Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Months ago, I happened on a video online that caught my attention. (If I’m gonna link to it I have to fess-up: it was a TikTok.) In it, you’ll see a group of auctioneering students practicing the profession’s signature bid-calling chant. I watched, and then I watched again. It had never occurred to me that you could go to “auction school.”

The students, working on a slowed-down version of the lightning-fast counting that live auctioneers use, were concentrating hard, and I kept returning to the clip, curious and charmed. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.

A little digging (you could call it investigative journalism) revealed that the video was posted by an auctioneer teaching at the Western College of Auctioneering. One email to this Montana-based auction school later, I was connected with auctioneering instructor Nick Bennett. A 2012 graduate of the Western College of Auctioneering, Bennett works as a professional auctioneer and appears to be the most decorated faculty member at the school. He’s the 2021 International Auctioneer Champion, the 2017 U.S. Bid Calling Champion, and the 2014 Montana State Auctioneer Champion.

I talked to this industry legend about his rural roots, going to auction school, pre-auction nerves, and the first auction he ever called. Enjoy our conversation, below.  

Nick Bennett coaching a student at the Western College of Auctioneering. (Photo provided)

Caroline Carlson, The Daily Yonder: First off, what got you interested in auctioneering?

Nick Bennett: I was born in West Virginia and grew up in Ohio. Moved there when I was three and have always been around auctions in one way or another. I grew up on a small farm, and we obviously sold things at auction and bought things at auction. I wasn’t really interested in getting into the business, or being an auctioneer, but that’s where it started.

I went to college at Montana State University here in Bozeman for entrepreneurship and small business management. But then I found myself at a spot where I was 26 and wondering what I wanted to do next. I thought it would be cool to go into the military, or maybe business, but I was also kind of interested in auction school. And so I thought, well, military’s obviously a big commitment, I’m gonna go to this 10-day auction school course, check it out, see what I think.

DY: Where did you find out about auction school when you were making this decision? Did you just know that it existed? Personally, I was surprised and charmed to realize auctioneers have to learn their craft somewhere.

NB: No, not at all. Similar to you, I had no idea. I was doing some seasonal work for a ranch in central Montana. And the guy who I was living with there, his family was in the auction business and so he had a little bit of an influence on me.

At that time we were outside of Lewistown and I had heard of a family in the Lewistown area that was in the auction industry. I went into their office, sat down and said, “Hey, I wanna be in the auction business. I’m kind of curious about it. Can I come get put to work?” And they said “Yeah, sure. You seem halfway normal. Come on in.”

That’s really where I started getting a footing and had somebody to say “Okay, here’s what you need to do.” I went to auction school in March of 2012. After looking at schools around the country, I decided to go to the one in Billings, which is now the school that I’m associated with, Western College of Auctioneering.

DY: Do all auctioneers need to go to auction school?

NB: Well, as an auction school owner I should probably say yes, right?

No. The answer is no. There are a few auctioneers that have gotten started and built their careers not going to auction school. But I would say — and I’m definitely pulling this outta my ear — but I’m gonna say a large majority of them do. It’s a relatively small financial and time investment that gives you a jump start. One of the things that plays into that is, similar to real estate for example, the auction industry is regulated on a state-by-state basis.

DY: Oh, interesting. I look at auctioneers and the chant is so mesmerizing that I don’t think about the logistics.  

NB: Well, even a doctor or a lawyer or an attorney — that’s all state by state, right? It’s the same with auctioneers, although maybe not to the same level as being a physician. But every state has different licensing laws, and that’s one thing that we provide as a school: in general, a state gives folks two options. One, you can go to an approved school and then take a test to get your license. In many cases if you don’t go to school you have to be an apprentice for two or three years. So coming to a 10-day intensive industry course gets folks pointed in the right direction a little bit faster. So that is a reason people come to school. It gives ’em the foundation.

At auction school, students learn more than just bid calling. (Photo provided)

The general basis is auction school is an 85-hour class, and roughly half of that is working on bid calling. So it’s the live auctioneer side of auctions. It’s the chant. The other half is studying the industry, because the chant is a very small part of the industry. Maybe you do online auctions, and there are a lot of support people, not just the person behind the microphone.

DY: Do you remember the first auction you called?

NB: I do. And it was not a good experience. I probably get more anxious than most. And I remember the first auction being like hair blown back, totally wide-eyed. It was a western collectibles auction and I was sweating out of every pore of my body. I started counting backwards because I was nervous. It was not good, but there’s some humor in it for everybody. Thankfully, I don’t do that too often anymore.

DY: And yet somehow you went on to win a ton of competitions. Do you still get nervous?

NB: Oh, absolutely. It’s always good to have that sense of anticipation and be excited. There is a little bit of anxiousness, I’m just an anxious person in some regards. But some of it is excitement too. It’s kinda like, “oh, here we go.” And to me, when you lose that it kind of loses some of the fun of it as well. So I enjoy the fact that I still get a little energy out of it.

DY: Do you have to be a naturally fast talker to be a good auctioneer? Have you had folks who were saying, “I don’t know if I can ever do this, but I’ll try.”

NB: Anybody can, if you can count, you can be an effective auctioneer. Not everybody can be the Michael Jordan of auctioneering for a lot of different reasons, but you don’t have to be. Yeah, there are such things as natural talent and vocal talent, but if somebody can stand up and say, “Will you bid one, one; two, two; three, three; four, four; five, five; sold at $4, buyer number 10,” that’s auctioneering. And all you did is count in ones with a little bit of hum in your voice.

DY: Ok, going on to the auctions themselves. Are more live auctions concentrated in smaller towns and rural communities? That’s my assumption, but maybe I’m wrong.  

NB: Good question, and not necessarily. And that’s actually a point I wanted to make. In your email, you made a correct note that a lot of people go to auctions to find a deal. They’re looking for a discount on whatever’s being sold. You’re right, that absolutely happens. But then, take a step back and think about this: some of the finest, most expensive items that are sold in the world are sold at auctions. Jewelry. Collector automobiles. High-end real estate.

When we see a news article that says a piece of high-end art just brought in $400 million, there wasn’t a listing price on that. It brought that at auction. And $400 million might be a deal to somebody, even if it’s not to me. Where the auction method is a resource to be used is when there’s a timeline. That’s the beauty for say, liquidating a business. If you rent a building and the lease is up in two months, you have to be outta here. Sure, you could go and sell each item, but it’d be a lot better to hire an auction company. They’re gonna come in, market all the items, and in a month and a half they’re gone. I feel the auction industry is strongest when you have low supply for an item that has high demand.

The auction industry is huge. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry, especially looking at real estate. Or when you think about livestock. The general consumer probably doesn’t think about where animals are sold. It’s a multi-million, if not -billion dollar industry — just in livestock. And then you look at automobiles. Rough number here, but I’m gonna say 70 percent of used automobiles are sold through a wholesale auto auction when they’re getting traded from one dealer to another. And those are huge businesses.

DY: Speaking of stereotypes, I admit that I picture auctioneers as older white dudes — which I shouldn’t, given that this is also a prevailing, and incorrect, stereotype of rural folks! What sorts of demographics do you see at auction school?  

NB: Right. Everyone thinks of a 55-year-old white guy in a cowboy hat. But we have auctioneers that come from the Native American tribes around us. And we had gentlemen that came to class recently from Ireland, and from South Africa. They’re learning the business in those areas. Women too. Our courses are primarily male, but we have a lot of women interested in being auctioneers, which is really cool.  

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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