How Did You Become An Auctioneer?

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“So….How did you become an auctioneer?” is an incredibly common question that I’m asked.  Depending on the day and setting, you might get the drawn out version or my favorite, somewhat fictional story.   Since you’re a paid subscriber (you would not be here if you did not pay your cable bill this month), I’ll give you both versions.

What I dub as the ‘somewhat fictional story’ was back in my reckless high school days where I was a a regular visitor to the Principal’s office.   95% of the time, it was because I was talking and after a couple warnings, I’d get the boot. So much in fact, that I had my very own desk in Mr. Sarver’s office – his desk.  

It was funny for a couple reasons.  Instead of Mr. Sarver scolding me, he’d waive me into his office and we’d chat until the bell rang.   There were times where I deliberately got booted from the classroom just so I could continue my conversation with him.   

 I can attest to the fact, that I was the only student that got this luxury.    The general rule of thumb was, get sent to Mr. Sarver’s office and you had an automatic after school detention or worse.   I don’t think I ever got a detention from Mr. Sarver but he did suspend me once for beating up a kid who looked like a side show act at the carnival – complete with a 3 foot multi-colored Mohawk and his mother’s army boots.

The other comical part of the story was the first time I got sent down to his office and he happened to be out for the day.  The secretary asked me, “How can I help you.” and without even thinking I quipped, “I’m here to feed Mr. Sarver’s goldfish.”   Instead of getting the expected glare from the secretary, I got the unexpected as she points me to the direction of his office, “go ahead.”     So I used this line for four years anytime I was sent to the office and they didn’t know any differently.   Even when Mr. Sarver was in the office, the first thing I’d do is walk over to his aquarium and unscrew the fish food and every time he’d say, “No. I already fed them this morning” and I’d respond, “Oh I’m just giving them a little snack.”

Anyway, one day during our multi themed conversations, Mr. Sarver was trying to help me figure out what I was going to do when I grew up.  He said, “You talk so darn much, you need to find something that won’t get you into trouble.”   Then he leaned forward and pointed, “You know what?  I got it.  An auctioneer!”   I did not give it much thought but remember jack hammering him with the line, “be careful what you wish for because I might be standing in your living room selling your estate.”  He put his head down and smiled while shaking his head.  

The fact to the matter is, Mr. Sarver’s “auctioneer” brainstorm was nothing more than a coincidence as to why I became an auctioneer.  The reality is, I was a natural born salesman.  I was always buying and selling and made a fair living by selling antique sporting memorabilia and autographs.    I even took on some ‘real jobs’ along the way as a hobby but went right back to being self employed where I belong.

Getting back on track.

The auction method of selling was always fascinating to me.   It had nothing to do with the rhythmic auctioneer’s chant but rather how successful auctions seemed to be.   From time to time, I’d consign a piece or two to an auction and I always netted much more than I ever anticipated.   Because of this, I never really understood why some believe that an auction is a buyers playground.  It’s true though – you can get some genuine steals at an auction and the opportunity is certainly there but the RIGHT auction company will up the ante on the goodies because they know what they are doing.   For clarification, when I say “up the ante”, I’m not talking in an unethical way either.  A professional auctioneer knows HOW to get the money and a big part of that is how efficiently they promote and market the auction.

So here is the real deal of how I became an auctioneer.  

Years ago, I served on the Board of Directors for the Michigan Big Game Hunters Association and we were planning for our annual fundraiser banquet which included a live auction.   During the planning stages, I suggested that the first thing we do is locate a professional auctioneer and my logical suggestion was immediately shot down by the executive director of the association, “We had one once and she was terrible.”  I responded, “What is she?  The only auctioneer on the planet?  Let’s find another one.”  This time, half of the board jumped in and became anti-professional auctioneer just because they had a bad experience. During the mild crossfire, the executive director cuts in and says; “You do it.” , “I do what?” I quipped.  “You be the auctioneer.”  “Uhhhh…” “It’s settled. Kenny can do it.  Besides, it will save us a bunch of money.”    First of all, I’m a big cost versus price type of guy.   In this case, the price was zero but how much would it cost the organization to have an inexperienced so called auctioneer handling their most important fundraiser of the year?    

Fast forward a couple months and here I am, standing up on stage in a smokey sportsman banquet room with mic in hand rattling off bids.  The auction appeared to go well and I received dozens of compliments for my ‘work’ but it was hardly a performance.   I was simply going through the motions and while the auction committee is counting thousands of dollars, I wondered to myself just how much did I leave off the table?

Looking back now, the Michigan Big Game Hunters Association lost thousands of dollars that evening by insisting on having an inexperienced ‘auctioneer’.     With minimal thought, I can name six things I didn’t do that would have netted the organization at least another $3,000 or more. 

When I exited the stage that evening, a young kid walked over to me and asked if I was a “professional auctioneer” and I joked, “only in the minds of one.   I’m not even close bud.”   He replied, “You missed your calling. ”   That was all I needed to hear and the following week, I was on the phone researching auction schools.      A few months later, I ventured to Mankato, Minnesota and went to auction school and graduated at the top of my class.

After graduating, I went right to work ‘studying’ the profession and realized that just because you have a ‘diploma’ and you were hereby sworn in as an ‘auctioneer’ – you are the farthest thing away from a professional auctioneer.   

For starters, the phone does NOT ring off the hook after graduation.   Veteran auctioneers do not line up at your door step looking for your services and the most desperate customer in the world will not retain your services.   They don’t tell you this in auction school in between the rah rah motivational speeches.   It is for this reason why less than 1% of students that graduate from auction school are affiliated in any way, shape or form in the auction business.     Unless you have a desk waiting for you with an established auction firm, the likelihood that you’ll succeed as an independent auctioneer is pretty unlikely.

This is where the industry statement, ‘Once an auctioneer. Always an auctioneer’ was invented.     There are tens of thousands of auction school certificates stuffed in an envelope in the sock drawer that belong to an ‘auctioneer’ whose only experience in three decades was calling bids at the local church bake sale.   He will forever state to others in conversation that he’s a professional auctioneer – but quickly changes the topic.      I guess you can say, it’s a lot like real estate license graduates.  They go to school.  Invest a bunch of money and the only house they sell is either theirs or a relative who feels obligated to list their property with them.   The fate to the new auctioneer is similar to this.

I’m the rarity in the auction industry.   I started American Eagle Auction & Appraisal Company, LLC from scratch and business is good many years later.

I’d love to tell the whole story of how and why we survived thus far but this is supposed to be a blog, not a biography but I will fill in the blanks in upcoming entries – hence telling my life story.   Start drinking the Jolt cola and packets of sugar now because I don’t want you to fall asleep.