A review of It Takes a Tsunami by Alistair Anderson
Rael Levitt’s story as told in It Takes a Tsunami, is incredibly entertaining and engaging.
This maverick tells a tale through an autobiography which begins by recounting how he survived the tsunami in Phuket, Thailand and how this became a reminder to him that he could overcome any challenge, be it an attack on his business or personal life, or a mix of the two.
He explains that: “No matter how rough the sea is, refuse to drown,” became a life code, or perhaps even a mantra, after he was lucky enough not to be swept away in Thailand.
Levitt taught himself the arts of selling real estate when he was just a teenager. He would sell odds and ends and small homes.
By seventeen, he was attending property auctions, having initially used his bar mitzvah money to pay for deposits in under-serviced areas. By twenty, he’d bought and sold 20 bank-foreclosed houses, learning how to flip properties quickly, and with panache.
After Matric, he had his eyes on being the best auctioneer around but was cautioned by his parents that “nice Jewish boys” went to university and studied things like law. Nice Jewish boys weren’t boisterous, brash and wily auctioneers, they said.
However, Levitt soon developed into an excited auctioneer operating from the University of Cape Town. Later his business was brought into Seeff Properties and then he formed the independent Auction Alliance, which grew to be the largest auction house in Africa.
But the house would later come crashing down in December 2011. Auction Alliance sold more than R6bn of assets through auctions that year, before collapsing in the aftermath of an ill-fated auction of the Quoin Rock Wine Estate, in Stellenbosch Cape Town. Levitt was accused of unscrupulous bidding and auctioneering practices by Wendy Appelbaum, esteemed public figure and the daughter of philanthropist and insurance mogul Donald Gordon. This was at what would have been the most highly valued auction in SA’s history. He was never charged with any crime and paid no fine.
But the media fallout was brutal. He has since spent a decade crafting a riveting read, at least as business books go; the kind of quirk Rael Levitt would chuckle at.
He would, after a sabbatical from corporate life, during which he studied in the US and Singapore, start a new multi-billion rand business in terms of assets, Insopace, in the specialised industrial sector. The company is now competing for institutional capital with real estate investment trusts and other large landlords.
A self-confessed chubby class clown in his school years, he clearly remembers details of all the wild auctions and people he met. He is brutally honest in It Takes a Tsunami, about how he initially found business opportunities from those facing distress, defeat, divorce or death but then evolved to offer the selling means of choice for South Africa’s largest landlords.
Many a conman’s failures resulted in Auction Alliance needing to get value out of all kinds of assets, sometimes saving jobs but also making a fat packet and giving back to harmed communities.
The book is rich in humour and Levitt does also acknowledge and honour the people who helped him to get to a position where he could flourish as an auctioneer.
The discussion of Jewish communities in SA is also very informative, quirky and entertaining. It’s as if he has told a history of in many ways Cape Town’s big businesses through his trials, tribulations and victories as an auctioneer.
It took Levitt ten years to write this biography and a lot of care has gone into ensuring the style is easy to follow, conversational and well-organised. The business speak is clear and educational.
The lessons and takeaways that he poses to readers who want to run entrepreneurial operations and, then become corporate leaders, are served, often with humility, a surprise given Levitt’s self-admiration. His sheer drive as a strategic planner, manager and boss is evident.
Levitt has written an entertaining account of a highly colourful life in SA and abroad, as perhaps the country’s most controversial auctioneer but also one of the most brave and shrewd.
It Takes A Tsunami is available at bookstores nationwide as well as online through Amazon, Exclusive Books, Loot and Takealot and at www.ittakesatsunami.com.
Disclaimer: Property Flash has written a number of articles for Inospace and Rael Levitt in the past.