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Inside Track: Finding the balance between analytics and people
David Levitt, co-founder of Third Coast Development, has made it a point to learn something from everyone he’s worked for.
David Levitt is creating his legacy in the local real estate industry by being somewhere in the balance between being the smartest and the nicest guy in a room.
Levitt, a principal, partner and co-founder at Grand Rapids-based Third Coast Development, got his start early in the business world. The Chicago native and son of a “serial entrepreneur” began running his Associated Vending Supply company, delivering stock to 11 vending machines all over Chicago, when he was 16. Then he used the money he made to invest in the stock market. Apparently, the entrepreneur apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
“My dad started teaching me (about investing) in high school, and I took a liking to it,” Levitt said. “My dad would come home at night and he’d pick up a paper and we’d … go through the pricing in the paper after I was done with my homework. I’d go through the stocks and keep a little log. … I was really a weird kid.”
As a child, he also learned to respect the economic power of real estate, thanks to his father, Ed, whom he called “the greatest business influence” in his life.
“One of the comments he made to me early on was (that) one of the most enduring assets he ended up getting throughout his business career was real estate,” Levitt said. “You open businesses, you buy businesses, you sell businesses, but there’s underlying real estate under all these things.”
In 1982, Levitt was accepted at the University of Michigan — not to pursue a degree in finance and business but to study English and literature.
“My thinking at the time, flawed as it may have been, was, ‘I have my whole life to be a business guy. I really want to go out and learn about other stuff.’ This was my chance to read Chaucer and take French,” he said. “But I did do that with the full intent of graduating and going into some sort of business career.”
“I said to myself … ‘If I’m going to do it, I’m going to work really hard to do it well.’”
Levitt returned to U-M in 1988 and earned his MBA in 1990 in finance and strategy, which prepared him to be included among a batch of newly minted MBA finance graduates hired on at Chicago’s BPA Amoco, where he worked from 1990 to 1994 as an economic analyst building financial models for service stations.
It was there he was introduced to one of the most important bosses he would have, Shishir Thanawala, who came from a rigid upbringing in India, Levitt said, and whose style of getting to the heart of an issue had a profound influence on him.
“He would always have some rules of thumb he would operate by. I remember he was a tough guy to work for. He wasn’t necessarily my favorite boss, but he understood the business from the ground up. He could grab onto a fact pretty quickly and say, ‘These three things have to be in alignment for what you’re saying to be true … so you’re wrong,’” Levitt said.
“I hated working for him until I loved it. … The boss I had prior to Shishir gave me great advice: Learn something from everyone you work for, whether it’s good or bad. And I did. … Shishir was cut and dried, but once we got on the same page, it was a great experience and I learned how to boil things down to the key facts and then make a decision.”
Levitt moved to Grand Rapids when he accepted a job at Steelcase in 1994, where he started out as a finance manager for logistics operations and worked his way up to general manager. He worked under the legendary Jim Keane, currently the CEO of Steelcase, who taught him the rigors of analytics.
Steelcase was also where Levitt said he learned the invaluable lesson of placing a high value on human endeavor. Steelcase taught him to be about people first.
“It’s interesting when you think about it. You’re going to see this balance. I was a business guy who got an English degree. So now I’m at Steelcase, a humanistic company that’s about people and … my favorite boss at Steelcase was about the rigor of the analytics,” Levitt said.
“Now the difference between a guy like Jim and a guy like Shishir was that Jim took the human aspect into the equation, where at Amoco we didn’t really care. They weren’t bad people — it was a good company but that was the culture. Part of Jim’s success is he’s able to deal not just with the human aspect but with the financial aspect, as well. And those are lessons I’ve brought into my career, as well, which is to look at the whole picture.”
His career began to blossom in 2002 when Levitt met his eventual business partner and close friend, Brad Rosely. Levitt and Rosely were working together on a number of real estate properties when the opportunity arose for them to go into business together. Levitt earned his real estate license and started at S.J. Wisinski and Co. before it merged to become NAI Wisinski of West Michigan. He and Rosely founded Third Coast Development in 2004.
It was the friendship of founder Stan Wisinski — Rosely’s father-in-law and one of the most influential real estate names in Grand Rapids — that was fundamental to his career, he said.
“We’ve always been really lucky that Stan’s always been an advisor and remains to this day a good sounding board,” Levitt said. “Obviously, he’s family (to Rosely), but I think he knows that we have, as do most people in this town, a healthy respect for his knowledge.”
Levitt and Rosely function as a diversely talented team, with Rosely as “the sales and the big idea guy” and Levitt as the finance and accounting guy who “makes the numbers work.” Their partner, Max Benedict, once referred to them as the company’s gas and brake. Levitt joked that his personality was the brake, but then he pondered, “Is it who I am, or is it the role I play?”
Once again, it all comes back to balance, he said.
“Remember that I started out as a finance and business-interested guy who got a liberal arts degree: balance. And then I went to work in corporate finance and strategy and the biggest lesson I learned at Steelcase was about people: balance,” he said.
“So the question — and I don’t know the answer yet: Is it the balancing act? If Brad had been a numbers guy, would I be the one out there doing the other stuff? I don’t know.”
What Levitt does know is that he is working toward a legacy. In a city that’s growing from its center, he hopes his business can add to the environment in a way that keeps the growth ethical and smart.
“One of the biggest things that (defines us) as a business is we really try to operate honestly and with great integrity because we think about the legacy,” he said.
“I want my kids to be able to drive their kids through the neighborhoods that I’ve helped develop and say, ‘My dad built that building and that building. Aren’t they nice?’”