March 10, 2022 – 7:00 AM
Kelowna’s Dave Ritchie was no stranger to hard times long before he, along with brothers Ken and John, launched what became Ritchie Bros. Auctions Ltd., the largest industrial equipment auctioneer in the world.
“My family was going through a very rough time when I was young,” Dave Ritchie is quoted as saying by the Horatio Alger Association after being one of the few Canadians to win their award in 2006.
“We often ate nothing but porridge two or three times a day,” Ritchie said. “We all tried to help as much as we could. I remember as a little wee boy joining my brothers and sisters to pick potatoes. We earned six cents for one sack of potatoes.”
In May 2012 he was inducted into the Business Laureates of B.C. Hall of Fame.
“My first business was doing everything from selling Christmas trees as a boy to selling beer bottles and picking them up,” Ritchie said in a YouTube video produced at that time. “If you went to the park on Sunday morning, if you got up at 5 you would get all the beer bottles. If you slept in to 6 you would get about half.”
Dave Ritchie was born in Kelowna General Hospital on March 2, 1936 and retired as Chairman of the Board of Ritchie Bros. Auctions in 2006.
Ritchie’s father was a lawyer who lost a legal battle against agricultural co-ops and was disbarred, according to the Horatio Alger report.
“Penniless, the Ritchie family moved into a rented home on a tobacco farm, and Ritchie’s father eventually found work as a fruit inspector,” the report says.
The children all helped out.
“I loved to sell things and did a lot of door-to-door sales in Christmas trees and greeting cards,” Ritchie told the Horatio Alger Association. “I was happy to have these jobs. They taught me the importance of self-reliance and the value of hard work. When you live with poverty, everything you get looks better and tastes better and you deeply appreciate every little thing that comes your way.”
His father enlisted in the army in 1939 but, because he was a First World War veteran, he was not sent overseas, although he was away from the family during much of the war. The oldest of the Ritchie brothers died in Normandy on D-Day.
Eventually, Dave’s father was able to buy a house in Kelowna and, after the war, bought the second-hand OK Used Furniture Store.
“As a young boy going to school in Kelowna I would go there every day after school,” Ritchie said in the 2012 YouTube video. “It was a great training ground. I loved to see what we had bought and sold that day. I didn’t realize how much I would be taught.”
In 1955, he and brothers Ken and John took over the furniture store but, by 1958 were struggling.
Faced with a $2,000 bank debt, family friend J.P. McFarland suggested they auction off some of the excess furniture from the store to pay the debt.
They booked their first auction into the Scout Hall but it did not start well.
“The first item that old J.D. McFarland sold was an old pulley block that I think we paid $50 for and he sold it for $5 and I thought, oh no, how could that happen?” Ritchie said in the video. “You know what this is going to be all about today. But, as things went along, things started to sell all right and we had an old piano that we thought we were going to get $100 for and it sold for $275. All of a sudden, we liked the auction business.”
That initial auction grew into weekly Thursday night auctions in the furniture store, with the new furniture hauled upstairs to make room for the auction then back down at the end of the night.
These started off as unreserved auctions, meaning there was no minimum bids, and the company has continued that way ever since.
After awhile, the Ritchie brothers (Ken took over as auctioneer at one point) expanded and they began running auctions throughout the region and moved into the equipment field.
In 1963, according to the Ritchie Bros. Auctioneer website, they secured a contract to sell equipment used in road construction in the Rocky Mountains, fetching $600,000 at the auction at Radium Hot Springs. That pivoted them into specializing in equipment auctions, formally incorporating and branching out.
It was at that auction where a key ingredient of their selling technique was launched as rain poured down on the event.
“Instead of selling along the line of equipment in a downpour, Ritchie Bros. set up an auction area under the eve of a nearby shop building, then drove each piece of equipment in to sell one by one, with music being played between each sale,” the Ritchie Bros. website said. “This was a game-changer and we’ve been using the Ramp method ever since, minus the music.”
The auctions became major community events in towns where they were held.
In Watson Lake, YT, the whole town would turn out, along with hundreds from neighbouring communities. The auctions were followed by “raft-rousing” parties.
“The earliest auctions had a ‘show-biz’ flavor,” an Encyclopedia.com article states. “The auctioneers, wearing orange hunting caps, kept up a steady patter of chatter while pieces of heavy equipment were sold. Speakers blared forth bouncy tunes and marches to energize the crowd while vendors circulated, selling drinks and snacks. After the auctions ended, the brothers packed up, like a circus, and moved the equipment out. As time passed, the auctions took on a more businesslike atmosphere, the ‘show biz’ elements were abandoned.”
It was also in 1963 the Dave Ritchie relocated to Vancouver while Ken and John remained behind in Kelowna. While all three brothers were instrumental in the business, it was Dave who was the CEO and Chairman of the Board and is credited with innovations like creating online bidding options in 2002 that served the company well during the COVID lockdown.
They started to expand into the rest of Canada, first to Alberta in 1964, then international in the U.S. in 1970, Europe in 1987 and Asia in 1994.
They had their first $1 billion year in 1998 and their first $1 billion quarter in 2011.
Dave Ritchie was involved in the firm’s biggest auction of a single item after he retired.
In 2006 he bought a brand new “megayacht” called the Apoise from a German shipyard and spent four years sailing around the world before putting it up for auction, conducted by Ritchie Bros., in the Grand Cayman Islands in 2010.
At 220 feet (67 metres) long it accommodated a crew of 19 and a dozen guests and was ranked as the 89th largest yacht in the world in 2009.
It took 15 minutes to sell the yacht at the unreserved auction for $46 million, the single biggest lot ever sold by Ritchie Bros. to that date, although some in the yachting industry suggested it was worth near twice that amount.
“I’m really pleased with the outcome,” Ritchie is quoted in Supply Post at the time. “I never worry about an unreserved auction. It works. At the end of the day, I received fair market value for the Apoise. It didn’t take me two years to sell the Apoise and I didn’t incur the significant carrying costs over that time. I was given an auction date and it was sold on that day for fair market value.”
Regardless of the outcome of that particular action, Dave Ritchie, now reported to be retired in Vancouver, came a long ways from picking up empty bottles in City Park on Sunday mornings.
Ritchie Bros. did not make Dave Ritchie or anyone who knew or worked with him available for comment.
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