Robert Levitt, a social entrepreneur, has a unique way of making investment decisions which can be described in three words – immersion, integration and absorption.
The founder and chief investment officer of Levitt Capital Management (LCC), a boutique cross-border wealth management company headquartered in Florida, Levitt spends much of his time immersing himself in foreign countries, integrating with the local masses, as well as absorbing their language, literature and culture.
By doing so, he is able to gain firsthand insights and develop ideas for investment opportunities.
The multi-lingual Levitt, who is tasked with LCC’s strategic vision, research and trading decisions, often appears as a guest on major financial television networks around the world.
The nine-time recipient of the prestigious Worth List of Top 250 Wealth Advisers in the United States award is also frequently quoted on premier publications such as Barron’s, Wall Street Journal and Business Week.
People first, money later
Levitt shares with The Leaderonomics Show how he grew up as a minority in a Hispanic community in New Mexico, southern border of Mexico and the United States (US).
After seeing stop signs written in Spanish while on a family trip to Mexico, he realised his passion to be involved in the international world.
Levitt went on to obtain a degree from the University of New Mexico, an MBA from The American University and a Chartered Financial Analyst designation.
“Most of us wanted to change the world at that time, but I wanted to change myself. To do that, I had to put myself in an unfamiliar environment and break out from my comfort zone.”
He then moved to France, where he realised that while Americans are used to having access to anything they want 24 hours a day, the rest of the world doesn’t work that way.
“I realise there are things that are more important than me and that the people are far more important than making money,” shares Levitt.
Through the eyes of the people
Levitt thrives on interacting with people to understand who they are, their aspirations, and where their values and cultures come from. “Because that’s what I want to invest in,” he reveals.
“By doing so, you can open them up and learn what makes them tick, as people acquire values through different ways,” he muses.
During a trip to Jakarta, Indonesia Levitt had taken to the streets, making friends and talking with everyday people about things that impact their daily lives, instead of having business meetings in a hotel and viewing the city from the window.
He discovered that there is a lack of public transportation and most people save up to buy motorcycles.
“Then I thought, this is an opportunity to invest in a motorcycle company!” exclaims Levitt.
“The more you understand about what people do, what’s happening and why it happens, you will begin to get a development of what’s going to happen tomorrow and next year, and not focus solely on the company’s capital expenditure for the next quarter. Aim to see the big picture to find the low-hanging fruit,” he advises.
“Being part of the community certainly opens many doors in the investment world.”
Connecting trends globally
Reading analysts’ reports and watching TV reveal trends that have already occurred and don’t help predict future development, Levitt opines.
“I was in Rwanda and realised how amazing the changes are. All our images of Rwanda are of genocide. What you should see is the genocide museum and the way they’ve come together.
“Being in an African country doesn’t necessarily mean you are looking at African companies. In fact, there are a lot of Malaysian companies there because there isn’t enough room to expand locally.
“Some analysts focus on South-East Asia and others on Africa, but our focus is on connecting the two. Seeing the global aspect gives us a real edge in our investing endeavours,” Levitt elaborates.
After achieving success and sufficient financial stability to self-support, Levitt left the US to pursue “his heart’s desire”.
“I was surrounded by successful people that were focused only on getting richer, having a bigger house or bigger car. If success is your driving point, which it is for so many people, then once you get there, what drives you next?” ponders Levitt.
“With less than 10% of the people around the world having food in the fridge and money in the wallet, what happens to the investment world doesn’t affect the majority of the people. These people are working hard to put food on the table and to buy a fridge to put food in.”
Levitt claims that personally, he desires to be involved with the underprivileged who have no opportunities because of their circumstances, faith, where they were born or what happened in the past, to help them do well in their lives.
Recalling a TV show in the US about paramedics based in Pakistan, Levitt says, “They are neither doctors nor nurses, but rendered medical assistance. I vividly remember a line – we’ve done more for American-Pakistan relations than all the governments in the world. That really impacted me.”
“It is so satisfying to have one-on-one relationships with people and changing their lives after giving them the opportunities I had,” he says.
In recent years, Levitt focuses particularly on Malaysia and Indonesia in making investment decisions. In addition to traditional products, Levitt invested in a Malaysian school for Afghan refugee children, the Hilla Community Centre.
When asked for his advice to a young person who wishes to emulate him, he quips that getting into his space is very challenging, “I don’t think many people would want to. You have to be a little bit crazy!”
He relates how he spent a short stint in a small prison in Africa after being arrested while hitchhiking down the roads of central Africa, as the locals wrongly accused him of being a mercenary.
Despite being thrown into prison, Levitt found Africa fascinating.
“The people I met in that part of the world were so friendly, including the prison guards.”
Levitt says, “You learn that you do not get the things you want or things done your way. This is their way of life.”
“Being born white with English as my native language and coming from one of the few places in the world where anyone from any walk of life can do well, I see the privilege, but a lack of appreciation for it,” he admits.
“Experiencing first-hand a place where whatever they have can be taken away anytime made me appreciate the advantages I had.
“To me, this is not work but this is who I am. I can’t wait to get up in the morning to see what’s happening next. There is no such thing as a weekend,” he claims.
Quoting his favourite book, Shantharam, which was influenced by real events in the life of the author Gregory Roberts, he advises: “Life is an experience and not about the destination. There will be trials and tribulations, so embrace it.
“Don’t worry too much about what happens next. Every day, wake up and read the next page of your life. Don’t try to predict the next chapter or the ending of the book.”
First published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 8 November 2014