The Auction Group: Rael Levitt

Rael Levitt is young, dynamic and inventive. That is what’s made his company, Auction Alliance, such a success. Initially a small regional player, the company is now a leading national force in the growing South African auction industry. Last year its turnover was R2 billion, it was listed as one of the Top 500 Best Managed Companies and named the International Auction Marketing Champion of 2005.

In an industry with a historically seedy reputation, Auction Alliance emerged with a slick corporate image. This was all part of Levitt’s goal to change the negative perceptions people had of auctioneering. “Our vision was to make auctions a first-choice method of sale,” he says.

“We went on a nationwide campaign to sell the ‘why auction?’ idea to buyers and sellers,” he adds. “Five years ago, if you asked people the question the only answer they could think of was that auctions are quick. But there are many other critical reasons why auctions are a great option for sellers.

“Auctions create a point-of-decision environment which galvanises people to make up their minds about buying. They produce final conclusive deals, look after the interest of the seller and competitive bidding drives prices up.” In addition, auctions are public and totally transparent, making them ideal from a corporate governance point of view.

Changing perceptions might involve focusing on the market, but Levitt made sure things were different inside the company as well. In an aggressive recruitment drive, Auction Alliance deliberately employed people who had no auctioning background. “We set about attracting people who had sound asset knowledge and experience within a particular sector,” he says, outlining how these candidates were recruited to head up various departments. When it came to recruiting auctioneers, the company looked for people with natural sales ability who could galvanise crowds and sell in a public arena.

But getting the right people was only half the job done. When the company expanded from 20 people in three branches to 150 in 10 branches, it felt the strain that such rapid growth often brings. Keen to ensure that it continued to employ the right kind of people, Auction Alliance embarked on a somewhat unusual identification of core values. Instead of listing desired behaviours and outcomes to which employees should aspire, it set about pinpointing common behaviours already in existence and that were contributing to its success. As Levitt says, “It was a matter of identifying and formalising these elements as our core values. The common ones we came up with included hard work, discipline, innovation, passion, and entrepreneurship.”

The values are taken seriously and Levitt meets with each new employee, or “team member” as he calls them, specifically to discuss what these values mean. “There is evidence in many things we do that the core values are being lived out and are not simply some sort of marketing ploy stuck up on a wall,” he says. “For example, continuous improvement has helped us cope with the problems associated with our rapid growth. We have invested in systems and infrastructure in an effort to relentlessly improve and this has helped us to meet the needs of a growing company in a growing industry.”

This has also been the driver behind a company culture of watching global auctioning trends. “It has helped Auction Alliance to imitate and innovate,” says Levitt. The company was the first to import the idea of multiple auctions from Australia, a practice that has now become a norm in the local industry. It recently presented its innovations in property auctioning at a conference in the US and has been invited to talk on a similar topic at the Royal Institute of Property Surveyors in London. In seeking to be the best, the company has aligned itself with global best practices and has also come to be respected worldwide.

Entrenching core values and getting team members to really live them is a tough task, but it falls to the leader to drive company culture. In this, Levitt has proved himself up to the task.