AR: Tell us a little about your early days here in Columbus. This is your home, isn’t it?
Jacobs: Yes, I am a native, born and raised here. There was a brief time when we lived in different spots around the country, but this has been home for us primarily.
AR: Why did you move around the country? Obviously your Dad (William Jacobs) was not in the auction business during that time.
Jacobs: That is right; he wasn’t in the auction industry. He actually started out doing a lot of different things—he was a bootlegger for a while (laughter) … which is rather a cute story. And, he was a gambler for a while, but when tougher laws came along he decided that he didn’t want to continue being either a bootlegger or a gambler. He always said that he didn’t want to do anything that put his family at risk.
AR: Bootlegger as a profession. Now, that is interesting. Was that during Prohibition?
Jacobs: Yes, it was. There are some cute stories about that time in his life that he used to tell. He told us that he would make a bathtub full of Scotch and then they would bottle it in different bottles. Some bottles might say Johnny Walker while others would have a different brand name. But they all could come out of the same bathtub.
He would take his different bottles of Scotch around and offer them for sale to different people. Sometimes, someone would say one bottle was terrible, but the other one was great, and they would buy that one. But, they all came out of the same tub! (laughter)
AR: Your Dad had to be very creative when it came to finding different jobs.
Jacobs: He was. He was always looking for an opportunity, something more than the traditional 8-5 job. One day, some of his partners joined with him to start a trailer court here in Columbus down on East Main Street. It was one of the most prominent and nicest trailer courts at the time.
AR: What year was this?
Jacobs: Oh, this was either in the late ‘40s or the early ‘50s, I’m not sure. Actually, it is interesting that our family’s ownership in that trailer court continued until about three or four years ago when I sold it out to the other partners.
AR: How did your Dad get into auctions?
Jacobs: He had a friend up in the Cleveland (OH) area who told him one day, “You need to get into the auto auction business. It is great. All you have to do is sit back and count the money as it rolls in!” (laughter)
Well, he counted the money as it rolled…but it was rolling out the front door for many years! In fact, he used to joke that he would have to commit suicide so we could take the insurance money to pay all the debts we had accumulated.
AR: Did he have an interest in automobiles, or was this just another business interest he saw?
Jacobs: Well, he always loved cars, and during the year that we lived in Florida, he had a friend who lived up here who was in the car import business. He sold a lot of imported cars, and he would buy a lot of the imports in Florida. Dad would go look at them for him, buy them, and get them shipped to Columbus for him. That is how he met Jack Russell, the man who told him that if he started an auto auction all he had to do was sit back and count his money as it rolled in.
AR: You said your dad did different things; a bootlegger and a gambler. How do we put this? Did he have a regular job? A day job?
Jacobs: Not really, he was always a type of entrepreneur…doing different things on his own. He moved out West, for example, simply because he thought the climate would be better for his arthritis.
The other thing that was kinda neat about my dad was that he was quite a golfer. He was about a two handicap until his hands got so arthritic that he couldn’t hold a golf club. As a result of his paying golf, I spent a lot of time on a golf course as a child. That was a long time ago, before I learned to play. It was like Mom said (to my Dad), “If you’re going to play golf again, take the kid!” (laughter) So I learned a lot of golf etiquette before I ever held a golf club in my hand and learned to play. It was a lot of fun. And, I got to spend a lot of quality time with my Dad that way.
AR: Obviously, the two of you were very close.
Jacobs: We were (pause) and I still miss him. He has been gone 24 years; but it seems like yesterday. I think about him all the time, and especially here (at the auction) of course.
Even with what he started and what he accomplished, he would be absolutely amazed at what has happened. When we bought these 83 acres, he thought about selling some of it off or building a motel on it.
AR: Was the auction already here, or did he start it from scratch?
Jacobs: We probably need to go back to when and where we started. We started the auction at the Fairgrounds, the Ohio State Fairgrounds. We were there from 1959 until 1977. That is how we got our name, Columbus Fair Auto Auction, because we first were at the fairgrounds.
AR: Didn’t they use the Fairgrounds during Fair time?
Jacobs: Absolutely, and we would have to move the auction during the weeks of the Fair. We would go to different places, like going to the racetrack and other places. But we kept the auction going every week.
After we bought this property, we moved the auction here during the Fair, but at first we started out doing the auction in a large tent. Before that, we actually operated the auction out of the small airport nearby where we held the sale in a hanger. So, we were all over the place during the Fair time.
