Talk no bull

“There are no shy people in this business,” maintains John J. McBride, director of the Livestock Marketing Association in Kansas City, Mo.

As coordinator of the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship — coming to Asheville’s Western Carolina Livestock Market on June 19 — McBride dutifully provides a list of the names and phone numbers of semifinalists (chosen from videos they submitted of themselves in action), promising that every one will give a good interview.

“These are the world’s best professional talkers,” he points out.

When plying their trade, though, no two auctioneers “talk” the same way — each develops a signature style of “chant.”

The uninitiated, however, must take this on faith: If you’re not a cattle buyer or seller, the chants issuing from these tricky-tongued price wranglers sound as exotic and unintelligible as an unknown language.

That’s OK, if it’s entertainment you’re after: “Everyone has their own style, no question about it, and even people who are not much into the cattle business enjoy this event,” concedes contestant Shawn Madden of Torrington, Wyo. Madden’s younger brother Lex, the reigning champion, will emcee this year’s Asheville competition — which will also be an actual livestock sale.

But don’t expect sibling rivalry to inflame the proceedings: Champions are required to retire from future competition (“That keeps it fresh,” explains McBride). And the brothers aren’t prone to petty jealousies, anyway. In fact, the markedly reserved Madden, belying the stereotype of the auctioneer as a nonstop-chattering vendor, seems almost affronted by the suggestion: “We’re very supportive of each other,” he reveals with dignity.

Objectivity, he further notes, is not only desirable in an auctioneer, but vital: “The most important thing an auctioneer needs to do is portray a sense of trust, because he works for both the people that are selling and the people that are buying.”

Neither brother has ever sat in a classroom to hone his prowess. Instead, they’ve collected their skills over many years, the way hay chaff sticks to boots — automatically. But other scheduled contenders seem proud to reveal their alma maters.

“It’s all I ever wanted to do,” confides contestant Matt Lowery of Burwell, Neb., who attended schools in Iowa and California. There, he learned that a good auctioneer must keep abreast of the fluctuating cattle market — “a never-ending process,” he confides. In addition, one’s lingo must be constantly groomed to meet both professional and personal standards.

“You’ve got to have clarity, because they can’t bid if they can’t understand you,” Lowery explains. “And you have to keep working on your chant. My chant changes: I practice three to five hours a day and try to make it different. It’s like with professional athletes … someone may be naturally gifted, but they still have to spend hours working at it.”

Unlike the more sedate ambiance of an estate sale, where an ill-timed scratch of the nose might render you the proud possessor of an antique gravy boat (a significantly minor responsibility when compared to, say, a herd of holsteins), livestock auctions can be chaotic affairs.

“The pace is so much faster and quicker than an antique or real-estate auction, or even a farm-equipment auction,” stresses Lowery, who learned how to handle all types of auctions in school.

“It’s much more of a major purchase — and when you have a long day and a lot of cattle, but not a lot of time, decisions must be made much more quickly,” he observes.

That’s exactly what makes this competition so elite, believes McBride. A competitive livestock auctioneer, he suggests, is naturally more talented than his peers outside the stockyard: “He has to have the kind of voice that you don’t mind listening to for 12 or 14 hours.”

Those warblings must be sweet music to the ears of Max Olvera,.who’s studied the livestock market since childhood.

“I’ve been hanging around auctions since I was 7 years old,” says the contestant, who hails from Turlock, Calif. Six years later, he entered his first World Auctioneer Championship — only to be disqualified a year later, when the minimum age was raised to 18. But Olvera — who consistently places in the top 10 — claims no bitterness: “I can understand that decision now,” he concedes, adding, “It keeps it professional.”

Olvera, too, has strong opinions about what makes a superior auctioneer.

“If you can keep a rapport going with people and still uphold the momentum of the sale in the same breath, then you’re good,” he says, describing his own style as a blend of regional influences and assorted borrowings:

“When I was younger, I tried to copy Ralph Wade, who was the 1974 World Champion. I took his technique and added something of my own. Everybody has a different style, and I’ve changed my own a few times. Ask any auctioneer, and he’ll say that being around a lot of auctioneers, you tend to pick up a little of what they do. … But still, everyone does it a little different. You’ll find that it’s geographically based: A Texas chant won’t sound like a California chant.”

Dan Skeels of Rimbey, Alberta, is the current Canadian champion. This world-class auctioneer has also placed in international competitions — acquiring, along the way, a keen ear for the inflections that make each nation’s auctioneers distinctive.

“Canadians hit numbers harder; it sounds more choppy, while an American chant can be more lyrical, more pleasurable to listen to,” he muses into his cell phone, en route to the Canadian Championship in Ontario.

In Australia, he reveals, “they grind out the numbers.” Skeels’ feel for these shades of differences is the fruit of a lifelong affection for the field; the auctioneer admits he’s been a regular at the rings since his preschool days.

“The stockyard was my kindergarten,” he says with a laugh, adding, “if you’re not having fun, you’re not getting the job done properly.”

But local contender Jimmy Robinson of Canton might disagree. To this self-described “old country boy,” a deep knowledge of the industry is an auctioneer’s most essential trait. And that includes understanding the bidders themselves (“some people have a card, and other people just want to wink at you; it’s different in any crowd”), as well as the prices. Robinson says he’s attended auctions where the starting bid was authorized by a dealer, with the auctioneer merely building on that set price — an approach he heartily disapproves of.

“At [Robinson’s company Cattleman’s Ranch], we decide the price and start the auction ourselves.”

Since graduating from the Missouri Auction School in 1972, Robinson says he hasn’t had much time in his long career to travel to World Championships: “I was too busy back then, and I [still] sell five sales a week … but this one was only 18 miles from Canton.” Still, he admits to having been “amazed” by what went on at the few such events he has attended, saying, “It’s really something to see.”

Ultimately, however, Robinson feels that commanding a successful auction requires a mind that’s even quicker than the tongue.

“In my opinion, the auctioneer ought to know cattle, know what they’re worth. People might think they can go off for three weeks to auction school, learn how to chant, and come out and be an auctioneer … they may think they can, but they can’t.”

Thirty of North America’s top livestock auctioneers will vie for the 1999 World Championship crown — plus the accompanying $5,000 prize and a custom-designed diamond ring — on Saturday, June 19 at the Western Carolina Livestock Market (157 Craven St.) The competition, which begins at 9 a.m. and runs throughout the day, consists of two parts: During the sale, contestants are judged on clarity, bid-catching ability, and how well they keep things moving. Then, the 10 finalists must take part in a mock news conference, during which they’ll be grilled about assorted industry-related dilemmas. The winners will be announced at an awards banquet at the Great Smokies Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort, later that same evening.

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One thought on “Talk no bull

  1. Kevin Gann

    John,

    I am tring to find some of Ralph’s training tapes. Can you help me out?

    Kevin.

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