(L-R, standing): JD Gray, Russ Wood, Bryant Wood, Jan Beckwith and Kim Wood-Cox (seated) guide the company in the second generation of ownership.
(Photo courtesy of JM Wood.)
JM Wood Auction is celebrating 50 years in business in 2023.
Like many family businesses today, JM Wood Auction, founded by the late Joseph Malcolm and Brenda Wood, started out humbly as a simple idea and a lot of ambition.
Malcolm Wood was quite an entrepreneur and was always up for making a dollar. He was a really good Haverty’s furniture salesman, and he began doing small auctions here and there on the side and started getting pretty good at it.
With many endeavors, sometimes it’s whom you know. Malcolm became “barber shop buddies” with Gov. George Wallace. It all started as idle chit-chat about this and that and, one day, the governor said to Malcolm, “If there’s anything I can possibly do for you, let me know.”
Being an entrepreneur, he simply told the governor, “I’d like to have an Alabama State Auction.” Wallace said, “You an auctioneer?” and Malcolm replied, “Yes, I am!” And that was the start of regular Alabama DOT auctions.
Malcolm’s wife, Brenda Wood, was adept with finances and the two were the perfect match for the start of JM Wood Auction. As an accomplished auction house, both realized that the equipment business might be where the focus needed to be.
Malcolm’s father was a cattleman, and he grew up attending cattle auctions with him. When he got his first cow, it was hit by a train and Malcolm took that as a sign that being a cattleman was not the profession he wanted to be in.
At the time that JM Wood Auction started out in the auction business, other companies were doing real estate and collectibles auctions, but not many auctioneers were dedicated specifically to the heavy equipment business. That was the genesis for the establishment and rapid growth of JM Wood Auction.
The first facility for JM Wood Auction was a small three-room office with equipment lot purchased from a bridge contractor. Over the years, this facility has been upgraded many times with additional adjacent parcels of property purchased to where the footprint today is close to 200 acres, including more than 10 acres dedicated to parking. Decades ago, the company purchased property in Columbia, S.C., and created an auction yard and facility.
Keeping Business Going
In fall 1989, Malcolm fell ill while attending an auction in Byron, Ga. When he returned home, he was diagnosed with colon cancer and passed away the following April of 1990.
At this point, Brenda Wood could have easily sold the auction company for a nice profit or shut it down. But before Malcolm passed, he told Brenda to set aside $50,000 for operating the business, and “if you lose it, padlock it.” However, at the time, under the law, you had to have somebody on staff who was an owner and a licensed auctioneer.
Bryant Wood, the eldest son of Malcolm and Brenda, was a sophomore in college and was immediately sent off to auctioning school when Malcom became sick. Bryant received his auction license just before his father passed and was added as a company owner-auctioneer so his mother, Brenda, could continue onward with running the day-to-day family business.
Customers that entrusted Malcolm with their machine auctioning also felt the same about Brenda and everybody knew that their money was safe, according to Bryant. At this same time, long-term employees like Jan Beckwith, Brenda Wood’s “right hand,” and Brenda’s daughter, Kim Wood–Cox, continued their hard work to keep the business thriving. Ten years later, Bryant and Kim’s brother, Russ, was added to the ownership role and further grew the company.
“Mother held the bull by the horns for several years and had the business growing,” Bryant said. “One fortunate thing that happened at the time was forging a business relationship with JD Gray, a Mack truck regional representative who began selling trucks through the auctions because of JM Wood’s history of governmental auctioning.”
Gray eventually joined the staff of JM Wood and started a vocational truck governmental municipal business. This new opportunity created a growth spurt for the company, while creating an outlet for governmental and private companies to liquidate their surplus truck inventory.
At about that same time Gray was rolling with the truck auctioning, retired equipment business owner Garlon Gore joined the company to head up the forestry machine auctioning business.
“Garlon [Gore] was a wiz at forestry equipment sales and relationships, so it made sense for us to have him on staff,” Bryant said. “With Garlon, we had the forestry business covered, JD cornered the truck business, and Russ and I were focusing on the equipment side of the business. So all-in-all, Mother had an eye for pulling together good talent.”
Brenda Wood was not an auctioneer; however, the customer base knew that as the co-founder of the company, she was all business and took care of their needs just as Malcolm had done and it was simply business as usual. She “knew her stuff and it was in her nature,” the company said.
Making It Happen
Bryant, Russ and Kim all agreed that their mother’s success was a combination of having an eye for talent in sales and administrative staffing and a strong philosophy of maximizing profits for the customer and company.
“She was quick to tell us we are not a non-profit organization,” said Bryant. “So don’t act like it and go make it happen. She was not scared and would not back off, yet she trusted the deals we were bringing in were good ones. Buying and guaranteeing equipment packages and knowing the specifics of selling equipment and cycles is a lot to comprehend. She knew her staff was not going to lead her down the wrong path. We always had her best interest in mind.”
