Taking Care of BIDness
Meet five successful auctioneers who raise the bucks.
Eye on the Crowd: Scott Robertson looks for cues.
Scott Robertson owns 10 tuxedoes that he accessorizes with 74 vests—some bought off the rack, some specially made. By color or pattern theme, each represents a fundraising auction he has called. They also represent his philosophy about being an auctioneer specializing in charity events. Whatever the gala, “I want to be a part of it,” he explains.
That’s one tactic that has allowed him to just about corner the market on Southwest Florida charity auctions.
Whether it’s done by hand, paddle or keyboard click, the auction as a method of sale thrives in this area, being used to sell houses, land, livestock, vacations, antiques, estate lots and more—in person and online. And nearly everything about this method of sale changes depending on whether the buyers are in cowboy boots or cummerbunds.
“I’ll be the only one in a tuxedo, besides the wait staff,” Robertson says before the mid-November ForEverglades Naples fundraiser at the Naples Beach Hotel. And while the audience was in cocktail chic, the staff was in black tie—and so is the auctioneer, standing stage left during the pre-auction dinner and already in command of the room.
He is both part of the fabric of the event and a man apart as its salesman and leader. For the Everglades fundraiser, he wore a vest and tie of light turquoise: “one of the decorating colors” that night, he says.
Dress is only one aspect of the style a charity auctioneer adopts.
“With commercial auctions, you’re selling a product,” says Robertson. “You’re trying to get the most money you can for that product. With a charity auction, you’re selling [a concept] to people. So it’s a whole different mindset.”
He’s conscious of body language, eye contact and personal space. In the audience, a person widening his eyes and leaning back slightly can tell the roving auctioneer that he has ventured too close to the bidder’s table; sitting up straight and making eye contact with the auctioneer likely means the person is interested in bidding.
In a benefit auction, the pace is slow enough to notice these things.
Robertson should know. Since 2000, he has presided exclusively over charity auctions nationwide, and quite a number in Southwest Florida. He estimated he has handled about 70 a year for the past six years—and recently passed a cumulative $149 million in auction sales. His largest audience was 2,500 at a benefit for Florida Hospital in Orlando; the largest haul came from the Sonoma Wine Auction in 2016, at which $4.6 million was raised to benefit California children’s charities.
He can be hired three ways: for a flat fee; for a percent of the proceeds; or the way he prefers, a flat fee with an incentive bonus if he helps the organization make its auction goal.
Robertson grew up in Kentucky, where his father was a farmer who worked one day a week at a stockyard. His mother owned an antiques store. Both parents attended auctions accompanied by their young son. In fact, he would “run tickets” at cattle auctions for $1.60 an hour. When each lot of cattle was sold, the buyer’s name and price and other details were written on a ticket. When several tickets accumulated, Robertson would take them to the business office for processing. “I thought it meant you actually had to run. So I ran all day,” he says with a laugh.
He settled in Southwest Florida after college and taught industrial arts at Cape Coral High School. In 1994, he was ready for a career change. Watching him in action, it’s clear that the next job had to be something with a touch of theatricality. “And as for a ringmaster in the circus, I thought there were too few jobs around here.”
An auctioneer is a salesman and a performer, he says, as is a teacher, so his transition to a new field was pretty smooth. Now he’s also a marketer, and that starts way before the gala tables are set and the candles lit.
The day we visited, the bar along his kitchen was covered with papers designating auction packages for the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest. He was familiarizing himself with the lots for the March auction and the order of presentation he would recommend.
The accidental auctioneer
Rick Gallo of Estero (pictured left) also has been calling auctions for local nonprofits for years—as a volunteer, out of necessity.
While working as the vice president of sales for a bottled water group in Boston, he provided water for benefit races and other events, including one for the March of Dimes in 1989. Afterward, he became active in the organization.
Gallo and his family moved to Florida in 1994. In 2003, he was chairing the local March of Dimes Signature Chefs Auction. “The March of Dimes sent down a directive that they’d no longer pay $1,000— the going rate is far more than that now— to hire an auctioneer. We’d have to find someone to do it for free,” Gallo says.
So he put the observations he gained by attending furniture and other auctions and his knowledge of organizing events to work as the Signature Chefs volunteer auctioneer.
Word spread and Gallo ended up calling Signature Chefs auctions all over the state for the March of Dimes, in addition to other fundraising events in Southwest Florida and in his home state of Massachusetts. He helped nonprofits raise $7 million in 2016. (Florida does not require a volunteer to hold a license if calling an auction for a charitable, civic or religious group.)
All that volunteer work began digging into the time he needed and the money he made with CloseWatch, his home watch and cleaning business that pays the bills. So in August 2016, Gallo enrolled in the Florida Auction School, took the course and passed the test.
He now charges new clients anywhere from $500 to $1,500 per auction—a fraction of what full-time benefit auctioneers charge.
