They do business from Alabama to Israel. Their customer may be a Montgomery farmer or an Arabian sheik. And their biggest business boost came from a chance meeting in a Montgomery barbershop.
The company is J.M. Wood Auction Co. Inc. — a 40-year-old Montgomery fixture that’s now among the largest auction firms in the country.
A Montgomery native (and great-grandbaby of Confederate Admiral Raphael Semmes, ) Brenda Wood had graduated from Sidney Lanier High School and earned a home economics degree at Auburn before she met her husband, the late Malcolm Wood. He had grown up in west Montgomery, selling produce door-to-door for his family farm, which raised fruit, vegetables and cattle.
Brenda says that when he turned to the auction business, many of his first customers remembered him from his days of door-to-door sales as a child.
The pair met through a mutual friend and began their unique courtship.
“Most of our dates were auctions he would drag me to, ” Brenda recalls.
In the early days of J.M. Wood, Brenda would keep the books and run the office while Malcolm would hit the road to meet contractors and farmers to see what equipment they needed for jobs and to see what they wanted to sell or trade.
“At the time it was tough to convince a man to trust you with his whole life’s work when it was time for them to retire or liquidate, ” she remembers. “Being in the auction business, we were often dealing with people who were making some of the biggest decisions of their lives.”
Their big break came in a downtown Montgomery barbershop. Malcolm was getting his hair cut, and the man in the next chair was talking to his barber about needing an auctioneer to conduct annual auctions for him. The barber said, “Well, Governor Wallace, Malcolm here is an auctioneer.”
After an extensive interview process in a barber chair, Gov. Wallace hired Malcolm on the spot to conduct surplus auctions for the Alabama Department of Transportation.
From this chance meeting, J.M. Wood grew. Malcolm, Brenda, and their family would tour the Southeast, putting on machinery auctions from Texas to the Carolinas.
An unexpected turn of events came about that would not only affect the company but the Wood household, as well. At an auction in Georgia in 1989, Malcolm started complaining of pains, and soon after he was diagnosed with an advanced form of colon cancer. A mere six months later, at only 46 years of age, Malcolm passed away.
Brenda, just 42, was faced with one of the hardest decisions of her life. What was she to do with the company and employees who had been with them for years?
“Our employees were our extended family, then and now. I had to at least try to keep it going for them, ” says Brenda.
Before Malcolm passed away, he urged her to give up the auction business. But as she tells it, he knew that she was stubborn and wouldn’t take his advice, so he instructed her to put $50, 000 of their life’s savings into the business. He told her, “If you lose it, walk away.”
Over the first 18 months after Malcolm’s death, it was very hard to convince a man to let a woman handle the selling of their construction equipment.
“There were times I was not sure we were going to make it, and that original $50, 000 we set aside was running very thin. Still, the good Lord was looking out for us, and people started realizing that nothing had changed and that I would handle their business in the manner they expected.”
“The construction equipment business is a man’s world, ” she says. “The only thing I had to go on was my reputation. You have to do what you say and be prepared to back it up. When things don’t go as planned, there can be no excuses, just back it up. I also had to surround myself with only people I could trust, whether it was colleagues, a few of our competitors that we had always looked up to, or close friends like Jan Beckwith, our office manager who has been with us from the early days.”
Brenda made sure that her children got their education and did not feel pressured to join the family business, but three of their kids are there nonetheless — Bryant, Kim and Russ. She tells them jokingly that J.M. Wood is not a non-profit organization and that any one of the three can be replaced.
“I wouldn’t replace any of them for the world, ” she laughs.
Today J.M. Wood is the fourth largest privately owned machinery auction company in the United States. It auctions heavy machinery at permanent facilities in Montgomery and in Columbia, S.C. and handles on-site auctions for the Alabama Department of Transportation and many other DOT and government agencies across the Southeast.
This March, the company hit a landmark, conducting the largest auction in its 40-year history — a three-day event in Montgomery with 527 sellers and 3, 000 registered bidders from 42 states and 22 countries, some participating in person and some online — a sale that grossed $42 million.
Two Montgomery auctions are planned in June.
Christina Caldwell is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Montgomery.
text by Christina Caldwell