In this month's Business Eye magazine our Group Operations Manager, Craig Walker talks about the new bespoke online web platform, reaching his 20th anniversary at Wilsons Auctions...and his hope to one day sell a train!!
There are still plenty of those for whom an auction means eyeballing and touching the goods, sitting in the auction room and watching the auctioneer at his or her work. But, for increasing numbers of people, the auction experience means sitting in front of their laptop or tablet and deciding at their leisure whether to bid or not.
The world of the auction, whether it's for cars, commercial vehicles, household goods, properties or even criminal assets, has changed. And Northern Ireland-based Wilsons Auctions, nowadays one of the biggest auction groups in the British Isles, is at the forefront of that change.
At Wilsons Auctions' Belfast HQ, Craig Walker is Group Operations Manager heading up the firm's contracts and logistics department. But, in recent months, he's been responsible for the development of a bespoke online web platform for clients and potential clients.
It's a platform that allows clients to sell - and to buy - an unlimited number of items at one time, and in its first three months of live operation, it was responsible to selling assets worth well over £2 million.
What's more, Wilsons Auctions' online success has been noticed both by international customers and by Government Agencies operating well outside of the British Isles.
Craig Walker joined Wilsons Auctions 20 years ago after completing an outdoor pursuits qualification. "I had visions of a career spent in the great outdoors, but I came back from England, had a chance meeting with Ian Wilson (the founder and driving force behind Wilsons Auctions) and was offered some work experience.
"That spell of work experience turned into a full-time job and I've done lots of different things around here.....cleaning and preparing cars, helping out at auctions, clerking and - eventually - working as an auctioneer myself."
Craig went on to become Car Auction Manager at the busy Belfast auction centre, moving on to take responsibility also for auctioning government assets, HGV's and the items which come up for sale through Wilsons Auctions' contracts with various UK police forces and crime agencies.
"And that can mean everything from houses and villas in Spain to luxury yachts, supercars, jewellery and everything in between. I've joked before that the only thing I haven't sold is a train.....and maybe that will happen some day."
Through his 20 years, he's watched Wilsons Auctions grow as a company from its two branches in Belfast and Portadown to nine auction centres and eight remote depots across Northern Ireland, the Republic, England, Wales and Scotland....and its headcount to grow at the same rate, now crossing the 400 threshold.
"But this is still every inch a family-run company and I think that shines through in everything that we do. It's something that a lot of our clients notice. And that ethos runs right through to the decision-making process. If one of us comes up with a good idea, we go to Peter Johnston (the Group Operations Director) and it can be put into action very quickly.
"None of us, including Ian Wilson, are afraid to get our hands dirty in the everyday running of the business."
Wilsons Auctions has been running a wide range of auctions for many years now. Online activity started some seven or eight years ago, and has grown steadily since then.
"The concept of online auctions took a bit of time to develop in the public realm. People, after all, were wedded to the idea of seeing something in the flesh. But nowadays anything can be sold online.....we've sold luxury cars, jewellery, even helicopters. We also held successful movie memorabilia and gold bullion auctions online.
"It's a process that suits a lot of customers and it can be good for us too in that it avoids expensive transportation, storage and other handling costs."
"But, for other Wilsons Auctions customers, it's an idea that will never catch on. They enjoy the drama and the experience of the live auction."
One of Craig Walker's responsibilities is contracts and Wilsons Auctions has some big ones. There are the proceeds of crime contracts with the Home Office and UK police forces, and there are also large-scale contracts with vehicle franchises like the Volkswagen Group, for whom Wilsons Auctions puts ex-fleet and contract vehicles under the hammer.
"One of the big advantages of the online era is that we can cut back on transportation costs to move these vehicles. If a particular ex-fleet car is somewhere in England and the potential buyer is here.....it's not a problem these days," adds Craig Walker.
The online offering, of course, has been made even more attractive by the advent of tools such as 360-degree walk-around imagery and high quality video content. Continued online innovation means that new customers are being drawn in all the time. And those customers don't have to come from local markets. Online auctions mean that the customers can be based anywhere.
"For Wilsons Auctions, it's all about having a 'can do' attitude. And we think that that's something that comes naturally to us. It's always been our ethos around here."