Rod Egan has seen a lot of highs and low in the collector car auction business. 2020 had turned into an especially trying year thanks to the ongoing pandemic, but in some ways it had been one of Egan’s most rewarding. Not only was his company able to pull off one of the first major in-person sales during a season full of cancellations, but the company was able to do something even more important to Egan — keep all its loyal employees on the payroll and out of the unemployment line.
Egan was out on the road scouting cars recently when we caught up for him for “10 Questions.”
Old Cars: You and [co-owner] John Kruse have both been in the business a long time. What’s the secret to having longevity in the auction business these days?
Rod Egan: It’s highly competitive, but I think what’s made it relatively easy to stay in business and still be around is we are always focused on what’s in the best interest of our customers — buyers and sellers alike. Really, what allows us to have success is just a by product of that. Just treat people very well and you are always gonna be safe and have a successful business.
OC: 2020 was obviously a challenging year in the collector car world. In general, how well did the auction segment hold up?
Rod Egan: I can probably speak for all the auction houses when I say that when auctions get cancelled, which many of them did, that’s tough and it’s forced us all to pivot pretty quickly and come up with other plans. We were very fortunate that we were able to pivot very quickly and had our live Auburn Auction and it was hugely successful.
OC: How challenging was it to put together your Auburn Auction?
Rod Egan: It would say the biggest challenge, first off, was obviously compliance, right? We had to make sure we took all the necessary steps, which we did. We actually hired experts specifically to help us establish COVID protocols and they worked with the governor’s office in Indiana to make sure we met those standards. And further than that, we asked a lot of our customers what it would take of them to feel comfortable to come to a live event. That runs the spectrum. Some people don’t care. ‘I’m living my life and I’m not concerned.’ And on the other extreme, there are people who say there is absolutely no way I’m going to attend a live auction right now. But what it allowed us to do, because we have our own facility, a lot of guys flew in early to look at stuff without any crowds and any people. We did a lot of Facetime inspections of cars, showing people every little thing and asking them, ‘What else can I show you?’ We did a lot of that. From a customer service-related challenge, we made it work well, I think. The other challenge for the sellers, some of them, is there are car owners in the hobby that were hesitant to sell anything because they were too unsure of the market. That was a challenge and, fortunately, we did get what we needed, but that uncertainty of people not knowing was a challenge … Out of 80 cars, I’m pretty sure the number of cars we sold remotely, either phone or computer, was 39, so about half. And we had about a 90 percent sale, so the market is great.
OC: How important was it for the company, and your customers, to get the Auburn Auction accomplished and do well?
Rod Egan: It was important in a couple of ways. We were the first big catalog live auction to take place in months, right? Since Amelia Island in March. It was important we did it right for a couple reasons. No. 1, sometimes you have out step out a bit and be a leader and by us being confident and putting on a live auction, I think it gave the customers some confidence, which is important. There are still a lot of people who want to buy good cars. It was important to kind of set that tone in the industry — that if you have a good car, there is somebody who will want to buy it.
And on kind of a personal level for John and I, as a company and as business owners have to generate revenue to run a business. But we may be the only company in our industry that didn’t lay staff off. We just thought it was really important to do everything we could to keep all our staff and make sure nobody missed a paycheck and nobody was affected financially, at least. We just think as company owners we have a responsibility to look after people that are working for us. That’s a big priority for us. Our staff is great and they have made a commitment to be with us for a long time, and John and I feel responsible to make it a two-way street for sure.
OC: In such a disjointed year, have you identified any market trends in 2020 that may be different from years past?
Rod Egan: I guess everything took a lot more work in terms of being able to effectively show people a path to successfully buying a car or selling a car. Nobody knew who was buying cars and people who were normally in a mood to buy cars [were thinking] ‘Gee, guess I could buy a car but I don’t know what this is going to look like 6 months form now so I don’t know if I should spend the money.’ What it did was hush the market a little and slow things way down. Everybody’s numbers are way down in dollar volume, and up until COVID hit, the market may have been off a bit from four to five years ago, but the market was still good and people are still trading cars.
