COEUR D’ALENE – The first time Matt Backs was handed a microphone and told to sell something he was 14.
“The seniors at my Post Falls school asked my stepfather to conduct an auction to raise money for their class trip.
“He told me he was going to put me up on stage, and I said, ‘You’d better not,’ because I was terrified.”
Backs doesn’t recall what the item – a homemade pie – fetched.
“It’s kind of a blur,” he said. “But I remember my peers cheered me on.”
Since then, Backs has coaxed bids from eager buyers in more than three dozen states and is consistently ranked among the top 15 auctioneers in the nation.
Yet he remains in awe of his wife and business partner, Rose.
“She’s so charismatic and engaging,” he said. “She was just voted the No. 1 CarMax auctioneer in the whole United States in a customer satisfaction survey.”
Rose and Matt Backs, co-owners of Elite Auction, are “contract auctioneers,” meaning auction organizers get everything ready, then hand them the mic.
For instance, most Fridays Matt flies to Seattle, sells used cars to dealers for DAA Northwest, then returns to Dalton Gardens in time for dinner with Rose and their three young children.
During a recent interview, the Backs discussed tongue twisters, muscle cars and eBay.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Rose: I was born and raised in Athol. I graduated from Lakeland High and have lived in Coeur d’Alene my whole life.
Matt: I was born in Illinois and lived for a time in Colorado Springs. My father passed when I was 9, and my mom married an auctioneer from Idaho.
S-R: What was your first job?
Matt: Shortly after we moved here, I sold concessions at an auction. In high school, I did a number of things. My family owned a custodial business, and for a while my stepfather had a pawn shop. I also worked at a fast-food restaurant and built airplane parts for a Boeing subcontractor.
S-R: Did any of those jobs hone skills you later brought to auctioneering?
Matt: Interacting with people taught me to recognize their traits and personalities, and ultimately auctioneering is about reading people.
S-R: What was your first job, Rose?
Rose: Like every kid who grows up in Athol, I worked at Silverwood as soon as I could – 15 or 16. I also worked at a pizza restaurant and at Pinewood Care Center.
S-R: How old were you when you two met?
Rose: I was 17 and Matt was 19.
S-R: Were you an auctioneer by then, Matt?
Matt: Yes. I worked with my stepdad and also had my own company – Grand Central Auctioneering.
S-R: When your stepfather handed you a mic in high school, did you already have an auctioneer’s chant?
Matt: Absolutely. He and I would practice in the car – number drills and tongue twisters.
S-R: How about formal training?
Matt: When I was 18, I spent two weeks at Missouri Auction School, the same program my stepfather attended. I’d been selling for several years, so everywhere we went, my classmates wanted me to go first, because I already had an auction chant and they were still learning theirs.
S-R: When did you first sell something, Rose?
Rose: Around 2004. Before I started selling, I attended Reppert School of Auctioneering, a 15-day program in Indiana.
S-R: How many women were in your class?
Rose: Of the 45 students, there were maybe six women.
S-R: What motivated you to start actually selling?
Rose: Necessity. I was already doing setup, check-in and dealing with advertising and clients. As business grew, we hired other auctioneers on a pretty regular basis. I wanted to sell just to give the guys a break.
S-R: How did it go?
Rose: It went well. I helped friends liquidate their estate, and just like Matt’s first auction, it was an environment where the buyers wanted me to do well.
S-R: What was your niche back then?
Rose: Estate sales and antiques.
S-R: Did you occasionally have to sell things you were unfamiliar with?
Rose: Sure. We pride ourselves for having a wealth of knowledge. But if we came across some carnival glass or a cast-iron toy and weren’t sure whether it was original or reproduction, we’d say we didn’t know. And if our regular buyers knew more about something than we did, we’d ask them.
S-R: Do you still do estate sales?
Rose: No. It got really hard to make a living, and it wasn’t where our heart was. Now we focus on auto auctions, plus benefits and fundraisers, which are my passion.
S-R: What items sell well at fundraisers?
Rose: Things closely connected to the group. For instance, I sold the first jar of honey from River City Youth Ops’ new beehives for $800. And the backup bidder took the second jar for $800. It wasn’t about the honey – it was about supporting the cause.
S-R: You both also sell cars. Are you car people?
Matt: We’ve learned to be.
S-R: What’s the most expensive car you’ve sold at auction?
Matt: A 1970 (Plymouth) Hemi Cuda that brought $230,000 at Hot August Nights in Reno. That was pretty cool.
S-R: How much impact does the economy have on your industry?
Matt: The auction business is pretty resilient. When times are good, business is good. When times are bad, business may not be as good, but it’s still viable because people need to sell.
Rose: In the fundraiser sector, people spend more freely when the economy is strong. But they also recognize more need when times are tough.
S-R: As contract auctioneers, how are you compensated?
Rose: Typically, we’re paid a flat fee, but occasionally we work on a commission basis. For fundraisers, we try to not price ourselves out of opportunities to work with small groups, because we really like those.
S-R: How far afield do you go?
Rose: Before we had children, we traveled all over.
Matt: We’ve done auctions from Alaska to the East Coast. We’ve sold in 37 states.
Rose: Now, with three kids, I stay pretty much close to home. I occasionally work in Boise or the Tri-Cities, but avoid overnight trips.
S-R: Matt, you grew up in Illinois and Colorado, yet there’s a hint of Southern drawl in your voice.
Rose: He hears that all the time! (laugh)
S-R: Was that cultivated?
Matt: Maybe a little bit. I think my voice got that way naturally from just using it so much. I once did a horse and tack auction that started at 7 in the morning and didn’t get done until 11 that night.
S-R: How do you keep from losing your voice?
Matt: Lots of water and a good sound system.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Matt: It’s fun, and you’re always learning something.
Rose: I love fundraisers – knowing at the end of the day we’ve done something that’s valuable.
S-R: What do you like least?
Matt: Some people can be unpleasant. But we take pride in the fact that most of the time we handle those situations well.
Rose: Being able to defuse just about any situation from the stage has proved beneficial over the years.
S-R: Have websites such as eBay impacted auctions?
Matt: They provide more knowledge. But they can also be a hindrance (if they inflate expectations) because items have different values in different parts of the country.
S-R: What advice would you offer an auction newbie?
Matt: Remember why you’re there. If it’s a cause you believe in, by all means support it as best you can. But if you’re there to buy an item to use in your business or home, or add to your collection, then educate yourself. Preview items before you bid. At car auctions, you can bring a mechanic, and sometimes even test-drive vehicles.
S-R: Do you have a favorite auction purchase?
Matt: I once bought a Donald Duck cookie jar for $25, sold it at another auction for around $200, then bought it back again for $50. And we still have it.
S-R: What challenges lie ahead?
Rose: The industry is constantly changing – things like software that allows you to bid mobily on silent auction items. So one challenge for us is trying to stay relevant in an ever-changing industry. Fortunately, our fundraising business is growing because people recognize the value of hiring a professional auctioneer, as opposed to a local celebrity or someone’s dad who is funny and knows everybody.
S-R: When someone discovers what you do, what do they ask?
Matt: We’re constantly asked, “Do you talk that way at home?”
S-R: And the answer?
Matt: Is “no.”
Rose: The truth is, Matt is pretty mellow and low-key until he gets a microphone in his hand, and then he’s amped up. Whereas I’m always amped up.
Matt: They also ask what our arguments are like at home, and I tell them, “They’re like most arguments.”
Rose: “My wife always wins!” (laugh)
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at email@example.com.
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