For some people, success goes straight to their heads. For others, success is something to be enjoyed and appreciated with a sense of gratitude, as well as with a sense of humor. The latter is just what Dewain Ritchason, owner of Ritchason Auctioneers, Lebanon, Tenn., has done every day since he founded his company 20 years ago.
Ritchason’s early days in the business were not always what could be considered a rousing success. One particular incident that sticks in his mind happened in 1978, just five years after he left the family farm where he’d been born and raised in McLeansboro, Ill. Ritchason had been given a great opportunity to work for Herman Behm of Thorpe Sales Corporation, Antioch, Ill.
“I literally lived out of a suitcase and was on the road for them for three years as a set-up man organizing heavy equipment auctions. In those days, there were only two auction companies, Thorpe, where I worked, and Forke Brothers in Lincoln, Neb. Then Behm started his own company, Herman Behm and Associates, and when he hired me, I was given a choice of working the Tennessee and Kentucky area or moving to Texas,” Ritchason explained.
“Well, I’d been in Tennessee before and I loved the area, so I chose to move to Nashville,” Ritchason continued. “I booked three sales for Herman right away — one in Palm Beach, Fla., one in Sikeston, Mo., and one in Chattanooga, Tenn. At Sikeston, I got a real lesson: being the farm equipment capital of the U.S., they were very smart traders. They saw this ole farm boy coming and any hope of profits stayed in Sikeston on that day.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only issue Ritchason encountered in those early years working for Herman Behm and Associates. “After the sale in Chattanooga for Sam Swope, the international dealer for that area, things went a little ’haywire’ with the company. I made a move to Nixon Machinery in Nashville selling heavy equipment. After that I sold Ford trucks for a while and then real estate with Century 21 and then back to construction equipment for A.E. Finley in Nashville. That was a really good job that I enjoyed,” said Ritchason.
Undaunted by his previous dubious experiences, Ritchason took the positive aspects of his work as a model for what he wanted to do next, which was strike out on his own. And it is his wife, Beth, whom he credits with giving him the support he needed to get started.
“I would have never made it without her, she’s always been the inside person who knows the business,” Ritchason said. “We started in 1989, and we owed a quarter of a million dollars before we had our first sale. Upon start-up, I walked away from a six-figure job and Beth wasn’t working. We had a four-year-old son, a house payment and a car payment. I had to borrow some money from a friend to start the business, but it was just a very strong feeling that I had to be on my own.”
Ritchason Auctioneers started with just three employees, Dewain and Beth, and one part-time employee who worked for minimum wage answering the phone. They obtained an auction site from a “super lady who was a retired teacher who owned five acres beside the interstate,” Ritchason said. “She let me have the piece of property for only $500 a month in exchange for me cleaning it up and fencing it. The property was on Trinity Lane next to I-65 near downtown Nashville. I would have never been able to pay for all the exposure that the location gave me. We eventually ran out of auction space and had to borrow parking space from neighboring businesses and homeowners.
Taking Risks, Making
Ritchason’s drive to run his own business and his penchant for risk-taking were both obvious from his very first sale. “My first sale was for a guy named Eddie McCrary, who had a little over a million dollars worth of equipment that he needed to sell. He offered me a five percent commission, but if I didn’t get some decent numbers and couldn’t get it sold, I didn’t get a dime. That’s the risk I took. We ended up with a great sale for Eddie. Robert Miller, a friend from Hazlehurst, Ga., came and helped me and was the auctioneer. I believe Eddie had an airplane at that time and flew down to Georgia to pick him up. Robert is a great guy and was a big help on our very first sale. We ended up with a 1.3 million dollar sale.”
Best of Friends
Strong friendships have continued to play a prominent role in Ritchason’s accomplishments, whether during well-received sales or sales that turned out to be problematic.
“There were some scary moments when initially starting the company and conducting my early sales. At one point, I sold a 627B scraper and two mechanics trucks to the tune of about $130,000 to a contractor. I received a check for the equipment and released the machines. My banker called to inform me that the check received was not good but the machines had already been moved to Indiana. At that time, I thought we had lost everything, because we had everything we owned on the line including our house. All I could think about was ’how am I going to resolve this?’ I made a call to some friends in Louisville who had a truck and they told me that they would go get the equipment back. Fortunately, we didn’t have to resort to picking up the machine as I was able to get the money situation worked out, but the fact that those guys were there for me is something I’ll never forget,” Ritchason said.
