Earn, Return, Invest

Investor Adam Levinson made a fortune on Wall Street and beyond, but he’s most proud of giving back to his hometown by creating the Detroit Children’s Fund.
Adam Levinson and family
Family Affair: Adam and Brittany Levinson, with their three children, strive to live a simple life. // Photos courtesy of Adam Levinson

As founder, managing partner, and chief investment officer of Graticule Asset Management Asia, an alternative investment management firm, Adam Levinson oversees assets under management in excess of $3 billion. Like Levinson, Graticule is based in Singapore; it also has offices in New York City and San Francisco.

The very first place Levinson got to know, however, was Stuyvessant Road in Bloomfield Village, where he spent his earliest years. Looking back, he readily admits his memories are a tad hazy. “I was like 2, 3, 4 years old,” he recalls. “The house was relatively close to a middle school, which I think was called Covington. And that was near — was it Lahser Road?”

He pauses here, then issues a disarming and self-effacing chuckle. “It’s so funny. I can drive myself there tomorrow, but the actual road I don’t remember. It’s not off Lahser, it’s off of whatever that is between — let me just pull up a Google map, because it will refresh my memory.”

Moments later: “There it is,” he exults. “Quarton. Lahser and Quarton. I went to Westchester Elementary School right around the corner, first through fourth grade, played baseball and other sports. Then my parents ended up getting divorced.”

Levinson’s younger sister and two brothers moved with their mother to New York City. He stayed behind with his dad, a cardiologist who had a practice in Detroit. “My dad was like an early adopter of the whole Detroit renaissance thing,” he says. “We moved to the Detroit Towers apartment building off of East Jefferson on the Detroit River. That’s really where I grew up.”

Levinson went to Friends School through the seventh grade, then switched to Liggett High School in Grosse Pointe Woods. With plenty of free time, every day after school was spent at the hospital where his dad worked.

“I mean, I lived in the doctors’ lounge at Sinai Hospital,” he says. “My dad was working all the time, you (had) limited transportation, so there was nowhere else to go. And I learned I had no interest in medicine.”

But he was intrigued by the economic collapse occurring in his hometown, triggered by the weakening of the auto industry, the 1970s energy crisis, a national recession, and a rise in the popularity of Japanese cars.

“I was acutely aware and observant of trends, the development of world history, and the arc of it,” he says. “I’ve always viewed Detroit as the original casualty of globalization. So being aware of that and thinking about who is winning from globalization, or where those forces were, I took a keen interest in Asia and started paying attention and studying it.”

When it came time to go to college he headed out of state, to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in large part because of its renowned Asia studies program. Levinson graduated in 1992 with a degree in government.

He applied to law school and graduate school, and was accepted. “But I also applied to Wall Street, just on the view that I would defer (my education) and go work for a couple of years, make some money, and have an interesting experience, right? That was my basic premise. I’m always willing to do things that interest me and most likely will result in an experience that hopefully is positive.”

Levinson got offers from both Salomon Brothers and Goldman Sachs. He chose Goldman.

“Within five months, the guy who hired me in New York asked me if I would go on a business trip with him through Asia,” he says. “He was moving some people around and asked me if I would consider moving. I said sure. And he asked me how soon could I move? I said two weeks. I mean, I was 21 at the time, right? No attachments, no obligations. I moved to Hong Kong in the beginning of 1993.”

Relocating overseas turned out to be the first step in what quickly became Levinson’s stunningly successful career path.

“I was the first non-Chinese person for Goldman in (Hong Kong), and it was a great experience for me,” he says. “I mean, who gets a job at that age where you get to work with very limited adult supervision? And I was largely reporting back to people in New York, right? And so, you know, good or bad, in some ways I learned a lot of stuff about myself. There was sort of distant mentoring and so on, but I was lucky; I think I was very fortunate not to get stuck in a role that was particularly vocational or limited, or narrow in scope.”

