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Behind The Velvet Curtain

What exactly does it take to sell a $3 million car? Find out with a behind-the-scenes look at Barrett-Jackson

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published: AZ, February, 2007

 

Download PDF of printed version
 

Every year at this time, after the last gavel has fallen at the Barrett-Jackson auctions and the tents, the celebrities and the cars have been rolled up until same-time-next-year, Steve Davis hears the very same thing from attendees.

“’So, now you get to go on vacation, right?’” says Davis, who was recently named president of the collector car auction company.

“In fact, when the event’s over, the worst work’s just starting for us,” he says. “Because that’s when

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you have to process 1,200 titles and paperwork, and then you’re dealing with people who have issues about what’s happening after the auction.”

Not that the automobile auction powerhouse doesn’t try to make things go smoothly after the gala nine-day event, Davis says. It’s just the come-down from all the excitement, like those after-Christmas blues.

“Because the thrill is gone,” he says. “The bloom is off the rose. And now they just want somebody to gripe to about what happened. And that would be me.”

We’ve all seen what the Barrett-Jackson event looks like on the news shows and the Speed Channel, when celebrities like Don Johnson and Emilio Estevez and Jodie Foster roll up with their entourages and bid on that $4 million Carroll Shelby original.

Now imagine what happens the following week, when said celebrity gets impatient on the delivery of his $4 million car and sends his entourage in to personally clear your desk.

“I’ve had guys walk into my office,” Davis says, “and I reach out to shake their hand and they’ll say, ‘[expletive] you, I’m not your friend.’ Or clear your desk off right in front of you.”

At this time of year, every one of Barrett-Jackson’s 35 full-time employees dust the glitter off their sports coats and get back to the unglamorous daily work of operating the best-known automotive auction business in the world.

There’s millions of dollars in sales to process – Barrett-Jackson retains 8% of what the car sells for on the seller’s end and another 10% on the buyer’s – thousands of precious autos to transport, and as many demanding personalities to deal with.

“Lots of things come into play when you’re dealing with big egos,” Davis says. “People’s expectations grow with their net worth.”

ALL IN THE PLANNING

And there’s no shortage of work. As soon as the dust settles in WestWorld, Barrett-Jackson employees are planning the company’s spring auction in Palm Beach, Florida and, as soon as that’s over, they’re gearing up for the next event in Scottsdale. Year-long work involves finding the cars (most sellers now approach them), verifying the stories (Davis once bought a car he thought belonged to John Belushi – only to discover it wasn’t that John Belushi), and coordinating the work of the hundreds of subcontractors needed to turn WestWorld into a mini-city each January.

“You have to be wired a certain way,” Davis says of the “pressure-cooker” environment everyone around the office works in.

Fortunately for Davis, the high-powered lifestyle of an auto wheeler-dealer appears hard-wired in his brain. A life-long car nut who came to the Scottsdale company by first becoming its biggest outside auto consigner, Davis served as V.P. in charge of appraisals and car values before being promoted to president by CEO Craig Jackson in December. He still runs the consignment operations and auction sales, in addition to management duties.

That means Davis gets saddled with the hot-seat job of not only figuring out which cars get into the prestigious annual event, but also deciding which cars get to be the Saturday night superstars and which get relegated to be auctioned on discounted admission days. Sometimes he gets the unenviable task of telling billionaire sellers their ride’s not as fly as they think.

“I feel like Craig’s empowered me to be the doorman at the most exclusive nightclub in the world,” Davis explains. “And you can’t see the end of the line, and you can’t fit everyone in, and you also know the ones who are really, really special aren’t going to show up until we’re full.”

It’s in the programming of the auction – deciding where all those Cobras and Zephyrs and Duesenbergs and their owners get seated, if you will – that Davis really shines.

“When you see those 1,200 cars flow past the auction block, every element of that is planned,” he says. “It’s like casting a great movie. You’ve got the leading roles, you’ve got a supporting cast. You have to have a beginning that grabs your attention, a plot that’s interesting enough to make you want to stick with it, and then that killer ending, that ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ moment. We plan every level of this.”

