On a cool Saturday morning in early March, hundreds of farmers, contractors and auction enthusiasts gather at the Calhoun Stockyard. With a thin layer of fog serving as a canopy over the sprawling property, those looking to score the right piece of equipment at the right price lace up their boots and take a short stroll down a gravel road and into the stockyard, where two American Flag-patterned tents await them.
With rays of sunlight beaming through the mist, fathers beckon their sons to stay close and keep their eyes peeled, offering the possibility of hidden treasures for both parties just around the corner. The father looks focused; the son, in awe of his surroundings and what lies ahead.
As potential bidders register and study the inventory available, the smell of barbeque permeates the air, which is thick with anticipation. The calm before the storm is interrupted by a voice over the PA system announcing that the auction will start momentarily. This voice that echoes across the grounds belongs to American Auctioneers Owner, Principal Broker and Auctioneer Keith Baldwin.
Each quarter for the last eight years, American Auctioneers has orchestrated such an auction and while their auction services are comprehensive, ranging from equipment auctions to estate settlements, this environment highlights the foundation on which the company is founded. To put it simply, an auction is a family affair and American Auctioneers considers their customers as just that, family.
“I grew up going to auctions with my father and those are some of the best memories I have,” says Baldwin. “It’s the same for everyone else that works here as well. We grew up in this business, we idolized many of the great auctioneers in the Rome area, and we understand what the buyers expect and deserve because of that upbringing.
“It was our goal to take all of the knowledge we gained over the years and pass that on to our customers,” he continues. “We believe an auction isn’t a success if the buyer and seller don’t walk away with a smile on their face, and that’s what we strive to provide at each and every one of our auctions.”
Keeping with the theme of family, Baldwin followed his father’s footsteps into the auction business. After a short stint as a football coach, he joined his dad at JM Wood Auction in Montgomery, Ala., and quickly acclimated himself to the business. He ascended up the ranks quickly, eventually moving to Huntsville, Ala., and starting a company called Garner & Baldwin Inc. before making the move to Centre, Ala., and opening American Auctioneers.
A graduate of Darlington School’s Class of 1990, Baldwin grew up in Rome and – from the moment he left – was always trying to work his way back to the “Enchanted Land.”
“When the time came for us to strike out on our own, I was serving as the president of the Alabama Auctioneers Association,” he recalls. “Centre was as close as we could get to Rome without leaving the state of Alabama, and that move allowed us to find a home where we could be a part of a great community here and still service Rome and Northwest Georgia.”
The move to Centre was a blessing in many ways, as the area was a hot spot for real estate auctions due to the abundance of farmland and lake properties. The company found itself in the right place at the right time and took advantage of that by staking its spot in the Centre community through involvement with local charities and churches.
“There are 26,000 people in this county and 3,600 within the Centre city limits,” says Baldwin. “You are doing business with your neighbors, and every time you go to the grocery store, to church on Sunday or to eat at a local restaurant you are breaking bread with your customers. If that’s not an incentive to do business the right way, I don’t know what is.”
While cementing their place as citizens of Centre was paramount, each member of the American Auctioneers staff has ties to Rome and Northwest Georgia, so supplying their services to this area was not simply a goal; it was a must. Rome’s reputation as an auction-friendly community is well known, and its rich history of industry-leading auction companies has created a standard to be followed. But with many companies moving toward internet-based auctions, there was a void to be filled in Rome by a boots-on-the-ground company like American Auctioneers.
As fate would have it, fellow Darlington graduate Lou Dempsey, a man well versed in the auction business and well known in the Rome market, jumped at the opportunity to work with Baldwin. When Dempsey came on board in late 2013, it was as if the stars aligned for both parties.
“I can’t express how much I appreciated the opportunity to come to work with these guys,” says Dempsey, who mans the Rome branch of American Auctioneers. “It really is an honor to be a part of a team like this with so much experience and knowledge about our business. It’s been 19 months since I came on board and I have enjoyed every minute of it.”
With Dempsey on board in Rome, business has expanded and American Auctioneers has legitimacy in the Northwest Georgia market that didn’t exist before. This has allowed them to bring to the region their customer-first approach and the quality service that has made them a staple in Northeast Alabama.
While equipment, estate, probate and other auctions are a big part of the business, real estate auctions are frequently at the forefront for American Auctioneers. Farms, commercial properties and residential properties are all fairly common, but misconceptions may intimidate residential sellers from potentially making a greater profit on the sale of their home.
“People need to understand that an auction is a choice, not distress,” says Dempsey. “Sure, there are clients that are in a must-sell situation and an auction is the only option, but it’s important to me that sellers that aren’t in that situation know that they could stand to gain a lot by putting their property up for auction instead of a traditional sale.
“If you compare the two processes, traditional sales start at an asking price and negotiations take that price down,” he continues. “With an auction, we set the price and work our way up. It provides instant gratification for the client and, in most cases, they get more than what they asked for without the home sitting on the market for months or years.”
For clients bidding or selling, any tension about the process is alleviated by American Auctioneers’ knowledgeable staff – each of whom has served in just about every position on the Georgia or Alabama Auctioneers Associations. They make it a priority to educate their customers in order to ensure the satisfaction of both the buyers and the sellers at the end of each auction.
The core team of auctioneers includes Keith Baldwin, Lou Dempsey, Ron Baldwin, John Norris and Ben Powell all of whom are quick to note that a successful auction is a true team effort. The relationship between the auctioneer chanting on the microphone and the floor men is paramount, and American Auctioneers is proud to have some of the best in the business.
“We try to educate our buyers on the floor,” says Ron. “A good ring man gets to know the bidders before the auction even begins. You find out why they came to the auction, what they are looking for and what they are willing to spend. Whether it’s property or equipment, if you have that knowledge, you can make it a more comfortable experience for the bidders. And when you are dealing with first-time bidders, that comfort level is extremely important, so we truly try to make friends with everyone under the tent.”
It’s easy for this team to talk about what makes a successful auction – and their success rate speaks for itself – but their passion for the business explodes when they discuss helping clients who are upside down with a piece of property. This is the case for some of their clients and, more often than not, these properties have not been properly maintained, requiring extra effort to make them presentable for auction. American Auctioneers spares no expense to do just that.
“There are a lot of things I love about my job, but helping a family manage with an estate situation is by far the most rewarding aspect of what we do,” says Keith. “To see someone come to you with foreclosure just around the corner, desperate to sell, but emotionally attached to the property is heartbreaking. It’s also a lot of pressure because we really want to help those people. So we spend money restoring the property and getting it ready for auction, advertising and searching for potential buyers, and then making the auction an event that buyers want to attend. There is no greater satisfaction than seeing a family turn real assets into liquid assets. I think I can speak for everyone here when I say that is the pinnacle of what we do.”
As the sun sets on the Calhoun Stockyard and the 1,200+ pieces of equipment worth a collective $5 million find their way onto trailers and 18-wheelers, another successful auction is moving toward its end. There is still plenty of work to do, but the customers found what they came for; it’s time to grab one more barbeque sandwich, pack up and head for home, wherever that may be.
It is in these smiling, satisfied faces that Keith Baldwin and his team find comfort. They know that they have achieved their day’s goal – a goal that encompasses far more than selling every piece of equipment on the lot.
“An auction is an experience and, when we started this company, we wanted to continue this rich tradition,” says Keith. “To truly serve your customers, you have to be hands on, and the result of our doing business that way is a whole lot of former clients that we now consider family.”
With the rhythmic chants of the auctioneer still echoing in his head, a future auctioneer looks up at his dad, still digesting the events of the day. He found what he came for without even knowing it.