The Fairgrounds got to be more and more of problem because of the theft there and the way the neighborhoods around the area began to decline. For example, if we put the cars out on the line and had them keyed, kids would come in and steal them. So, we probably moved out just at the right time.
We moved down here in 1977, and it has been gangbusters ever since.
AR: We want to talk about how the auction has grown, but before we move into that, let’s talk a little about your early life. Certainly it is a colorful story. Do you have any siblings?
Jacobs: I had a half brother, but he was 16 years older than me. So we didn’t really grow up together. He lied about his age after Pearl Harbor, joined the Navy and served in the Second World War. I didn’t really get to know him because he made a career of the Service. After he retired, however, he came back here and went to work for the auction. That was when I finally got to know my brother.
One cute story about those early days. I used to get out of school early on Wednesdays (sale day) so I could answer the telephone. One Thursday morning I was called to the principal’s office and was asked why I skipped school the day before. I told Mr. Murphy that if he would look, he had written me a work release for Wednesday afternoons to work in the auction. It was funny when he realized what he had written the release himself..
AR: What do you remember about working at your Dad’s auction?
Jacobs: Probably one thing I remember being real neat was that I got to drive a lot of cars. …
AR: Before you were of legal age?
Jacobs: Of course! Matter of fact, I had my first small accident before I ever had a driver’s license. We lived on a circle and I was driving a ’57 Chevy and I caught it a little close to a sapling as I was making a turn. I bent the fender up a little, but I was going so slow I didn’t do a lot of damage.
AR: What did you do for fun? Surely you didn’t work at the auction all the time?
Jacobs: (laughter) I did a few other things. (Pause) I think shopping has always been one of my passions! (laughter) I would get an allowance and I would head off to spend it as fast as I could. I would take the bus downtown and go shopping. That was always a big thing.
Another thing I really enjoyed doing was rushing home from school and turning on American Bandstand. That was always one of my favorite things to do. I played some sports, and I really loved to bowl. I used to bowl a lot and became a halfway decent bowler. Of course, that is something that people don’t do as much today as they used to, and I haven’t bowled in years.
I also loved to dance…that was always fun. We used to always go to the dances, then to the pools in the summertime. We used to also go to the lake, and I loved to boat.
We used to go out to Buckeye Lake, and Dad had some friends who had boats. We would often go for boat rides on the lake. Maybe that is where I developed my love of boats, or maybe I was just born with it. I don’t know.
AR: Describe, if you will, your household finances when you were young. With your Dad doing so many different and unique things, did you have money sometimes and not have money sometimes?
Jacobs: The answer to that is yes! (laughter)
We had some slim times, especially after he started the auction. As I said, we counted the money rolling out of the business instead of counting the money rolling in. But, he had the trailer court as a steady income, and he was fortunate enough to have friends who would loan him money when he needed it to keep the auction going. Eventually, it (the auction) turned the corner and started making money; and that was a good thing.
AR: What kind of student were you?
Jacobs: I was a pretty good student, mostly always on the honor roll. It is kinda cute…I like to explain the Internet this way too…I always got solid A’s in plain geometry, but in solid geometry I was lucky to pass. That is the way I think of the Internet…I understand the general workings of it, but when you get into the deeper layers it is like solid geometry to me…it’s Greek.
AR: Was math your strong suit?
Jacobs: I love math and I love history. I actually wanted to be an archaeologist, an Egyptian archaeologist in particular. I am fascinated by that.
AR: Have you been to Egypt?
Jacobs: No, I have the wrong last name and probably the wrong coloring for the world we live in today. But I would love to do that sometime. I have been to several of the ruins in Mexico, and I found them to be just amazing.
AR: What triggered that particular interest? It is certainly different than the car business.
Jacobs: Probably my love of history. I am just fascinated with it and I also love to read. That is my other thing I love to do. I enjoy reading, some non-fiction but a lot of fiction. A lot of times instead of watching TV I will read a book. That is my enjoyment.
AR: We’ve talked a lot about your Dad, but tell us a little about your Mom.
Jacobs: Mom was a stay-at-home Mom, although she did work at the auction on Wednesdays…we all did.
That reminds me of another cute story. One time one of the gals asked her why she had a much fancier stool at the counter than the other girls did. She replied, “Well, I sleep with the boss!” (laughter)
Mom had a great sense of humor. She was born in Ireland and she came to this country when she was a baby. So when we are all out on Saint Patricks’ Day and someone says, “Oh, I am more Irish than anyone in the place because my great-great-grandfather was born in Ireland,” I just look at them and smile. Mom was a naturalized citizen of the United States, so I am probably more Irish than most people.