Adam Levinson with his son
Triple Play: Levinson has split his life into three segments — work, family, and health and fitness.

That freedom, coupled with Levinson’s ambition and creativity, led to some audacious moments. “I could think about a lot of things, and I’m sort of the nut who was writing business plans and sending them to Lloyd Blankfein.”

At the time, Blankfein — on his own ascent up the corporate ladder and destined to be Goldman’s CEO and chairman — was running Levinson’s division. “I’m saying to him, you know, Can we do this? And people are like, Who is this? But what else am I supposed to do? I see the opportunities, you know. And that’s how it all started for me. I got a lot of responsibility very quickly — much sooner than I would have in New York.”

Levinson spent 10 years as a proprietary trader at Goldman, splitting his time between Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, and New York.

“It was a very limited niche group, with a so-called 007 license to trade anywhere, in both emerging and developed markets,” he says.

In 2002, Levinson and several of his partners left Goldman to become principals of Fortress Investment Group, where Levinson’s mercurial rise and reputation as a superstar trader exploded in 2008 when he received what was widely reported as a $300 million “sweetener” to prevent him from leaving. Described at the time as the industry’s biggest bonus ever, Levinson says the details of the payoff were a bit more complicated.

“Fortress was a confederation of separate businesses with different equity ownership in those businesses,” he explains. “The $300 million was an equity exchange from the liquid market business line into a consolidated holding company, the structure of which was enabled when it went public.”

Graticule was launched in 2015, and when Levinson was interviewed in September, six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, he already had a clear vision of how his company would continue to operate in whatever turns out to be the “new normal,” post-pandemic reality.

“Two things have come out of it for me,” he says. “One is decentralization; requiring less office space — not zero, but somewhat of a footprint that’s going to be less — I think is pretty obvious. The other thing that I think is an unequivocal positive is the marginal travel that one used to do, right? I mean, I’d get on a plane and go to Sydney for a day and a half, or Tokyo for 48 hours. Those days, in my opinion, are all gone because the only reason you did it is it was socially sort of required.

“Now I don’t think anybody requires that. People accept Zoom or the equivalent as an alternative, and therefore your travel now will be around … more meaningful, longer, higher value-added type stuff, and you can dispense with the so-called marginal travel. That’s not great for the travel or airline business, but it’s good for virtually everyone else in business because you become more efficient and can actually get a lot more done, given the expectations.”

Apart from global finance, Levinson is eager to assist his hometown. He’s an avid supporter of the Detroit Children’s Fund, a nonprofit focused on improving educational outcomes in the city through investments that expand already successful schools and improve those that are substandard. The ultimate goal is for every child in Detroit to receive a top-notch education. Founded by Levinson in 2014, he helped launch the fund with a $10 million gift.

“It’s my biggest philanthropic endeavor,” he says. “I’m really pleased to be part of an organization that’s doing really good stuff and fostering real change in the city, and that’s part of the requirement for the future growth and dynamism of the city.”

Levinson, 50, has gotten more than his share of publicity for some of the perks his stunning success has brought to the forefront — late last year he paid $20 million for fashion icon Tom Ford’s house in Bel Air, Calif., designed by famed architect Richard Neutra. The transaction came after he paid nearly $40 million for a two-acre lot across the street. Levinson also owns homes in Singapore, Tokyo, and Amagansett, N.Y.

The wealth, as it turns out, was a lot for even Levinson himself to handle, along with his family. As a result, he and his wife, Brittany, made a commitment several years ago to a significant lifestyle adjustment for themselves and their young children.

“I made a big effort to simplify my life dramatically into just certain verticals or segments,” he says. “One is obviously work, the other is family, and the third is basically health and fitness. After that there’s not a whole lot of time for anything else. You just realize what’s important and you sort of dispense with all the B.S. And I work around each of those segments tirelessly.

“I really believe that if you’re doing something that you’re really excited about and you’re extremely interested and motivated, then it doesn’t feel like work.”