Becoming the country's best auctioneer

By Greg Dixon

The suits are smart, the ties are loud and the voices even louder. But, as Greg Dixon discovers, it takes more than sharp shoes and chutzpah to become the country’s best real estate auctioneer.

Mark Sumich, the four-time winner of NZ's auctioneering championship. Photo / The Aucklander
Mark Sumich, the four-time winner of NZ's auctioneering championship. Photo / The Aucklander

Are you ready? Here comes the pitch ...

"Buyers, as a young boy, I was always told you look for beauty on the inside ... I can tell you that I spent an hour and a half at this property this morning and I looked high and I looked low. I can tell you right now that no statement has ever been further from the truth ... My name is Daniel Coulson ... Today we sell what is left of 147 Church St in Onehunga ..."

The Guineas room at the Ellerslie Events Centre rattles and hums with sudden laughter. Men dressed in suits so sharp they risk losing an eye guffaw with manly heartiness, while women wearing a little too much makeup and lots of jewellery titter politely. They can all see on a big screen beside the stage what is left of what must be Onehunga's worst home - and it's not much. Coulson, a handsome, square-jawed young fellow in an impressive suit and even more impressive orange tie, lets the laughter wash over him and then we're off, selling this broken-down wreck of a place for the fourth time on this wintry afternoon.

Coulson's pitch will be the final act in a two-day competition that I - and I'm pretty sure you - never knew existed: the National Real Estate Auctioneers' Championship.

Part-gladiatorial contest, part-master class in fast-talking salesmanship and part-industry pow-wow, this annual battle of bluster organised by the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (REINZ) has, since 1996, pitted the country's best auctioneers against each other for a rather handsome and rather large silver cup for the seniors, and a smaller but no less handsome cup for the winner of the novice competition.

And fear not. No properties or vendors are harmed in the making of these fast-talking reputations. Instead, competitors sell, sell, sell to the same pre-written bidding script, to test each contestant under the same conditions. It's a string of fake but surprisingly exciting, auctions that ends with a sale, though not necessarily a win.

During the first day of competition, 26 seniors were whittled down to four for the grand final and the competition's climax the following afternoon. On the second morning 15 novice callers competed in a three-hour winner-takes-all fight to the death.

Among the six judges is a chap in an extraordinary brown pin-striped suit and what might possibly be crocodile skin loafers, who I recognised as real estate agent and auctioneer Mark Sumich, the bloke who sold my house.

Auctioning your home is a high-stakes gamble, but no game of chance. I know this from personal experience. Just a matter of months ago the missus and I rose early, scrubbed the house from top to bottom and back to front to prepare for the most terrifying experience of our lives: selling our property by auction.

There should have been confidence. Our real estate agent, a gentle but no-bullshit blonde, had done such a terrific job that 11 people would fill out bidding forms for our auction on the day which, glory of glories, dawned fine and still.

As the auction time - 1pm sharp! - drew close, the backyard and deck of our little home filled with more people than had ever been there at one time.

And yet this seemed to have no effect on the terror whatsoever as we sweated over whether the place would sell at all and, if it did, whether it would sell for a good price. With a half an hour to go, I stood watching clouds, smoking cigarette after cigarette as I contemplated what Sumich had told us the week before the big day: "The half hour before the auction," he intoned, like some pin- striped guru, "is the loneliest place in the world".

Perhaps that is why most New Zealanders prefer to sell their property using any other kind of method. That said, auctions are on the rise here; though REINZ figures for May show that nationwide just 15 per cent of homes were sold by auction; in Auckland the figure is a little higher. "Auctions are a good way to get value in a market that's volatile," O'Sullivan says, "and the issue at the moment is that it is relatively volatile." The general consensus seems to be that auctions work best for properties at the top or bottom of the market - but a good auctioneer can get a great price for anything.

When I shook Sumich's hand that day in April - after he got a price for our property that was more than 32 per cent over its CV - I hadn't realised I was shaking the hand of God. Well not God maybe, but something like New Zealand auctioneering royalty.

Sumich is a four-time winner of our national auctioneering championship but, even more impressively, he's achieved a three-peat in the Australasian champs, winning in 2007, 2008 and 2011 against the best those loudmouth Aussies could put up. What's more, he's the only person to ever to have done this.

He's so good, evidently, that he's retired from competition into judging. But his past glories seemed to overwhelm the present. Even while praising the abilities of this year's senior finalists, at least two people tell me - in something like hushed tones - that Sumich is at another level, a level that might be the place of auctioneers who are half-man, half-god.

What makes him so good? For a brassy sort, he looks almost embarrassed that I've asked.

"We used to say that being a good auctioneer was being able to count properly ... but you need a whole variety of skills," he explains.

"I've never had any trouble standing up in front of a crowd ... and I've always been good with numbers - my grand-fathers were both gamblers ..."

There is an old line about the three things required to be a successful journalist: plausibility, a slight literary ability and rat-like (natch) cunning. This, I suggest to Sumich, is surely true of the successful auctioneer too.

He smiles. Just. But as the championship's final day rolls on, I figure it's about right. Certainly the first two elements are on display - with wildly varying results - when the novices do battle.

Over-cooked metaphors, stories, hug-and-learn platitudes, and the thoughts of Churchill and Einstein are served up as rather fun and funny property patter - from a bizarre Alice In Wonderland motif to an airline theme (from ex-airline steward and former New Zealand First MP Craig McNair) to boxing and golfing analogies.
"Is this where the queen of hearts sleeps?" asks one.

"A happy wife means a happy life," says another.

"Is this that moment in the space-time continuum where you create your own legend?" enquires a third.

One bloke performs in a bow tie and dinner jacket, another in two-tone shoes and purple tie. If that doesn't make them plausible, then I'll eat my boater.

Sumich and O'Sullivan are impressed by the quality, though a number struggle with nerves and with keeping track of what the bid is and who has it.

It is only when the seniors - the "cream of New Zealand auctioneering" trumpets the MC - take the stage (between repeat playings of Leroy Van Dyke's irksome 1956 hit The Auctioneer) that these three things - along with dress, bearing, style, memory, diction, personality and a dozen other judging criteria - come together in the complete package.

In what will be the hardest auctions the four finalists, all Aucklanders, will ever run - in front of their peers; in front of Sumich - you can see auctioneering transformed in something between broad comedy and free-form revivalist preaching. "There is an element of theatre to it," O'Sullivan confirms.

Coulson, Harcourt's Robert Tulp, Colliers' John Bowring and Coopers & Co's Andrew North bellow, cajole, smile, and wave their arms around like crazy men as they search for a sale. Each conquers the room, but, like any auction, there can only be one winner.

"In the end, the boys handled things appropriately enough ... ," Sumich told me by email the following day. "The judging is always under the microscope, but that was the closest final we have had ... hence the discussions went long into the evening, with no common ground being agreed upon!"

After the arguments were over, Bayley's Coulson was handed the crown held by Sumich. But the biggest winners were the owners of 147 Church St, Onehunga - which, it turned out, really was on the market.

A week or so after the champs, the beaten-up colonial cottage went for $515,000. God was the auctioneer.

- NZ Herald

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