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Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Right Bid

For any small business, $34 million dollars in sales and being rated a top company in one of your industry’s most prominent national publications would make for a year to remember. For Kurtz Auction and Realty, it was a validation 67 years and three generations in the making.

In 1945, 30-year-old George Kurtz held his first livestock auction. The 1937 University of Kentucky and Reppert School of Auctioneering (Decatur, Ind.) graduate was enraptured by the fast-paced excitement of the auctioneering world. He quickly became one of the top purebred livestock auctioneers in the country, conducting auctions in 18 different states, and on several occasions, auctioning for the Kentucky State Fair.

George’s success in the business led him to launch his own company, Kurtz Auction, which today serves the Tri-State with its three locations in Morganfield, Ky., Owensboro, Ky., and Evansville. The patriarch passed away in December 2010, but the Kurtz name continues within the family company.

Uninterested in the auction business, George’s eldest son, Bill Kurtz, attended Kentucky Wesleyan College to study ministry. The then 23-year-old Methodist preacher would continue this course until a special piece of real estate came along that changed his mind about the family business. “My father was not interested in the world of cattle auction. It just wasn’t really his thing,” says John Kurtz, Bill’s son and the third generation in the company. “It was the sale of the U.S. Army base that got him interested. He saw something in real estate auction that made him passionate about the business.”

In the early 1960s, a WWII and Korean War training base, Camp Breckinridge, in Union County, Ky., was sold by Kurtz Auction for $40 million. Before the sale of Camp Breckinridge, the company had primarily auctioned livestock, farm equipment, and a limited amount of real estate. Bill had grown up watching his father sell sheep, cattle, pigs, and farm equipment. But when Bill witnessed an auction of such magnitude and variety, the decision to grow the business was decided. He opened the Owensboro location in 1964.

Kurtz Auction boasts a 98 percent success rate, which, according to John, is based on extensive calculations and strategy. The company is very selective in the projects they pick, he says, which ensures a high success rate. “Not everybody who wants to hold an auction is really a good candidate for an auction,” he adds. “There are three elements we consider before taking on an auction: Is the property marketable? What’s the sellers’ situation? And how is the market — declining or growing? Two of three will make a good candidate.”

With more than 600 properties sold in 207 auctions in 2011, and more than 100 already conducted in 2012, the company’s three-part business model works.

Other notable properties the company has sold include a thoroughbred racetrack, a whiskey distillery, a 1,600-acre sugarcane plantation in Louisiana, and in 2011, Diamond Island. This 1,873-acre island in the Ohio River sold at auction for $7.7 million, and was previously owned by a family who farmed the land with mules in the 1920s. It was this sale that brought recognition to Kurtz Auction from The Land Report, a quarterly magazine for American landowners. The magazine rated Kurtz Auction and Reality as the 12th best auction company in the nation.

Jason Blue, an Evansville-based auctioneer for the company, went to the Nashville Auction School, and says he is continuously surprised by the stories behind the unique properties, antiques, and other objects the company sells. “That is my favorite part of this job,” he says. “The stories you hear and the clients you work with have some of the most interesting things to tell us. In the 1970s, the company auctioned off two tickets to board the Titanic. That’s something you just don’t come across every day.”

Blue’s passion is shared by John, who, like his father, did not originally plan to participate in the Kurtz family business. Instead, John attended Indiana University to begin a career in freight. It wasn’t until his grandmother passed away and John came home that he had a self-described “epiphany.”
“I came home, saw all of my family, and realized the bond between the family and the business,” he says. “I approached my father and said, ‘Dad, how would you feel about us working together?’ And here I am.”

John attended the Missouri Auction school in Kansas City where he learned the basics of auctioneering, from real estate law to appraising land to the famous auction chant. Blue describes learning the auction chant as a slow, but enjoyable process. “It’s not as hard as you might think, you have to start off very slow — ‘The bid is 400 and the asking bid is 450, then 450 was bid and the asking bid is 500’ — then you just chant faster until you finally get the hang of it. Those are real words we are chanting there, you have to learn to listen or it can end up sounding like rambling.”

But, Blue adds, it takes a lot more than great chanting skills to make a good auctioneer. “In real estate auction, the world is our inventory,” he says. “So much focus is on the chant and the tips they teach in school, but the real crux of learning is in the finer points.”

Finer points that seasoned auctioneer John knows well. “The person on the microphone at an auction is like the opera soloist; everyone in the audience is captured by the voice and lyrics of the “leader,” but the orchestra in the pit or the staff soliciting bids, clerking the sale activity, or the cashier handling the monies are the folks who transport the listeners/buyers and sellers from point A to point B,” says Kurtz.

Kurtz Auction and Reality now employs 16 full-time employees (10 actual auctioneers), including six within the Kurtz family, and holds licenses in nine states. “The family dynamic is great,” says Blue. “I’ve never worked with better people; they treat everyone like family.”

John believes the family’s legacy has the potential to carry over into the future.

“I have six children — one daughter and five sons,” he says. “They have told me they would like to be in the auctioneering business one day. I don’t know if they are just telling me that to make me feel proud, but it does.”

For more information on Kurtz Auction & Realty, visit www.kurtzauction.com.

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