Ever since Rael Levitt relocated his headquarters to the much-hyped but still unfinished Soho on Strand residential and office development, Tank has been his local lunch spot. He walks there.
As famous for its sushi as its wraparound fish tank, this trendy restaurant in the city’s popular Tuscan-style Cape Quarter piazza is a block away from Levitt’s chic new offices, which were designed by German architect Petra Wiese and have stunning views of the mountain.
As we arrive at Tank’s sun umbrellas, it’s obvious from the greetings he gets from various tables that he’s a lunch fixture. Or perhaps their assorted assets have at some stage come under the hammer of this tall 34-year-old Capetonian, who casts as long a shadow in the auction world as he does in the flesh.
Since he launched his first auction business at the age of 21 with 31 repossessed pieces of land on the Cape Flats, he has sold the whole range – from Tokyo Sexwale’s Stonehurst development, which went for R64,5m, to a buffalo sperm bank and a consignment of 3m condoms.
The turnover of what is now Asset Alliance, with its auction and valuation subsidiaries, is currently R1,5bn. The company employs 170 people in eight branches – Midrand, Durban, Bloemfontein, Nelspruit, Upington, Paarl, Windhoek and Riversdale. Agricultural sales are major. The company also does work in Swaziland, Lesotho and Botswana, and Levitt is just back from discussions in Dubai on the auction of a big property development.
“It will be at the Burj Al Arab Hotel, the one that looks like a ship in full sail, and we are expecting sheikhs to fly in,” he says with a twinkle.
This nice Jewish boy will oversee the auction with fellow director Christian Stewart, the ex-Springbok ex-stockbroker he brought into the business six years ago to spread the hammer action, along with Joey Burke and Joff van Reenen.
“I didn’t want it to be an über-Rael Levitt business,” he says. “Our 15 auctioneers around the country all have the required personality that can galvanise a crowd – a delicate balance between a colourful public speaker and a commercial mind that thinks in nanoseconds.
“When we opened in Gauteng four years ago, our regional competitors totally laughed at us,” he says, nailing a salmon sashimi with his chopsticks. “They said we were upstart youngsters who’d never make it.”
What they didn’t know is that Levitt had been an auction junkie since his teens, the youngest estate agent to qualify in Cape Town, son of what he describes as “a hard-working part-time estate agent who schlepped me along from the age of four”.
He was already selling houses as a 17-year-old UCT law student in the rock-bottom property areas of Brackenfell and Kraaifontein, trundling around in his mother’s red Honda Ballade without a driver’s licence.
His university thesis was on how repossessions were affecting the property market in the early 1990s. “The economy was on a roller coaster ride and we were dealing with a large volume of liquidations and foreclosures. Auctioning repossessed property was a lucrative business.
“So with a heavy dose of chutzpah I marched into Absa and launched myself headlong into my first business.”
Approached by Lawrence Seeff in 1995, Levitt spent the next two years trying to make Seeff Auctions the biggest in the country. Then he went on to open Auction Alliance.
Over the years he’s developed what he calls “a holistic view of most assets, from tractors to diamonds to real estate to wheat”. So the company now has three legs: auctions, valuations and the sector he’s aiming to grow, diversified asset sales and services.
“Things have changed,” he says. “With economic stability, liquidations have dropped and so have interest rates. But auctions work where there’s a strong market. Demand creates fierce bidding. Last year we did more than 1 000 auctions, 80% of them property.
“At the moment we’re finding a bit of a cool-off in the top end of the residential market, but strong bidding activity in commercial and industrial. We can currently sell shopping centres as easily as boerewors rolls outside Newlands rugby stadium.”
He lives, eats and breathes auctions. He even does them for nothing: “We never turn down charities. In the past two years we’ve raised R75m.”
As a company, Auction Alliance is an international marketing champion, placed first this year by the US-based National Auctioneers Association out of 1 000 from all over the world. The auction division’s MD, Alon Kowen, and group marketing director Ronen Jackson collected five awards at a gala event in Pittsburgh. One of their winning projects was their involvement in the grand finale of the M-Net reality show The Block.
Levitt, who is unmarried, tends to be in his Mouille Point apartment with pool at weekends, and in his Hyde Park townhouse during the week. For the past five years, he has spent every end-of-year holiday with the same group of friends in Phuket, Thailand. But last year was the tsunami, in which two of his friends died.
“I’d just left Morris Isaacson outside the supermarket and we were sitting at the pool of the Patong Beach Holiday Inn when I looked up and saw a boat on top of a palm tree. Then I saw the wave. I just ran like lightning, through the hotel and up the hill behind.”
This year there’s still a question mark over his holiday venue.