Book Review: It Takes a Tsunami by Rael Levitt

The Highs & Lows of Our Entrepreneurs

At addVENTURES and specifically ExpeditionBusiness we are all about sharing the stories of our homegrown entrepreneurs. Their highs and lows and how they managed to get through all the storms that they have to face. A story that I want to share with you is that of Rael Levitt, founder of, amongst others, Auction Alliance and Inospace.

Initially, the only reason why I choose this book was because it seemed to have been about a fairly unfamiliar entrepreneur, as ExpeditionBusiness is all about sharing stories of ‘ordinary’ entrepreneurs. But Rael Levitt is no ordinary entrepreneur!

An Exceptional Youngster

Levitt bought and sold his first property at the tender age of 19. He convinced ABSA that they were losing money through the archaic Sheriff system. This led to him conducting his first auction when he was only 21, through his newly founded Levco Auctions. Three years later Samuel Seeff approached the then 24-year-old Levitt to sell his company to Seeff to start Seeff Auctions! I don’t know about you, but I find this extremely impressive.

The King of Auctions

Most youngsters have barely finished University at that age, let alone have a highly sought-after company. Seeff Auctions was bought out by Levitt in 1998 and changed its name to Auction Alliance. The book tells the story of how Levitt systematically built his company to become the largest and most respected Auctioneering House in South Africa. High-profiled auctions that were handled include work for Nelson Mandela, the King of Swaziland (now Eswatini), and an extremely long list of Death, Divorce, Debt & Downsizing cases.

Auction Alliance, transformed the auctioneering industry. Many of the innovations in the auction sector, which are still being used today, came from Rael who disrupted the property sector with his brand of auctiontainment.

Don’t Upset a Girl with Money

A large portion of the book explains the story of how Levitt has been accused of Ghost Bidding by Billionaire Wendy Appelbaum at the high-profile Quoin Rock Auction at the end of 2011. Three ex-employees who were gunning for Levitt jumped onto the bandwagon to help destroy Levitt’s name and that of Auction Alliance which has been built up over 20 years.

The Ghost of Vendor Bidding

The story reveals how vendor bidding or what some call ‘ghost bidding’ is used at auctions in order to get to the reserve price of the seller. Some people, particularly those who have never been to an auction, believe that the highest bid is the price they will pay. This is incorrect. Most auctions have reserve prices, and auctioneers use vendor bidders to get to the price of the seller’s reserve.

The Argument of Wendy Appelbaum

Wendy Appelbaum’s argument was that she was bidding against a ghost bidder and that she should have paid R35-million instead of R55-million. The reserve price for the auction was R75-million, which means that SARS, who was the seller, would not have accepted the bid even at R55-million. The whole saga and the tsunami of media attacks that ensued, including that of Carte Blanche, almost completely destroyed Rael Levitt. Almost 10 years later and an overdose of court cases, Levitts name has been cleared but his reputation remains tarnished.

Running & Studies to Reinvent Yourself

As a keen running enthusiast myself, I was quite intrigued by the fact that one of the ways Levitt finally started to get out of his coma of complete depression, with the advice of his therapist, was by starting a 5-year journey to run the New York Marathon. Rael Levitt also enlisted for a dual MBA at UCLA Anderson School of Management and the National University of Singapore while winding up the closure of Auction Alliance.

Opportunities Not Taken

Well before the drama at Quoin Rock, Rael Levitt had two offers to sell his company which he did not take. He has worked so hard to be the most respected auctioneering house in South Africa, that he did not entertain the idea to sell his company. One lesson that he shared in his book is: “Love your job, but never fall in love with your company. You never know when it will fall out of love with you.”

The Media Tsunami

Rael Levitt has learned the hard way that the media is not your friend. If they catch wind of a great story, they will pursue it till death do us part. The effects can be just as fatal as the Tsunami he faced on Boxing Day 2004, while on vacation in Thailand. Levitt believes that you have a fair chance when facing court action, but there are no rules in the ‘trial by media’.

Mistakes Made

Throughout the book, Levitt admits that he had made many mistakes during the Quoin Rock Auction. He does not hide behind the many excuses that he could have given. He could have blamed many people, but he is level-headed on how he should have handled the situation much better. But he is very clear that he did not do anything unlawful and the courts have agreed.

Force yourself to dig deeper

“The crisis forced me to dig deep and pivot my life and career. I believe that one’s life is a series of stories, so I decided that by the time I turned 50, a new career would be a happy ending to a dramatic chapter. So, I focused on building a new company based on how I wanted this book to end. It was a case of creating the story before writing about it,” Rael Levitt explained.

Comeback Story of the Decade

Today, almost 12 years after the Quoin Rock debacle, Levitt has reinvented himself. In 2012, Levitt acquired a bankrupt Pomegranate orchard at the Bonathaba Farms in Wellington and renamed it Superpom SA. The company became South Africa’s largest pomegranate exporter and Levitt became a non-executive Chairman of the company.

In 2017 Levitt founded Inospace, an owner and manager of serviced industrial and logistics parks. The company began with one industrial park in Epping, Cape Town, and grew through acquisitions.

18 Lessons Learnt to Survive a Crises

Rael Levitt shares 18 lessons that he has learned in how to survive a crisis. I do believe this provides valuable insight into life as an entrepreneur. Here is a very abbreviated version:

  1. Calm the fuck down – and if you can’t, pretend to.
  2. Focus on what’s important.
  3. Find emotional support.
  4. don’t make any long-term decisions.
  5. Process your feelings.
  6. Be careful of saviors.
  7. Re-establish your routine.
  8. Detach from the noise.
  9. Take one day at a time.
  10. Have a good laugh.
  11. Exercise.
  12. Embrace where you are.
  13. Get good at being grateful.
  14. Learn and grow.
  15. Find your friends.
  16. Do good to feel good.
  17. Believe that life can be great again.
  18. Forgive yourself and others.

And now I can forgive myself for spending a good chunk of my weekend reading ‘It Takes a Tsunami’. It does however help to know that this was all part of research for new material for the brand-new ExpeditionBusiness Podcast!

addVENTURES Expedition Business YouTube videos are now available on all your favorite podcast platforms. We would LOVE to get your feedback on these programs. We do believe wholeheartedly that we should share more stories of our South African entrepreneurs in order to learn, understand and grow.

My story is definitely not as exciting as that of Rael Levitt, but it sure is not a picked-fence scenario and yours might be too. We would love to feature your story in the near future. Please get in contact and help make a difference.

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