What’s harder to plan, sometimes, are the personal fracases that result when one seller’s car gets the “prime-time” spot over another’s, or two bitter rivals wind up sharing the stage at the same time.

“What we have to remember is that every one of those block numbers represents a person,” Davis says. “And there’s a very emotional journey most people go through getting to that check they receive for their car.”

JACK OF ALL TRADES

It’s roughly two months before the January, 2007 auction, and Barrett-Jackson CEO Craig Jackson is in his office in the company’s dealership-like headquarters on Scottsdale Road, getting in some last-minute work before catching a flight to Palm Springs.

Tonight, he’ll be attending the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards, where Jackson, already the 2006 winner of the regional award in business services – an award that followed his being named one of Motor Trend’s 50 most influential people in the auto business – will be in line for the national honors. 

But right now, Jackson’s busy figuring out where to put the electrical junction box on the grounds of WestWorld in north Scottsdale to make best use of the all the amps of extra power the site is being supplied this year.

With a trio of electrical and IT engineers looming over a giant blueprint of the auction site’s 350,000 square feet of tents and other temporary structures already going up around the WestWorld grounds, Jackson listens as his team briefs him on all the geeky details.

“There’s 400 amps of new power here, 400 amps of new power there,” says one engineer before the second overlaps, “1,600 amps short power here, 1,200 amps short power there – “

“1,600 amps – at 480?” Jackson asks, suddenly enthused. “Hoo!”

While many CEO’s claim to wear a lot of hats during their day, the multi-tasking Jackson is practically a human Transformer around his building. Darting up and down the stairs in the airplane-hanger sized building that his staff is already outgrowing (new digs are planned for late 2007), Jackson drops in on IT, accounting, marketing and sales, each time pausing to talk shop in the native language of that department. With the IT guys, he talks server racks and conduits. With the workers unpacking t-shirts in sponsorship operations, he talks color schemes.

“There isn’t a department here I can’t step into and fill, if somebody calls in sick,” he says, finally stepping back into his own office, located right in the center of the hurricane. “I ran every single department in this company growing up. Graphics, IT, logistics, car consignments, car restorations. I grew up in the bowels of the business.”

FAMILY BUSINESS

Jackson credits his jack-of-all-trades skills to a spendthrift dad, company co-founder Russ Jackson, who died in 1993. While working with partner Tom Barrett (who passed away in 2004) to build Barrett-Jackson into one of the world's most eagerly anticipated and prestigious annual car expositions, the senior Jackson delegated much of the grunt work to sons Brian and Craig.

“When I was growing up, I used to be mad at my dad, because I felt he could afford to hire other people to do this stuff,” Jackson says. “He’d just always say, ‘You’ll thank me later.’”

After brother Brian’s untimely death in 1995, Craig officially took over the reins, and applied some of his all-around know-how to streamline much of the operations, especially the techy-stuff. One of his first innovations was to enable live Internet bidding.

Today, Jackson still regularly pokes his nose in on every department – a habit he insists he’s been trying to break. His recent appointment of Davis as president follows the filling of two other chief positions created to ease up on Jackson’s work load.

“The hard part’s been going from being so hands-on to learning to delegate,” he says. “And also learning when I need to step back in – politely. But some of these guys on my staff, they’ve been with me so long, they know what I want. They know when to bring a problem to me, after they’ve sort of answered all the questions they know I’m going to ask.”

Still, that doesn’t keep Jackson from postponing a lunch date with Jay Leno or Charlie Sheen to go out to WestWorld and get his shoes dirty staking out the tent posts.

“I literally was the guy who was out there physically putting up tents,” he says, “and I still like to be involved with that part.

“There’s a lot of excitement that we build, and there’s a process to building it,” Jackson explains. “It takes a convergence of so many things coming together at exactly the same time to create that mo-jo out there.”