“Another situation that proved the power of true friendships was when I had a D7G in a sale and a guy bought it and took it to Kentucky. The deal turned out to be a ’sour’ one and I had to go get the machine. I found the D7G but the torque was out of it. I had a good friend who was a contractor and when I told him about the D7G he said, ’Dewain, I’ll just go over and pick that up for you and bring it to your yard.’ He brought the machine in and he didn’t charge me a dime. I had another friend who came over and rebuilt the torque converter. At this point I thought I was in trouble again. I had about $40,000 invested in the machine and thought for sure I was going upside-down on this piece of equipment. I felt extremely blessed when the tractor brought over $55,000 at the next sale,” Ritchason recalled.
Spreading Out, Settling In
After nine years at the original location in Nashville, Ritchason bought a 130-acre farm just east of Nashville with I-40 frontage in Lebanon, Tenn., on which to build a permanent facility. At first, Ritchason encountered some resistance from the farming community but the initial strong opposition turned to support as both Beth and Dewain visited with local residents to assure them that their business would be an asset to the community. Closely working with the community residents and community leaders helped the Ritchasons to gain approval for getting the property rezoned.
Today, the company has grown to 10 full-time employees in the office and 25 more people who come in on auction day. A true family business, Ritchason Auctioneers now includes Dewain and Beth’s son Brandon and daughter Celeste. Brandon, according to Ritchason, “has really taken to the business over the years” and Ritchason hopes to pass the business down to him some day. Beth’s sister in law, Vicki Bradshaw runs the “front office” operations on a daily basis. But even without the blood or marriage ties, all employees are considered extended family at Ritchason.
This close-knit family feeling extends not only to everyone in the company, but also to many of the consignors, some of whom have turned up regularly since the company opened its doors.
“If we have 120 consignors at a sale there’s a good chance that more than half of them are repeat customers. We kind of joke about the repetition, in which some machines may have come through our sale three or four times over the last 20 years,” Ritchason said. “The main core of our business comes from the contractors that we’ve built a reputation with over the years. Now we traditionally have a minimum of 16 states represented at our sales. Bob Head, my old faithful for 12 years, keeps tabs on this and there’s many times he’s told me that we had more than 28 states and six foreign countries represented at a sale. God’s blessed us in a lot of ways to bring a lot of people here to trade.”
The most recent Ritchason Auctioneers sale was held in June 2009 and included more than 80 machines from two sister companies, Madison Contractors and Madison Paving based in Madison, Tenn. Madison Contractor’s was a complete liquidation and Madison Paving was an inventory reduction. The number of machines entrusted to Ritchason to sell was a result of a long-term friendship that Ritchason had formed with brothers Joe and Dale Pyron.
Early Role Models
“I met Dale and Joe right after I came to Tennessee and tried at that time to get some of their business. We became friends and ended up meeting from time to time to eat ribs and they became like fathers to me. There were times that I would be in a bind and needed a lowboy to go pick up a machine. They would help me out, but would never let me pay a dime for sending their lowboy across town to get a machine to the sale. They themselves are an American success story as they also have had their ups and downs and lots of great stories in between. Their success comes from helping so many people that you literally could not name them all. These guys are dear friends and I’m the one that is blessed the most by knowing them,” Ritchason said.
“I learned a few other amazing things about Joe when I was in machine sales and I would stop at one of his company’s job sites to try to sell him something. If he wasn’t at the site, I would ask the crew if they had seen Joe. If they hadn’t seen him yet, they would say, ’no, but if you stay around, he’ll be by in a little bit.’ He rode every job. That was unheard of. And then when the end of the week would come around, I would stop and see him sitting on an old bus seat on the front porch of his business with two or three dogs under his feet. He’d be signing the payroll checks. If one of his ’boys’ came to pick up his check and said, ’Joe I’m a little short this week,’ he’d hand him his paycheck and reach into his own pocket and give that man the extra money he needed to catch up.”
Ritchason’s ability to focus on the good in other people, to appreciate it in them and apply it to his own life, the sharp business acumen he developed along the way and his undying appreciation for the gifts of his family and friends has served him well.
Reaping What He Sows
Twenty years in and going strong, Ritchason said, “My desire to get into this, being fortunate enough to have a friend who believed in me and loaned me $150,000, Beth’s confidence in me and a little dab of my own money was the start of the business. Since those days we’ve helped a lot of folks and a lot of folks have helped us. The Lord has blessed us and that’s why we’re still here.”
Ritchason Auctioneers is located next to I-40 at 7538 Linwood Road in Lebanon, Tenn., where they conduct four regularly scheduled auctions in March, June, September and December and other sales at this location or off-site as needed.
For more information, call 615/444-5464 or visit on the web at www.ritchason.com.
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