Bringing down the house

If you don’t like my Finding Nemo tie I can always go and change it!’ Rael Levitt barrels out of his hypermodern office space in De Waterkant, wondering whether his bright orange striped tie is suitable attire for a man who is a CEO at the tender age of 35. Of course it is, especially for a guy who’s always done things his way.

It all started when he was 17. At a time when his schoolmates at Herzlia were worried about making the first rugby team or who to ask to the farewell dance, Rael was sitting the Estate Agents Board exam. ‘I sold my first house, in Kuils River, when I was in Matric and was the youngest real estate agent in the country. My mom was an agent and from a young age I used to go with her to showhouses. I just loved it and wanted to do it. My dad, a lawyer, was horrified,’ says Rael dramatically.

But his father shouldn’t have worried. Rael had a talent for the real estate industry. He was, he says, ‘a boytjie from Bellville, without a driver’s licence,’ and he chose to work the Cape Flats area because it was woefully underserviced. His first commission was in the region of R3 000, a fortune for a schoolboy in those days. ‘Remember, this wasn’t exactly the Atlantic Seaboard and all the transactions I did were under R70k.’ Nevertheless, by the time he sold his fifth house he had earned enough to buy a car, and happily got the all-important licence on his 18th birthday.

It was time for the next step. Rael plunged into property speculation, and starting buying and selling houses while studying for a law degree at the University of Cape Town. He gave his entrepreneurial gene full rein and cottoned on to selling property to varsity staff. ‘I’d run around between lectures with contracts,’ he remembers.

Then fate intervened. Rael picks up the story: ‘One day I was driving around the Cape Flats when I got chatting to the Sheriff of the Court, who was on his way to auction a property. I went along with him and got totally hooked on auctions. I even bunked lectures to attend them.’ In the early 1990s there were thousands of repossessed properties in South Africa because the interest rates had shot up and the banks had overexposed themselves. Many properties landed up on auction and Rael’s fate was sealed.

‘At that point there was a very negative public perception of auctioneers. We were seen as “a child of despair… the undertakers of the business world” because of insolvencies and other forced sales,’ he grimaces jokingly. ‘I just knew that there had to be a better way to auction.’
Now, still only 20 and with a BA under his belt (‘I never got around to a LLB and would have been a very unhappy lawyer,’ he whispers almost guiltily), Rael started his own company, Levco. His first job was selling 31 pieces of vacant land in Brackenfell for Absa. Did any older auctioneers take him under their wing or mentor him? ‘Oh no, I watched and watched, and chanted in the shower,’ he laughs.

Levco went from strength to strength, and through all sorts of corporate machinations in the mid 1990s with Seeff and Boland Bank. By 1999 Levco had become Auction Alliance in the Western Cape – at a time when the property market tide was turning for the better and foreigners, more used to auctions than South Africans, were beginning to trickle in to the Mother City. The company went national in 2001 and, although Joburgers were slightly slower on the uptake, auctions in Gauteng today are ‘racy and pacy,’ according to Rael, who travels to Joburg so often that he keeps a place in Melrose Arch.

Any tricks of the trade? Any secret strategies? ‘Ag, not really. The highest bidder will always get the property. It’s as simple as that. After 15 years in the business I can usually tell before the auction starts who will be the highest bidder, even what that bid will be, simply by watching people’s body language. A good auctioneer develops a good EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) and learns to read people.’
When he’s not reading people, Rael likes to ‘plonk myself down on the beach with a book – preferably in Thailand, I’ve been five times or more – and watch the passing parade. I’m not a shopper at all so I take 10 to 15 books on holiday with me, mostly history and biography.’ At the moment he’s enjoying, quite appropriately, Mavericks in Business.

What’s the next step for Rael? He wants to revolutionise the valuation industry in South Africa. ‘We have a real shortage of qualified valuers here – some people don’t even know what valuers do!’ he says incredulously. Valuation Alliance is part of his group and he is sure to tackle the challenge with the same energy and enthusiasm that propelled him into auctions. Going once, going twice… and he’s off!