- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

John Nicholls speaks softly and precisely when he estimates how long it will take to sell 138 cars at the Dulles CarMax store. “We’ll sell them, I’ll bet, in an hour and 15 minutes,” the head auctioneer says.

Those are the last clear words uttered by Mr. Nicholls, 37, before he takes his seat at the auction stand in the two-lane garage.

Now, his speaking voice blurs into a litany of words and numbers that only the 50 dealers present seem to understand at this private car auction CarMax Auto Superstores Inc. holds every Monday at 10 a.m. at its Laurel store and at 2 p.m. at its Sterling, Va., location.

Mr. Nicholls works with eight other auctioneers for the Fredericksburg firm Nicholls Auction Co. He is the company’s vice president and travels to auctions near the firm’s branch office in Richmond.

The auction “is quite tame” compared with other car auctions Mr. Nicholls supervises. For example, in Manheim, Pa., he and 50 other auctioneers operating out of 28 car lanes might sell 8,000 to 10,000 cars in a day.

At the CarMax store, there are two auctioneers and one main car lane. “The auction varies in size and that’s part of the challenge of marketing our company’s services,” he says.

Mr. Nicholls sells eight cars in the first seven minutes before taking a pause in the program.

“Guys, make sure you sign for your cars after you have bought them if you don’t want the IRS on your back,” he says.

Then, the 13-year veteran positions the microphone within an inch of his mouth and delivers more numbers and words at a frantic speed, pointing to buyers who have indicated interest with barely a nod or raised hand.

“So much of this is about knowing your buyers and understanding their idiosyncrasies and subtle signs,” Mr. Nicholls says after the auction. “If I don’t know them, then I’m asking the buyer and talking with him.”

The auction is a steady activity of car dealers, mostly males, viewing cars, bidding, and talking among themselves while Mr. Nicholls keeps track of the highest bid and interested buyers.

Scott Sawyer, CarMax’s regional auction director for the Mid-Atlantic, said the company sells these cars to other car dealers because they do not meet certain requirements for store resale, such as having a faulty paint job or too many miles on the odometer.

“We’ll buy any car from a customer, but those cars don’t always meet our requirements,” Mr. Sawyer notes.

CarMax breaks even with the venture, selling cars ranging from $15 to $20,000 at the auction.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nicholls keeps an unwavering dialogue with bidders, spouting a slew of numbers and indiscernible phrases that sound like “bada bid.” But they are in fact filler words, such as “bid to buy” or “will you bid.”

“There are all sort of filler words I use to keep things moving, but the important thing is to keep track of the numbers,” he says after the auction.

The head auctioneer sells 60 cars in a half hour before he turns the microphone over to Gerome Clark, another auctioneer who heads up the Richmond office.

But Mr. Nicholls does not sit back and rest, instead stepping over to the bidding area to talk with dealers and flag cars through the display lane at a steady pace.

He watches out for one younger bidder who has his eye on a white Volvo. “Gerome, this guy has a bid,” he calls and the bidder eventually wins the car for $4,420.

“I don’t do that for every buyer at an auction, but it’s part of growing the relationship with my buyers and becoming more involved in the process,” he says.

Mr. Clarke sells 53 more cars before Mr. Nicholls returns to the podium to close out the auction.

Mr. Nicholls generally presides over 30 to 40 real estate auctions, including business liquidations and real estate dispersals, and about 300 auto auctions each year.

“It’s taxing physically and mentally, but I try to get enough rest and stay healthy,” he says at the end of his break. “Plus, I really love what I do, and that makes the job much easier.”

He sells the remaining 25 cars in 10 minutes, including a few clunkers such as a beat-up Toyota Camry that sold for $15.

His auction company will receive a daily fee for the auto auction. Mr. Nicholls gets a commission percentage of real estate he sells on top of a set salary that he would not disclose.

Nicholls Auction, which was started in 1968 by Mr. Nicholls’ father, Charles, is projecting to make $10 million to $15 million in auction sales this year.

While he had no intention of becoming an auctioneer, Mr. Nicholls says he saw better opportunities working with the family business halfway through graduate school.

He went to the same auctioning school his father attended, Worldwide College of Auctioneering in Iowa, and started his apprenticeship and auction career at the company in 1990.

“My dad never pushed me into the business, but he was very satisfied when I joined the company,” he says.

The last car rolls in at 3:16 p.m. and is sold one minute later. Mr. Nicholls misses his projection by two minutes but is satisfied with the event.

“You’re always working on your speed and clarity so I take the perspective that I have never arrived at my peak,” he says.

But Mr. Nicholls recently won this year’s Auctioneers World Championship in Nashville, Tenn., beating out 80 other auctioneers in the Olympicslike car auction challenge.

It was his 10th championship try after narrowly missing the top slot in 2002 by four-hundredths of a point.

“It was basically the same thing I did here at CarMax, except on a bigger scale with a panel of 14 judges watching me for clarity, speed, product knowledge, audience participation and crowd control,” he recalls.

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