There are still buyers for great cars, and that’s a very positive thing to know …Increasingly, and not just this year, but it probably showed up more so this year because of the reduced amount of business, is there are always buyers for great-quality stuff, but some of the mid-quality stuff is just a lot harder to move in the market right now, even more than the last couple of years. Mostly it’s just that that market for what I call ‘average condition cars,’ people just aren’t as excited to buy those cars right now. Unless it’s something you really want and really have to have, people aren’t going to pull the rigger. But because really good cars are so much fewer and farther between, people will pull the trigger on the good cars, quickly!
OC: Do you adjust the kind of cars you are trying to consign from year-to-year to follow trends?
Rod Egan: You have to be a little bit flexible I suppose, but we have always prided ourselves in having a diverse offering — more so than most companies. When you go to Pebble Beach car week for example, it’s just all about sports cars there, and it works. It’s a great place to do that. We probably have more sports cars there than, say, in our Auburn auction. We do adjust from auction to auction. We have more prewar cars in Auburn than we would in our Pacific Grove auction. You do have to be flexible and do what the market wants. But we sell Duesenbergs at Pacific Grove, too … Hey, as long as stuff is good, you can sell it no matter where you are.
OC: What has been the biggest surprise for you this year? Anything happening (other than the pandemic) that you didn’t see coming?
Rod Egan: I think my biggest surprise would be how quickly customers adapted to doing business virtually. I was shocked at how quickly it happened, especially people my father’s age. He’s 78, and he was always, ‘I will never buy a car without seeing it’ most of his life. But this summer he was calling me and saying, ‘Hey, I was the high bidder of these four cars online, what do you think they’re worth? [laughs]. That’s a direct personal example of people who are like, ‘I can’t go to an auction and this is the only way I can buy cars.’ And there are a whole bunch of guys like that. My biggest car surprise is how quickly people adapted to that, and that’s just because they had to.
OC: Even though you have consignments of all kinds (post-war cars, muscle, hot rods and resto-mods), you still have a reputation for always getting good prewar cars. Is that a niche you work extra hard at?
Rod Egan: I would say that both John and I have a strong love for prewar cars, so naturally we will dedicate some of our energy specifically in that segment. And for us I think it’s important for a couple of reasons. In our industry, these are some of the most grand, magnificent automobiles ever built and there is still a lot of desire and people that want great prewar cars. So for us it’s important to continue that and keep that in the forefront of people’s minds. There are a lot of people that are selling ’60s and ’70s sports cars and they are phenomenal cars as well. I love cars from every year … but basically what got all of us going is prewar cars, at some level. The other thing I would say is there are people in an age group that are selling prewar cars, and those people need help, so we feel some responsibility to look after the people in that position and take good care of them and do a good job for them.
OC: What’s your favorite car you have ever personally owned?
Rod Egan: I would say a car that I have probably had the most fun with was a ’31 Cadillac V-12 sports phaeton. It came from long-term ownership. What I loved about it was the integrity of the car. It had been restored once and when I owned it, it had been restored about 35 years previously, but looked like a five-year-old restoration. I toured that car and drove it quite a bit and it was just one of those cars that was right. You know, a great, honest car. Never had a problem with it. It was just the car you looked forward to getting into and driving and hanging out in with friends.
OC: You get one car to have for a day. Any car in the world. What are you taking?
Rod Egan: I think for me it’s going to be an Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Spider… It might be one of the most beautiful cars ever built in my opinion… [They can go for] probably $20 million, depending on which one it is. So that’s why I’d like one for a day, because I may never to own one myself!”
Since this interview Worldwide Auctioneers launched a new online video service on their website called WORLDWIDE TV that takes you behind the scenes of the collector car auction world. Old Cars' own Brian Earnest was fortunate enough to have a chat with Rod prior to their "Scottsdale in Auburn" auction that took place on January 23rd. See results here.
See the video footage below. (This fabulous video is a worthwhile watch, but if you are short of time at the moment, the sit down with Brian and Rod begins at the 1:32:38 mark.)
5634 Opportunity Blvd. Suite A
Auburn, IN 46706
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