THE MAJOR PLAYERS

Spanky Assiter and his wife Amy are probably the two most recognizable people associated with the Barrett-Jackson auctions. As the lead auctioneer and star bidder assistant, respectively, of the annual event, the Assiters have benefited the most from the Speed Channel’s chumminess with the company. This year, the cable network dedicated a record 40 nonstop hours of live coverage to the event, and Spanky and Amy, as always, dominated the prime-time slots.

But you won’t find the couple anywhere near the company’s Scottsdale offices, except come auction time. Like the roughly 800 professionals Jackson calls on each year to help operate the mammoth exhibition, the Assiters function as outside contractors – and the car auction isn’t even their biggest annual gig.

“I do about ten days a year with Barrett-Jackson, but I do 30 days a year with the Keeneland Thoroughbred Racing Association,” says Spanky, who lives with his pin-up gal wife in the small town of Canyon, Texas. For the Assiters, horses still rule over cars. “Last year, the highest-price auto sold for $4 million,” Spanky says. “But we sold a horse this year for $11.2 million.”

Still, Assiter, who supervises eight auctioneers, two announcers and eight clerks at the Barrett-Jackson expositions – in addition to the 35-member team of bidder assistants his wife belongs to – says the Scottsdale auction has evolved into the premier event for his profession.

“Everybody straight out of auction school wants to go to work for Barrett-Jackson,” he says. “But that’s like putting a high school football player in the Super Bowl. This is the big leagues.”

Head of security Casey McDonald, whose Scottsdale-based company also polices the Tempe Town Lake fireworks display each Fourth of July and the Thunderbird Balloon Classic, says the auction’s winning track record helps him corral the best people in his field, too.

For him, the hardest part of assembling close to 170 private security guards, 100 parking and traffic directors and 20 shuttle bus drivers to manage what amounts to a small city (last year’s event drew over 225,000 people) is turning down all the less-qualified applicants.

“From mid-November until the auction, I get about 5 or 6 calls a day from people who want to work the event in any capacity,” McDonald says. “And it’s not always about the money. They just want to be a part of what’s going on.”

For a lot of working folk, parking traffic at the Barrett-Jackson auctions is as close as they may ever get to the rarified world of high-rollers in the V.I.P. tents.

But it still beats watching it on TV, where the bulk of Barrett-Jackson’s newest fans tune in. What was once a lifestyle only the elite could buy into, using collectible cars as admission, is now gaining a NASCAR-like audience through TV and merchandise sales, which has become a big part of Barrett-Jackson’s business.

“Is the auction for the really rich guys? Absolutely,” says Steve Davis. “But you know what? Who’s watching it on television, who’s buying our die-cast models, who’s gonna buy our DVDs and t-shirts? It’s that regular guy.”

Davis’ goals for Barrett-Jackson include finding a place for the common man along with the billionaires and superstars at the annual gala.

“I envision it becoming like a Vegas casino,” he says. “Where you can go in the high stakes room and you can play $100 slots, or go into another part and play the nickel slots.

“Do you get more amenities in the $100 slots room? Sure,” Davis adds. “But you both get to be part of the experience. And that’s what Barrett-Jackson has become. This amazing experience that everyone wants to be a part of.”

-end-

 

Photos by Emily Piraino
 

Steve DavisSteve Davis, president: " I’ve had guys walk into my office, and I reach out to shake their hand and they’ll say, ‘[expletive] you, I’m not your friend.’"

Craig JacksonCEO Craig Jackson: "The hard part’s been going from being so hands-on to learning to delegate."

People Behind the Scenes

Spanky AssiterSpanky Assiter, Head Auctioneer

A team of eight auctioneers take turns at the Barrett-Jackson auctions, but head auctioneer Spanky Assiter always gets the “prime-time” spot – Saturday evenings – when the “stars” of the aution roll past the stage.

“On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, that’s when we usually try out new people,” says the Texas subcontractor, who says he works about 222 days a year on various auctions – 10 of those spent with Barrett-Jackson. “But I usually get the Saturday night slot, when Barrett-Jackson kinda escalates in price range.”

