“Why do you want to come to the The Post?”
That was what an interviewer asked me when I first applied to the newspaper three decades ago.
My answer was simple: “I want to be part of my times.”
That kept popping into my mind after interviewing Arthur Levitt Jr., the 86-year-old former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
I have interviewed many interesting people over the years, but few match Levitt’s claim on being relevant to his times. He is best known for his record longevity at the SEC, but — to borrow a phrase from one of his professions — that short sells the entire arc of a career that is a lesson in reinvention. Cattle salesman, journalist, publisher and card-carrying member of the financial establishment. His “Take on the Street” business book sold 100,000 copies.
“It’s my personality,” the Air Force veteran said. “My mother used to say, ‘Go out for everything.’ ”
So he did. Track team. Honor society. School newspaper. And later, stockbroker, businessman, political troubleshooter (he served on two base-closing commissions), chairman of the American Stock Exchange, chairman of the New York City Economic Development Commission, high-tech consultant.
A conversation about his life is a turn through U.S. political and financial history, including the Carlyle Group, financier Sanford Weill, actress Ethel Merman, billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, investment bank Goldman Sachs, Wall Street legend Maurice R. “Hank” Greenberg, and politicians including former senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex., with whom he shares a love for Labrador retrievers), and former congressmen Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y).
He has worked for Time-Life. He owned Roll Call, now a daily take on Capitol Hill. He occasionally pens missives on finance for the Wall Street Journal.
Levitt’s latest reinvention is serving as a consultant to seven high-tech companies. Those ventures bring him in contact with Silicon Valley stars like Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal, and Mike Cagney of Social Finance Inc.
“I am in touch with some of the smartest minds in America, and in a field with which I had very little experience,” he said.
In addition to the tech companies, he sits on the board of privately held Bloomberg L.P.
Levitt’s experience in finance, markets and securities, not to mention his Rolodex and political clout, makes him a valuablecommodity.
“I can help those companies in terms of management,” he said, “choosing the right people, choosing and positioning the board of directors, helping them finance the companies by introducing them to potential investors.”
He learns from them, too.
“I have been absolutely fascinated by their ability to make a new way, develop new strategies and utilize our capital markets more constructively than they have ever before been used,” he said.
His interest in politics and finance comes naturally. In his family, Levitt grew up in a family where “the conversations around the kitchen table every night involved pensions and the sanctity of the pension system.”
If his mother blessed him with assertiveness, his father’s contribution was independence. Arthur Levitt Sr. was a politician and good at it. He was elected New York state comptroller for six terms, spanning 24 years.
“He was his own man,” Levitt says. But the son made an early decision not to follow his father into politics.
“It was too uncertain. Too cutthroat,” he said. “I didn’t want to go through the enormous stress of running for office, having seen my dad do it.”
He majored in English at Williams College, graduating in 1952. He was accepted at Yale Law School, but his father advised him to pass.
He instead would follow the path of an uncle, Robert Levitt (one of actress Ethel Merman’s four spouses) who was publisher of the American Weekly, a Sunday newspaper insert popular in the early 20th century. After two years in the Air Force, he worked at Time Inc., first in Cincinnati and then New York.
He was making around $12,000 a year for Time when a friend named William vanden Heuvel, a contemporary who is an attorney, businessman and former diplomat, recommended that Levitt take a job with a relative in the cattle business.
Never one to say no, Levitt moved to Kansas City and took the $25,000-a-year job. The cattle business was attractive to high-income individuals seeking tax-advantaged income.
Plus, Levitt was good at it.
After a year on the Plains, he returned to Manhattan and opened an office on 57th Street and Madison Avenue, where he continued to sell cattle. One of his cattle customers told him if he could sell cows, he could sell stock, and recommended that he join a stock brokerage operated by the man’s son-in-law. The firm eventually became Cogan, Berlind, Weill & Levitt.
Some competitors referred to the firm as “Corned Beef With Lettuce.” The firm changed its name nearly a dozen times because of acquisitions and expansions. It was eventually acquired by American Express.
Levitt had landed his first fortune. The financial independence allowed him to pursue a series of other jobs. From 1978 to 1989, he chaired the American Stock Exchange. He bought Roll Call during that time, and turned it into a successful publication covering Capitol Hill. (One congressman helped immensely by slipping Levitt the home addresses of every U.S. representative, allowing Roll Call to land on their front doorstep instead of their offices.)
He developed a warm rapport with many politicians, including Rangel, who became the powerful Ways and Means chairman, former congressman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Edward J. Markey, now the Democratic senator from Massachusetts.
“I like these guys,” he said of politicians. He liked schmoozing. Playing baseball with them.He liked the rituals.
Levitt sold Roll Call to the Economist in 1993 for $15 million, fattening his fortune.
President Bill Clinton appointed him to the SEC in 1993. The lifelong Democrat said he has no idea why Clinton picked him.
It was another reinvention and an ideal match.
“My experience on two base-closing commissions and testifying before Congress many times and owning the congressional newspaper — you couldn’t get better training,” he says. “I was very comfortable with the political demands.”
Skeptics at the time questioned whether someone who had made a fortune on Wall Street and had run the American Stock Exchange could be the industry’s watchdog. One big miss was the years-long Bernard Madoff scam, which went on under the noses of the Internal Revenue Service and several regulators.
But Levitt’s SEC tenure was known for its activism.
“My overwhelming focus was on the importance of the individual investor over corporations, over market structure, over everything else,” said Levitt, adding that he knew what to look for. “I saw and probably engaged in some of the practices I had come to oppose, such as sales commissions based on volume, higher commissions.
“I transferred millions of dollars from the pockets of brokers to the pockets of investors,” he said.
You would think he would have gently headed into retirement after his SEC term ended in 2001. He could spend time with his family, his beloved Labradors and the friends who join him on his famouslygrueling wilderness trips.
It doesn’t seem like he’s slowed down even a step. He wrote a report on the finances of the National Hockey League in 2004. His passion for dogs keeps his 20-year involvement with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that trains guide dogs.
He worked as an adviser to the Carlyle Group for several years, and then there is the consulting with the tech companies, which he credits for reinventing him once more. But mom deserves most of the credit.
As he put it: “I followed my mother’s direction to take on everything that comes my way and turn down nothing.”