Independent auto auctions talk mobility, safety, hiring & more

CARY, N.C.  - 

There’s no doubt about it. Independent auto auctions certainly face a challenge from the growth of corporate counterparts Cox Automotive and KAR Auction Services, which are the parent companies of the Manheim and ADESA auction chains, respectively.

But folks like Brandon Walston, the general manager of the independent San Antonio Auto Auction, also see the opportunity in their position.

“The challenges are definitely the two big players … how much they’re growing horizontally and vertically in the industry, and the resources they have behind that,” Walston said in an interview at Auto Remarketing’s North Carolina offices.

“On the flip side of that, I think that the opportunities that leaves us as independents are we kind of have the flexibility — as long as we’re open to it — to be able to work with these new things that they’re putting in the market,” he said, referring to the technologies from Cox Automotive and KAR that are also available to independent auctions.

“We’re independent so, for example, we have the advantage of being able to work with DealShield from Cox. To be able to offer that to our customers, as well. We have the advantage of being able to post vehicles on OPENLANE, from KAR,” Walston said.

For local customers of independent auctions like San Antonio, they’re able to utilize the additional services from the larger companies, all while maintaining “our special touch of service,” Walston said.

“So, the combination of that, I think we can really use to our advantage if we’re open to it and flexible, and not stuck in our ways of ‘this is how it’s got to go,’” Walston said.

Hunter Dunn, who is the general manager of Corpus Christi Auto Auction, joined Walston for the Aug. 8 interview ahead of this National Auto Auction Week that touched on challenges and opportunities for independents, mobility and new tech, auction safety, finding talent and more.

Both Texas auctions are part of the W Walker Auction Group and members of the ServNet Auction Group, a network of independent auctions.

Dunn said that given the various parts of the market that a company like Cox Automotive reaches through its services — DealShield, vAuto, NextGear, etc. — “it wouldn’t benefit us to say, ‘you know, we’re not going to use any of this stuff from this particular company.’ Because it makes us stronger, it opens up our buyer base, for sure.”

And utilizing the amenities provided by the corporate parents of the large auction chains gives the independents a shot in the arm, too. It makes them more marketable.

Being a DealShield user, for instance, “it becomes a selling point for us, too, where you’re not just having to go to Manheim to use DealShield, you can use it at independent auctions such as myself and (Walston’s) and other independent auctions across the nation,” Dunn said.

Opportunities in mobility & beyond

There are also opportunities for independent auctions in this new automotive landscape of mobility, ridesharing, subscription services and the like.

It’s a matter of providing a local service resource for some of those players, and reaching out to them to provide such services as vehicle storage or marshaling, Walston said.

“We’re in our market, we know it as good as anyone else (in) that area,” he said.

And, of course, post-use auction sale of vehicles is another areas independents can provide a service to these new players in automotive.

Walston and Dunn also both mentioned how independents can help “streamline” the return process for these fleets of vehicles.

Safety challenges

Regardless of whether an auction is owned by a family, small business or corporation, safety has become a focal point in the business.

And it’s a daily practice.

“Safety is definitely a thing you can’t just preach once and expect it to work. So, it’s a constant thing for us to have safety meetings. Every week. Every sale day,” Walston said.

The hammering home of this message “may seem repetitive on the surface,” Walston said, but as he and Dunn both emphasized, “it can’t be said enough.”

Dunn added: “And we get reminded of this, unfortunately, every so often when you hear something tragic happening at an auction. It brings it back in our memory of how important it is, and it makes us refocus (on)” how those situations can be prevented and how might preventive measures be implemented at their own auction to avoid such tragedies.

“The families of our employees and everyone that we work with expect them to have a safe place to work and expect to see them at home after work every day,” Walston said. “And that’s our responsibility as leaders to do our best and ensure that.”

It is imperative that’s top of mind each day.

“Auctions are dangerous places … you’re dealing with combustible motors, a lot of times you’re dealing with older cars that maybe haven’t passed all the safety checks. It’s a dangerous place. And you try to minimize (the danger),” Dunn said.

Walston said it’s important to ensure that is realized by customers, employees and the like.

There is no room for complacency, Dunn said, even things like dealers walking in and out of lanes or using their phones. Given how prevalent phones are at auctions — scanning VINs, taking pictures, etc. — that can be a “distraction.”

Continuing to find talent

Walston and Dunn also touched on the hiring process in the auction business.

And a big part of that is just spreading the word about the industry itself.

As Walston said, “In general, not enough people know about the auction industry” — and before he started at San Antonio Auto Auction, he counted himself in that bunch

In terms of bringing in employees, Walston said he’s found success with a blend of folks with auto industry experience and fresh talent that can bring new ideas.

In addition to experience, “an open mind to be trainable,” is also important, Dunn said, given how much often the industry changes — particularly the technological shifts in recent years

And often, referrals have made for some of the best hires, Dunn said.

Car and auction industry experience isn’t necessarily the top priority — and sometimes when they don’t have background in the business, an employee comes in with more of a clean slate.

One thing Walston stresses when hiring is that the auction industry is a “relationship business.”  

The nature of the wholesale car industry, an auction will see customers every week. That’s quite a departure from a general retail sales job, for instance.

“You’re building relationships with these guys,” Walston said. “You’re not selling them something one time and they’re out the door; you’re in it for the long haul with them.”

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