Craig King – Pitching in Real Estate’s Big Show

Back when the other kids were opting for Little League baseball, 12-year-old Craig King picked a different path — choosing a Dale Carnegie course to learn more about public speaking and the art
of persuasion.

“It was the right decision, ” King says. “As things turned out, I’ve been successful selling things, and I wasn’t a very good athlete.” 

The 57-year-old King is president and CEO of Gadsden-based J.P. King Auction Co., now in its 100th year and the oldest real estate auction company in the United States. During the 30 years that King has run the family-owned business, it has sold more than 10, 000 properties for more than $2 billion.

King is a master salesman operating in the high-stakes world of luxury property auctions, and his work exposes him to well-heeled property owners throughout the United States. It wasn’t always that way for King, whose start had a bucolic side to it.

J.P. King Auction Co. established itself and became known for selling farms and land to developers. King recalls serving barbecue and refreshments at rural auctions his family held when he was 10 years old, and he liked the excitement of those events. That’s what led him to Dale Carnegie.

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“I had an interest in speaking in front of people and selling, ” he says. “I guess you could say that doing the Dale Carnegie course was the first big deal for me.”

King grew up with the family business, and he had significant responsibilities even as a young teenager. “My job was to go out in areas where we worked, primarily in Alabama, and hand out brochures, put up signs for the auction and set up big auction tents on properties, ” King recalls.

“One of my jobs was to roll in with the big trucks and the motor home we used as an auction office and set it all up. Then we would do the auction the next day. I was in charge of guarding the tent the night before the auction, and I would do that with friends who always wanted to help out.”

King was 16 when he went to auctioneering school and did his first bid calling — the rapid-fire chanting that’s the hallmark of the auctioneer. 

“I spent two weeks at auctioneering school in Nashville, ” he says. “I got home from that on a Friday, and we had an auction the next day just outside of Gadsden. I remember being pretty rough (bid calling), but the bidders were real patient, and they helped me along as I sold.”

After high school, King entered Gadsden State Community College and by then had started working in sales. “That meant going out and meeting prospective clients, looking at their properties, explaining the auction process, and then if I had a good property and what I thought was a good prospect, we would bring my dad in and list that property for sale by auction, ” he says. “I learned a lot working hand-in-hand with my dad.”

At age 19, King went to another auctioneering school, in Iowa, to hone his bid-calling skills. He doesn’t regret bypassing the traditional college experience. “I had a strong desire to be in business, and I loved learning and working with my dad, ” he says. “I think I made the right decision.”

Although King loved the family business, there came a point when he wanted to change it. “I remember being in Colorado when I was about 20, and I looked at a big ranch out there and thought, ‘One of these days, I want J.P. King to be flying all over the country selling properties
like this.’”

That vision came to pass big time. A major turning point came in 1984, when J.P. King Auction worked with another firm on a condominium auction in Destin, Florida. After that, “We realized we could do a better job than other auction firms and began focusing on other condominium developments along the Gulf Coast, ” King says.

That led to more condominium auctions along the Gulf Coast and in other parts of the country, new contacts, new opportunities and a long hot streak of luxury property auctions throughout the United States. Along the way, the company learned that “just like fine art and antiques had been sold by auction for centuries, you could take upscale, high-end real estate properties and successfully sell them at auctions, ” King says.

King saw that a lot of luxury property owners could afford to wait out the recession of 2008. “So, what we’re seeing now is that a lot of non-distressed sellers are coming onto the market, ” he notes. “Just yesterday, I talked with someone who has a $3 million home in Florida, on the water, and he said the auction process seems like — and he used the term — a pretty painless way to go. He said that he didn’t have to just linger on the market. This same gentleman said, ‘I’ve accumulated all these toys over the years, and it’s time to get rid of them.’ So he’s selling some of his vacation homes.

“We’re seeing a definite pick-up in business, more registered bidders at our auctions. We sold a $3 million property two weeks ago in Tucson, Arizona and had 30 bidders for that property. We’re clearly seeing the market come back. We’re planning on expanding our sales force and continuing to try to cover the country and address the market as it comes back.”

J.P. King has 25 full- and part-time employees and 100 associated affiliates across the United States. That includes King’s brother, Scott, who is the company’s executive president, and sister, Christie, vice president of administration. It is a far cry from the days when King served barbecue and refreshments at auctions as a boy. 

“When we really became a national company, we had people coming to us as opposed to when I was 19 years old and was out knocking on doors of farmers and developers trying to get them to even think about having an auction, ” King says. 

“Now, top developers and entrepreneurs from all over the country are calling J.P. King in Gadsden, Alabama, to come to California, New York or whatever to look at their properties.”

Inside the Show 

Motivating buyers for the multimillion-dollar bid

Craig King has been calling auctions since he was 16 years old, but he looks puzzled when asked how many words a minute can he do while auctioneering.  

“I’ve never thought about that before, ” he says. “I have no idea. I couldn’t even guess.”

King says it took him several years to develop a rhythm and chant that he felt comfortable with, but he downplays the importance of bid calling at an auction. “You can hire a good bid caller to come and work your auctions, but there’s a lot more to the business than that, ” he says. “If you don’t have bodies in the seats, the auction doesn’t matter.”

An auction, he explains, is the stage for bringing bidders and sellers together to make a successful transaction happen. Bidders are there to buy, and sellers are there to sell; the bid calling is just a backdrop, he says.

The actual selling starts long before the auction as J.P. King works with the seller to effectively market the property. “The marketing is very important, but good marketing doesn’t mean you’re good at auctions, ” King says. “We’ve established ourselves as being good at both.”

King says that his father’s lessons have been invaluable. Among the essentials, there has to be motivation on the seller’s part. “It doesn’t necessarily mean financial motivation, but there has to be a strong motivation to sell, to do something sooner than later, ” King says. “And I also learned never to tell anybody what their property is going to bring, because the answer is that you don’t know. 

“Often it will bring more, or it will bring less, but it will bring market value if it’s handled right.”

J.P. King Auction probably turns down 10 prospective properties for each one it puts up for auction. “Fortunately, we’re in a position now where we can pick our clients, ” King says. 

Although marketing before the auction is mandatory and the foundation for success, the event itself is colorful and always heart-pumping. 

“An auction is a very dynamic event, ” King says. “There is some performance to bid calling. You could compare it to being an entertainer, singer, something like that, because you’re there to do a transaction but you’ve also got to engage the people. You want to make it fun.

“The people there are nervous. They’re a lot more nervous than I am, because they’ve never done this and I have. And they’re getting ready to spend millions of dollars. But I’m nervous before every auction, too. I know the work’s been done and everything is going to be fine. 

“People say my personality is pretty laid back, but once I get on the stage I get with it pretty good. It’s an exciting event, and I get excited. The bidders get excited. There’s a lot of emotion. But at the start, you want to put everyone at ease. It’s probably similar to being an entertainer.”

Charlie Ingram and Cameron Carnes are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

text by charlie ingram • photos by cameron carnes

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