Assiter says there’s an art to pacing the auctions that many people miss. “You got a $2 million ’Cuda and a $4 million bus, and you don’t wanna put a $20,000 ’Vette in between those two,” he says. “But then the guys at home watching the Speed Channel want to see a car they could afford to buy, so you’ve got to make time for those, too.”

Amy AssiterAmy Assiter, Bidder Assistant

A former real estate seller who came onboard with Barrett-Jackson in 2003 as the event’s instant-star bidder assistant, Assiter says it’s taken those four years to learn how to read the subtle body language of people bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars on automobiles.

“Sometimes their signals are obvious, and sometimes it’s just the wink of an eye,” she says. “So it’s up to us to know how to read those signs and to know what they’re thinking and what we need to do as bidder’s assistants. Whether we need to get more into their personal territory or stand back and not invade their little bubble.”

Often, the bidders get even more rigid and non-communicative as the prices escalate. “There’s one guy I have every auction, and he remains as calm at $100,000 as he does at a million. Most of these guys know the more emotion they show, the more the price escalates. That just makes it trickier for us to read them.”

Judy YatesJudi Yates, Event/Gala planner

Can’t tell a ’60 Impala from a ’58 Fairlane? That’s okay. Today’s Barrett-Jackson auctions offer dozens of diversions for the non-car crazies, and event planner Judi Yates works with the auto-widow in mind.

“This year, we even [had] botox,” Yates says. “Come to Barrett-Jackson and have your botox done.”

Organizing fashion galas, makeup events and jewelry exhibitions among the tents at Barrett-Jackson can present its own unique challenges – chiefly, how to get so many luxury-oriented vendors to work within the stucture of what boss Craig Jackson calls “a circus.”

“You’re building a gorgeous event in a tent,” Yates says, “and you have a lot of elements with the celebrities. Where do you build a green room, you know? And you have to tell vendors take the diamonds home at night. One thing that helps is laughter. You have to have a sense of humor about what we’re doing here.”

Casey McDonaldCasey McDonald, Head of Security

Casey McDonald says he’s never seen a fight break out at the Barrett-Jackson auctions, but admits the tension can often run high – especially when two high-rollers are locked in a battle over a $3 million car.

“Security’s always tight around the auction office and the banking areas during the event,” he says. “But it’s not like doing a rock concert. You’re dealing with a more upscale class of people.”

Most of the strong-arms McDonald hires for the auctions are veterans of other huge events, like Super Bowls or political conventions. But he says the dual challenges of guarding people and multi-million-dollar autos makes the B-J auctions unique.

“Everyone that I’ve brought in, the first time they do it, they say it’s the hardest job they’ve ever done,” says McDonald. “But then they’re always back the next year.”

 

CelebsCelebrity Sightings

At the 2006 Barrett-Jackson auction, celebrity sightings included everyone from rockers Sammy Hagar, Bob Seger and ex-Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan to sports heroes Reggie Jackson and Randy Johnson. Rapper/actor DMX was seen milling around the tents, as were auto legends Carroll Shelby, Chip Foose and Henry Ford’s grandson Edsel Ford II.

President Steve Davis totes the company line that anybody shelling out the admission price has the chance to rub elbows with the rich and famous.

“You can buy a ticket and actually be a player on the field,” says Davis, whose duties also include finding lodging for the V.I.P.s and recommending places for them to shop. “Reggie Jackson on one side, Parnelli Jones on the other. David Spade, Don Johnson, Pamela Anderson. They’re all there – and you’re one of them!”

In reality, the big stars usually end up pretty well sequestered, and even the top bidder assistants, like Amy Assiter, seldom get up close and personal with them.

“A lot of celebrities like to bid directly to the auctioneer,” she says. “And a lot of the biggest celebrities won’t even make a personal appearance. Most of them bid from the phone.”

Still, there’s always the chance a superstar will emerge from the V.I.P. tent and mingle with the masses – and that’s the stroke of lightning many attendees bank on each year.

“It’s the diversity of humanity – the celebrity and the common man – that makes the event so surreal,” Davis says. “The worlds collide, and it creates this magical thing.”