In Florida, a prospective licensed auctioneer who charges for his work must apprentice for one year or finish 80 hours of classroom instruction. Courses run about $1,295 for eight to 10 days of classes. To be licensed, the candidate must pass an examination ($300) and if he sells real estate, there are additional licensure requirements. Another type of license may be required to auction cars.
Quite a few states offer license reciprocity for a fee.
An auction company must also hold a business license. Auctioneers generally carry at least errors and omissions insurance as well as general liability insurance.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect earnings or employment data specifically on auctioneers. But according to the National Auctioneers Association, earnings vary considerably. Most are paid on commission, often 10 or 15 percent of the total proceeds from an auction.
Preparation and homework
At the Everglades Foundation event, Sara Rose Bytnar, a daughter of well-known real estate auctioneer Beth Rose (pictured right: Beth and Sara), assisted Robertson and worked the auction floor, making note of winners and encouraging bids. Helpers on the floor may be called bid spotters or ringmen.
Beth Rose Real Estate and Auctions is a family business founded in Ohio and now based in Ohio, Michigan and Naples. The company’s niche is selling non-distressed properties. Bytnar primarily works in her family’s business but also works with other auctioneers as an independent contractor.
Part of the pre-event homework of a fundraising auctioneer is figuring out specific ways to inspire the bidders. One tactic Bytnar and Robertson used for the November event was to introduce Eire Layton, a Naples third grader who raised $510 the year before by making and selling bracelets and anklets for the charity.
“It’s good if people think, ‘If this young girl can raise $510, then I can give again, and I want to show her some support,’” Bytnar says in a conference call with Beth Rose.
Making sure the crowd understands what’s happening is critical to a charity auction and also a real estate sale, the latter of which may have a great effect on the buyer’s personal financial situation.
At auction, the buyer pays Beth Rose’s company 10 percent of the sale price. For a charity organization, “we work with flat fees,” Rose says, “based on a number of factors, including the size of the event and the amount of consultation needed [beforehand]. We work with organizations large and small, so the scale is very wide.”
Both Bytnar and Rose are active on the state and national level. Bytnar is president of the Florida Auctioneers Association. She is also the most recent winner in the women’s division of the International Auctioneer Championship, sponsored by the National Auctioneers Association. It’s a title her mother held in 2016, based on rounds of bid-calling and interviews. It comes with a trophy and a $5,000 cash award.
The company was founded by Bytnar’s grandfather and today sells mainly high-end homes and golf courses.
As in a benefit auction, in real estate “You’re not focused on going really fast, you’re focused on making sure they understand the amount you’re asking them to bid. With real estate, it’s more about creating urgency,” Bytnar says.
“A fear of losing out, as well as a sense of urgency,” Rose interjected. “It’s about the pitch. You bring the pitch up.” That practice is even more important when auctioning vehicles.
“I have two sisters who are car auctioneers,” Rose says. “The style is very different from benefits. You’re selling a car every 30 seconds, so they’re very, very fast.” Fast auctions are the kind Tommy Williams likes.
It started with cattle
Now 76, Williams (pictured left) began attending auctions in rural Florida as a child. His grandfather was a well-known Angus cattle breeder in the early 1900s. “I was raised from a little tiny kid that all I wanted to be involved with was Angus cows, and then you’re automatically involved with auctions,” he says.
His grandfather died when Tommy Williams was 6, but his family carried on the business. “When I was 12 years of age and at an auction I turned to my mother and said, ‘That’s what I’ll be someday’ and I never wavered from then on.”
Listening to him chant for a minute is like being transported to rural America, the scents of animals, dirt and leather in the air.
In a video in which he’s auctioning higher ticket items, he nearly sings: “TWO hundred thousand dollars. Do you want it?” He picks up speed as the bids go higher, putting words together musically: “Two hundred thoundollar. Two hundred thoundollar here. Now two hun-FIFTY thoundollar!”
Adrenaline rises with his banter, deliberately gauged to excite, his chant building to a crescendo ending in a sale, then on to the next, when the build begins again.
And that’s what players in the livestock industry thrive on, he says.
“They love it. They love to compete with each other. And an auction just fuels their engines.”
It seems to fuel Williams’ engine as well, and still. He turned over the company he began in 1963 with his wife, Trudy, to his son Dean about 10 years ago, but remains active as an auctioneer. He still calls auctions for the company, although Dean Williams sold it in March 2017.
“Being an auctioneer is very much like being an entertainer. If it’s something you really love, it’s exactly like being a singer. They never can quit either. Tony Bennett is still trying to do it and he’s [over] 90 years old,” Williams says. One thing about me, I think everybody would say ... two things. I’m one of the most optimistic people you’ll ever meet and maybe one of the most enthusiastic, and I like to run a very fast-paced auction. There’s not a lot of BS. I like to run off what I call momentum, get the energy of the crowd to the highest level you can.”