December 05, 1977 12:00 PM

As president of a big New York securities firm, Arthur Levitt Jr. managed 110 branch offices, 1,600 brokers—and his high school French teacher’s $2,500 savings. “Someone who has contempt for little sums of money usually has contempt for big sums,” Levitt says. “I have no patience with brokers who refuse accounts that are too small.”

So when 46-year-old Levitt was recently chosen as chairman and chief executive officer of the American Stock Exchange, second only in size to the New York Exchange, he unsurprisingly put the individual investor—a term he prefers to “small investor”—high on his list of priorities. “A teacher living on a pension, a fixed income, is murdered by inflation,” Levitt says. “His investments become critically important to him and us.”

Levitt comes to his new post at a crucial moment in Wall Street history. Earlier this year the Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating improper practices by 36 Amex floor traders in the buying and selling of options. The inquiry has slowed Amex growth and created discord between the exchange staff and employees of the brokerage houses. “It was a difficult decision to accept this job,” says Levitt, who was chosen from a field of 85 candidates. “But I got calls from people I didn’t even know urging me to take it.”

Brooklyn-born Levitt, whose mother taught school in the borough for 38 years, is accustomed to abrupt career changes. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College in 1952, he worked as jack-of-all-trades at the Berkshire Eagle. Two years in the Air Force followed. He joined LIFE magazine’s advertising department and then moved over to TIME as assistant promotion director. In 1959 he relocated to Kansas City, where he plunged into the cattle business. (“People who try various careers,” he says, “have richer lives than those who stay in one place.”) Returning to New York, he joined a small securities firm as a retail salesman. Since 1969 Levitt has been president of Shearson Hayden Stone, now one of the top 10 brokerage and investment banking firms. “It was hard to leave,” he says. “I was part of the birth of the firm.”

His salary as Amex chief will increase slightly, to more than $200,000. But the $75,000 he receives annually in dividends will be placed in a blind trust to be given to charity. “It’s a financial sacrifice,” Levitt says of his new five-year position. “But unlike most people who go into the securities business just to make money, I was most attracted by the diversity of the business and the contact with people. I’m an extraordinary listener.”

He may also be the world’s highest-paid stenographer. Levitt’s wife of 22 years, Marylin, left her job at a psychiatric hospital to get her doctorate in social work at Columbia—and he types her term papers. Shrugs Levitt: “I’m better at it than she is.” Levitt is also a skilled mountain climber—he was out scaling Utah’s Cataract Canyon when the Amex committee was mulling his appointment—as well as an avid fisherman and photographer.

The Levitts—whose children, Arthur III, 20, and Lauri, 18, are away at college—prefer the company of Marylin’s psychoanalyst friends to moneymen. The normally calm Levitt has been known to bristle when he hears himself described as “the son of New York State Comptroller Arthur Levitt.” “I’m proud of my father,” he protests, “but some people may think I’m where I am because of his contacts.” The new Amex president also confesses an in-decisiveness about little things. “I’m much more comfortable making professional decisions than personal ones,” he says. One current ambition: “To go to the movies on my lunch hour. I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it.”

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