’t try to drag them into each other’s space.”