From investment banking to running the family business

Following Dartmouth, I was an investment banker with Goldman Sachs in NYC. After getting my MBA, I worked with Alix Partners in various interim management roles in the turnaround and restructuring group. Maybe a normal trajectory post-Dartmouth, so then the pivot. I decided to come back and take over the family business after my grandfather passed away. I was entering a unique industry – wholesale auctions of used cars – and was able to apply all of my financial and operational experience. I also started a floorplan financing company to finance the inventory of our dealer customers.

In some ways, the auction business is like being in the events business. We prepare all week for about four hours on one single day. All week long we are receiving cars but the action happens and the money is made Wednesday at 9:30 AM. We run 800 cars through six simultaneous lanes in just four hours with in-person and simulcast bidding.

During the week, we do photos and condition reports of the cars so bidders can research ahead of the sale. Online presence has increased during COVID but we are still a primarily in-person business.

This is a business-to-business company. Most people don’t give much thought of how a car on a dealer lot gets there. We are one of about 150 independent auctions in the country (along with two very large auction chains). Many of these are family-owned businesses and it has been fun to apply my learnings from Goldman and Alix to this business. Some of our customers have been customers for over 40 years.

So here’s what Wednesday looks like:

  • 5:00 AM I wake up because I have a one hour drive from Chicago to the auction. I check all of the bank accounts, preview the sale and review the previous day’s transactions from my affiliated finance company.
  • 8:30 AM We hold our auctioneers meeting to discuss the consignors that are running and any promotions we have that day. This is also a good time to get a sense of the market from the other sales the auctioneers have sold at since our last sale.
  • 9:00 AM We kick off a video sale of inoperable cars.
  • 9:30-10 AM We start off the other 5 lanes. At this point I’m out on the auction floor talking to dealers and shaking hands and helping with real-time issues with the internet, lane action etc. My role during the sale is less operational and more customer relations.
  • 1:30 PM After the sale, I work with our team at the floorplan company to make sure we get purchases “floored” and payments get collected.
  • Afternoon. We go from 400 people in the building to about 30 employees and a few customers. We continue to work deals from the sale and any arbitrations that come up.  I’ll usually also use this time to schedule meetings with outside vendors since I’m in town.
  • 4 PM. I leave the auction but continue monitor the sale and operations remotely. Sometimes I will stop and visit dealers to check in. I’ll also handle any transactions we financed at other auctions around the country during the day.

When I was an undergrad at Dartmouth, did I think I’d be running an auto auction? No, but Dartmouth gives you the initial skill set to pivot and do anything. I brought a strong finance background, but in this business you have to be able to read people from every walk of life, cultural background, etc. The crowd at our sales looks like the United Nations. They are all small business owners and this is their livelihood. You have to manage even when things are emotional.

Along the way I married my wife Carolyn ’00, and both of us went to Kellogg at Northwestern for our MBAs (also one year apart, but flipped). We have two kids and love the Chicago area.

For advice – use the training you get. Don’t be afraid to get off the traditional track. It was a leap of faith to leave the known, high-profile track. But those huge operations teach you some important skills. You can always go back to the corporate or consulting track if things don’t work out. And you might find the atypical track pretty engaging and exciting.