Mom loved to dance and party and have fun. And, she loved the auction conventions. That was one of her favorite things.
AR: When your Dad started the auction, it was a much different world than it is today. Did he play a major role in helping to reshape the industry?
Jacobs: Yes and no. He never held an office (in the association), but I think our first convention was in 1964 or ’65, and he never missed one after that while he was alive. The only one we missed was when my Mom was sick.
AR: Had you planned on making the auction industry a career? Did you plan on being here, or did you just end up here?
Jacobs: Probably a little bit of both. I really liked it, and it was fun, and I really loved cars. And the people are so great. We get a lot of really nice people coming through the doors; dealers, people from the rental companies and leasing companies; those from the factories. In general, I think it is a really good group of people who get a bad rep. And, I don’t think they deserve it!
AR: Why do you think the auction industry has gotten a bad reputation over the years?
Jacobs: I think at one time it might have been a pretty shady business with some shady people in it. But, I think a lot of that has changed…probably somewhat because of legislation…but a lot of it has been because people have become more educated about selling and buying cars. That has resulted in changing the overall industry for the better.
AR: When you finished high school, did you go to college?
Jacobs: I went to Ohio State for a while, and it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. Later, I went to business school for a while at the same time I was working at our accountant’s office.
AR: Did you ever wonder where you would end up working as a career?
Jacobs: No. And, when Dad died, I wanted to step up and continuing running the auction. Our accountant suggested at the time that I should sell. I said I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to run it and I knew I could. I told him that is what I was going to do, and it has worked out. He told me later that I was right and he was wrong. He said that he had doubts that I could do it (run the auction), but that I had proven him wrong.
I told him then that I knew I could run the auction, but I also knew I couldn’t do it alone. I had to have the help of the people who were already here. But that is still true today…you never do anything by yourself.
AR: So, you never seriously considered another career?
Jacobs: I think we all have thoughts in our youth of doing something else. There was a period in my life when I wanted to do just about anything except work in the auction. I even considered being a veterinarian. For example, I like animals and I remember one time thinking about being a veterinarian. But I never ever seriously considered it. Even today, I like horses…but only to look at. I have some “scenic horses” near my house, and by that I mean I have some horses I can look at but I don’t have to feed and take care of. But they are interesting to look at! (laughter)
Today, I limit my love of animals to my dog and two cats.
AR: The business was certainly a family-run operation. Did you find that difficult?
Jacobs: I think that is true in any family business; parents expect more from their children than they do with just anybody who walks through the front door. My parents, and especially my Dad, were no different. We would some arguments along those lines from time to time, but I think one of the best things Dad ever did for me was to force me to learn the business from the ground up. Of course, I didn’t think so at the time.
Employees look at things differently. I am not saying they are not committed—they are and we have the best employees in the world here at Columbus Fair—but when you are in a family business the business comes first before anything else. You have to make sure the sale goes on, regardless of anything else.
AR: Columbus Fair was one of the first auctions to obtain a factory sale. Tell us about that.
Jacobs: Our first factory sale was with Chrysler, and then later we got a Ford sale. There is another cute story about the Ford sale, actually about when we lost the sale.
Back then, Ford had been directly involved in setting up the GE Auto Auctions and were consequently moving all of their sales to those auctions. We knew it made sense and it was only a matter of time before we would lose the sale. One day, Jim Terry drove down from Detroit to talk with us and he was so sad to tell us that we were losing the Ford sale. He was more upset than we were; he just hated telling us.
When he got back to Detroit, he sent us two dozen roses. With all of the Ford people we were like family, but it was a business decision that had to be made.
Later, after the Ford sale, we picked up the GM sale, and we started all over again working with Mike McHale and his crew. It has been a great learning experience, and we have built relationships that stay with you a lifetime.
AR: You have never been afraid of stepping out and setting the pace, have you?
Jacobs: I think that if something is right, you have to do it. I remember back in the mid-‘80s the clockers (those who roll back odometers) were rampant. There was no credibility that the car you bought at the auction would have correct mileage on it.
Mike Hockett and Chet Goins had already taken a stand on odometer tampering, and we decided to follow suit. We told all the dealers that they had 30 days to clean up their act, but after that we would make them take back any car that had an odometer rolled back. There was some grumbling from dealers for a while, and business did fall for a short period of time, but then dealers realized that they could buy a car with confidence. We begin to grow again after that.
AR: You have always been interested in legislation influencing the industry. What is the biggest issue today?
