Photos Andy Calvert
A good auction can set your soul on fire.
The feeling is almost poetic. Your eyes lock on the item you want, and stealthily, you bid. Trying not to seem too interested, but just interested enough, the price climbs – but there’s almost no price too high.
It’s the competitive spirit that keeps you moving forward, the rush of knowing that eventually, those bidding against you must tucker out, right? Sometimes the loss hits harder than an anvil to your gut, but when you achieve, the silence following the auctioneer’s final word sounds like roaring applause in your ears. Going once. Going twice.
The Dempsey Auction Company has been bringing this experience to buyers for 53 years. A third-generation auction company, they’ve travelled throughout the southeast, turning one man’s “trash” into another man’s “treasure”. Where some traditional companies may grow obsolete with age, Dempsey Auction Company has evolved with the times, with their eyes fixed on the future.
It was the 1940s. Sproull Dempsey was a dairyman and his family’s farm spanned the area that is now the Richard B. Russell Airport. After selling some of the land to the government, there were a few hundred acres left over, being auctioned off.
As the auctioneers did what they could to sell the assets, Sproull knew he could do better. He started working the crowd. It’s a story that’s been told to the President of Dempsey Auction Company, Louie Ray Dempsey, Jr., dozens of times.
“My grandfather got so excited,” says Dempsey. “He fired up the people in the crowd and helped sell off the rest of the land. He had a real a knack for the auction business, and the gentleman running the auction saw that. It was Buck Todd, and he asked him if he wanted to come and work for him at Todd Auction Company.”
Sproull Dempsey worked with Todd Auction Company for about two decades before going into business for himself in 1965, with the help of his sons, Sproull Dempsey Jr. and Ray Dempsey. Since then, the Dempsey Auction Company has been booming with business.
Their mission is to transform clients’ real assets into liquid assets for the highest price, using both traditional methods and modern technology. Throughout the decades, the words “Dempsey Auction Company” have become synonymous with the word “auction” across the South.
Bidding for a Bargain
Dempsey, who was born and raised into the auction business, doesn’t have many childhood memories that don’t involve helping his dad in some way.
“I remember putting up auction signs in tents when I was a kid and selling Cokes (that were supposed to be given away),” he recalls. “I would travel with my dad and work with the tent crews. We would ride miles and miles. There was a time when we travelled from Texas to Virginia and did business there and everywhere in between.”
The Dempsey’s auctions sell mostly real estate, presenting everything from residential, agricultural, recreational, resort, investment, commercial and industrial properties.
“We sell it all,” he says. “We sell all over the southeast.”
But the business that’s been around for more than half a century has seen a few hard times in its days.
“The Recession in 2008 changed everything,” says Dempsey. “It changed all we ever knew about the auction business. Everything traditional went out the window.”
During those volatile, uncertain financial times, the company had to vet their clients like never before, checking titles on each and every piece of property making sure there were no leans, additional mortgages, etc.
“A lot of folks didn’t know what shape they were in,” he says. “There were a lot of things that lenders and financial institutions did to secure loans. At that time, we even had to get paid up front because the valuations were no longer the same. Property values diminished so much and people’s ability to borrow money was gone.”
But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and smarter. Now, the business is flourishing with its focus sternly on its clientele, and doesn’t show the slightest sign of slowing down.
“We’re dealing with real people selling real property, and paying with real money,” says Dempsey. “Most of our buyers are cash buyers. There’s a lot of cash still out there, it’s just been sitting on the sidelines.”
The most exciting auction the Dempseys have ever led, he says, was when they represented the receivership of Floyd County Schools following the high-profile RICO case that saw 13 people criminally charged following decades-long thefts from the school system. The auction, held in November of 2017, brought in about $1,045,000.
“We registered over 2,500 people and had over 3,000 attendees,” says Dempsey. “We sold guns, equipment, vehicles, yeti coolers, furnishing and real estate.”
The Times, They Are A-Changin’
In order to thrive in the modern world, the Dempseys knew they had to remain current with the times and make necessary adjustments to their business platform.
“When the internet came in the scene in the 1990s, we were one of the first auction companies online with a website,” says Dempsey, adding with a laugh, “Those were the days of dial-up.”
But the World Wide Web took the Dempsey Auction Company to a whole new level.
“Suddenly, we were able to reach people we’d never reached before. We have a platform where we can have online auctions as well as live, onsite auctions. We also have an app in development for online sales.”
By utilizing society’s continuous technological advancements, Dempsey only sees his company growing and spreading even farther across
“At one time we had a number of agents, a lot of auctioneers working under one roof, but we see it growing far outside the office,” he says. “Licensed auctioneers throughout the southeast bring their business to us. They won’t be under the Dempsey roof, but they sell under the Dempsey tent.”
Although the internet is helping traditional businesses like the Dempseys’ climb to unprecedented heights, Dempsey maintains there’s nothing like attending a live, onsite auction.
“An auction is generated off of emotion,” he says. “The competition, the excitement. It’s hard to generate that kind of excitement on a computer. What drives people is the bargain. Nobody comes to an auction expecting to pay retail price. If you can get a good deal, it’s the emotional buy-in. Once somebody starts bidding, they’re emotionally involved; they have an emotional stake in it.”
It’s those pulse-thumping moments, he says, that generally bring in the most cash in this very dramatic business.
“I sold a spinning wheel once for $6,600 in an estate situation with family members bidding against family members,” he says. “I’ve seen friends bid against each other; I’ve seen husbands and wives bid against each other.”
As much fun as it is to attend and bid at an auction, Dempsey says it’s even more fun to run one, especially when it benefits people in your community.
“It’s extremely fun,” says Dempsey. “Not one day is the same, and we meet some of the most interesting people you’ll ever know. Everyone has a story. That’s one thing we pride ourselves on, is nurturing relationships. We don’t want to go into a community and just sell a piece of property. We maintain relationships with the communities we get to know.”
That sentiment is what keeps the Dempsey Auction Company going strong after all this time, and will see it far into the future. After all, in the words of Sproull Dempsey Sr., “Nothing Succeeds Like Success.”