Listen to the men and women who work in the UK’s commercial property auction houses and you come away with some funny ideas. One moment they’re enjoying the kind of thrill that comes from working backstage in the West End; the next it’s all about checking facts and tick-lists, less showtime and more a half-day shift in the post office.
The truth is that life in the auction house is about quick change and, sometimes, high drama.
And drama is the key word. Auctions are all about theatre and the great auctioneers are thesps to their fingertips. A cross between Laurence Olivier and Bruce Forsyth, with a bit of Benedict Cumberbatch thrown in, an auctioneer’s presence on the rostrum – or in the office – is likely to be noticed.
Duncan Moir, partner at Alsops, says: “The minimum requirements are waving a hammer, and being able to count, but you’ve also got to be sensitive to the room, to bidders’ body language, to generating competition, and to match clients aspirations to the mood of the market. But it is theatre, not cabaret. Our auctions see £700m or more a year go under the hammer, so it’s a serious business.”
The sense of theatre doesn’t stop at the auction room. The regular, well publicised cycle of auctions, with their catalogue deadlines and legal deadlines, makes for a life of peaks and occasional troughs which any show biz person would recognise. The inflexible deadline – curtain up - really does set the pace. “You get a big crazy build up, and then the aftermath and then you’re putting the next catalogue together,” says Paul Giles, who heads the Savills commercial auctions team in Nottingham.
In the run up to auctions the main task is to handle the (probably) large volume of potential sale properties. “It’s about throughput,” says Muir. “Most people in the auction team will see more properties in a year, 600 or 700, than their agency colleagues will handle in a lifetime.”
At this stage it’s all about assembling details, briefing the legal team, making sure pictures and paperwork are all in place. Data analysis is increasingly important – not least tracking potential buyers – and the last milestone is fixing the guide price.
Fortunately, the quick-fire sales process means the gap from instruction to sale can be short – weeks rather than months. So there’s a satisfying sense of pace. “The beauty of working in auctions is you get a result quickly,” says Chris Price, director at LSH in Bristol.
The contrast with agency work and private treaty sales is sharp, says Paul Giles, who has tried both. “You have three to six months to market an office through the agency side of the business, but we have a four week window in the auction team. So you have to be one of those people who grabs the ball, because the moment the instruction is in there’s no end of things to do. You’ve got to be able to sift loads of information quickly, find the issues, sort it out. The answer to answer every question is: you should know,” he explains.
The world of commercial property auctions is not big. Even the largest teams are rarely larger than 20-strong, and most are threes and fours. But it’s a tribute to the auction scene that the turnover of staff is so small. “When people get into auctions, they tend to stay there,” says Giles. It’s an addictive life, and there are opportunities to become a big fish in a small pond, and promotion into the ranks of the auctioneers is not uncommon: LSH’s Chris Price rose from clerking, and he’s not alone.
But changes are coming. LSH’s plant and machinery sales are already entirely online, and online auctions could become big news in the property scene, too. “Sooner or later, to some extent, we’ll have to face that,” says Price.
For now, commercial property auctions still have their traditional atmosphere and unique buzz. And it’s a buzz most people who work in the sector would sorely miss.