Jacobs: Probably title branding. We still don’t have uniformity across the states, and that hurts in the day-to-day operations of businesses. That, plus I think we also need to have better regulation of insurance companies, and the branding of titles.
Too often you will hear of an insurance company making a blanket settlement with a dealer, but not taking title to the cars. That is of special concern these days with all of the cars damaged from the hurricanes. This loophole allows some cars that should have been totaled from the hurricanes to re-enter the used car market. The lack of stringent regulation of the insurance industry, along with the lack of uniform titles, allows badly damaged cars to come back, and that is not good for anyone.
AR: Columbus Fair has also been one of the leaders of the ServNet Auction Group. Tell us a little of how you got started with that group.
Jacobs: Our first conversations were in a NAAA meeting in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The national auction chains were growing rapidly, and many of us as independents didn’t want to sell out, but we didn’t want to be left out either. We saw an opportunity for us to band together for sales and marketing purposes, a type of advertising cooperative.
ServNet has just taken off from that original concept. There is still a need for us to jointly market ourselves, but we also get other benefits as well. We all bring a lot of good ideas to the table and the relationships formed within ServNet are very, very strong. We help each other. I think I get more out of talking with Larry Tribble (another ServNet member) for a couple of hours than I did going to Ohio State for a semester!
AR: You mentioned the auto chains buying other auctions. Have you ever thought about selling?
Jacobs: Oh, I guess you can say I at least thought about it, but never seriously. Back in the early days, Mike Richardson (an executive with Anglo American Auto Auction, which later became ADT Auto Auction and later became a part of Manheim) came to see me, and later the people from GE (Auto Auction). But this has never been just a business for me; it more like a family in a business. My first priority was always the employees, making sure they would be taken care of, and I never was convinced that they would be better off with me selling.
And, besides, they all wanted to pay you back with your own money! They would want to pay you a little up front, and then pay you back from future earnings of the auction. That never made any financial sense to me: Paying me with money I would have earned anyway! And in the end, I would not have owned the auction.
Here’s another funny story. When Jim (Hallett, former president of ADESA Auctions and currently president of Columbus Fair) was with ADESA, he was always trying to get me to sell the auction to him. I got tired of telling him no, so when I would see him coming and I would turn and go the other way. Now he works with us and we are glad to have him here.
AR: What has been your secret in attracting good people to come work at the auction and keeping them here?
Jacobs: I think you have to not only recruit good people, you have to empower them to act when you get them. If they are afraid to act without checking with you, then you’ll always feel like you are doing everything.
We have great people here at the auction, and they know how to do their jobs. I don’t have to walk behind them. And, because I trust them and respect them, they continue to do a great job.
If you have good people, you want to help them. Take Bob and Tammy (Sullivan) for instance. They are good people, and they know the auction business. We looked for ways to help out and ended up starting Chattanooga (Auto Auction) together. It has been challenging, but they are making it work. That is what I mean by getting good people and then empowering them to accomplish new things.
AR: Is retirement a part of your immediate future?
Jacobs: Oh, no. I’m having too much fun. And having the great people around me like we just discussed allows me to have fun in other areas as well.
AR: Such as?
Jacobs: I guess my other love besides auctions is deep sea fishing! I have always loved boats and I think I bought my first blue water boat (ocean-going) in about 1985. And I have loved it ever since.
I didn’t do any fishing at first, but then one time I was in the Bahamas with Captain Rocky Hardison who invited me to fish in a for-fun tournament. I was the only one to catch a blue marlin…and I was hooked. I now have a boat that I named “Reel Obsession” and I go out on it whenever I can.
One time, I actually caught the largest fish in the tournament, but I didn’t win. It was a 730-pound blue marlin, the third-largest in the history of the tournament, but it had a gash in its tail. Because we couldn’t explain how the gash got there, the fish was disqualified.
AR: How did that make you feel?
Jacobs: It didn’t make me happy, but rules are rules and you have to abide by them. But it also motivated me to help the sport adopt a rule of “tag and release.” These are beautiful fish and they should not be killed. In the past, they said the meat was used, but I have my doubts. With a tag and release program, that is not a problem, and I am proud to be a part of that ongoing effort.
AR: You have quite a career: businesswoman, one of the top sports anglers in the world, and entrepreneur. But, do you still have fun coming to work every day?
Jacobs: Absolutely. The auction has been my life for as long as I can remember. It has provided me with income, it has enabled me to do things I never dreamed possible, it has built great friendships for me. Who could ask for anything more?
Alexis Jacobs is chairperson of Columbus Fair Auto Auction Inc.