The overall company philosophy is not of one person but is a team of individuals bringing together his or her own individual strengths. These distinct strengths have helped propel the company to new heights in record sales year-after-year.
Leaving Business in Good Hands
Following the death of Brenda Wood in 2013, everyone knew that Kim and their long-time office manager, Jan Beckwith, along with Julie Bellisle and Kathy Raines would have the financial and administrative end of the business working perfectly, having been trained and coached by Brenda Wood. She not only guided them in the business but explained why she did every task and what was behind each decision. “Weekly company meetings aren’t needed about this and that. All seems to be a well-oiled machine at JM Wood and if something is needed you go straight to the source,” Brenda would say.
At 40 years of working for JM Wood Auction, Jan Beckwith is the longest serving staffer and helped propel the business to where it is today, all while assisting with raising the second generation of ownership. “Miss Jan,” as she is called, started out simply sweeping floors and cleaning up. She embraced many new challenges throughout the decades and has become a central figure in the entire operation. She said the Wood children and the customers are like her own children.
Beckwith is the front-line face of the organization for anyone coming to the auction facility. She went to church with Malcolm and Brenda and their children and, when they needed some part-time help, they asked her. She has been with the company ever since.
Beckwith recalled the early years where “Russ and I were doing whatever we needed to do for the business. He was very young and I took him wherever I wanted to go. If there were pecans to be picked up, we did it. If there were floors to be swept, we did it. We answered the phones together. Whatever the company needs, I’m there. Anyone that comes here to work realizes this is a very family-oriented company. I appreciate everything they have all done for me.”
Ahead of the Curve
The growth of the company stemmed from the initial farming and municipal sales for the first 10 years and then through the segmented heavy equipment concentration. But one aspect of the growth that was behind the scenes, yet very apparent, was that of Malcolm Wood being ahead of the curve on technology.
He created a computer system catered to his auction business right after 1980, at a time when most companies didn’t even have a computer system to run their accounting. The company continued its embrace of technology in the late 1990s when it began to do simulcast broadcast online auctioning.
The second generation of ownership said their competitive advantage stems from continued yearly investments in the business to where the customer can bid with confidence knowing that the informational systems are all seamless, interconnected and easy to use. Yet, they added, there’s no corporate mentality for working with customers. “It’s the personal touch where everyone is treated like family and has confidence in buying from JM Wood Auction,” they said.
Regarding the company’s one-location business model, ownership agreed that they are “dialed in and focused” from a single location and everyone is easily accessible right up to auction time. “It’s the way this auction business has thrived and has become a powerhouse in the south,” they said.
Passing the Baton
Brenda Wood groomed her children to be the next generation of ownership and when she died from cancer in 2013 at 65, the second generation was ready to lead the family business.
“I didn’t know I was getting into the auction business,” said Bryant Wood. “I was in school getting a degree to be a contractor when my mother said, ‘I need to talk to you. I have a proposal for you, and this is what I need you to do.’ It’s not that I didn’t want to do this, it was just a different direction from what I thought I would be doing. It was Daddy and Mother’s need that called each of us to come back.”
The family sees the auction business much like a farm.
“You don’t really own anything … you are just a steward of it and make it better for the next generation,” said Kim Wood–Cox, describing the unique nature of growing up in the business. “We weren’t allowed to be sick in school. We saved those sick days to come to work at the auction. Daddy told the school principal, ‘it’s auction time. Just forgive them it’s time for them to work.’ If there was a sale on Saturday, we might leave school on Thursday, jump in the truck or car and travel to wherever the auction was. That’s just how it was.”
“There was so much we [current ownership] would do when we were kids,” added Bryant Wood. “I remember this old red Ford F600 single-axle dump and John Deere backhoe across the road that we used to dig out a pond to use for fill dirt on the auction yard. My job was to load the truck, then drive the truck here and dump it on the yard, and I was only eight years old. There was a Komatsu sitting at the pond to dig the rest of it out. I didn’t know how to operate it, but Daddy said to follow the operator, watch what he does, and you’ll know how to do it by the end of the day. And Kim was doing the same thing in addition to push mowing the front yard to make everything look good.”
In the early auction years, Malcolm Wood created and laid out the auction brochure on the family’s dining room table. Jan Beckwith and young Russ would pick up the brochures from the printer, run them through the folding machine at the office and would spend countless hours in the back room of the office putting mailing labels on the brochures by hand. Sometimes this process would start late in the afternoon until they were ready for the post office, sometimes not until 1 a.m.
‘Burning the Ships’
JD Gray said the key to the current success of the company is simply a result of good people who hustle and are relentless.
“The motto around the place is to ‘burn the ships,'” he said. “Loosely translated, when you get to where you need to be, don’t turn back and jump on the ship from where you came, push forward and never stop. We hope the market recognizes that and the fact that we try to differentiate ourselves from everyone else.”
Just as Brenda Wood did for her children, the second generation is preparing their children for the family business. There are eight third-generation children who regularly attend the auctions and some who work part-time.
JD Gray sees continued growth for the company as the third generation will soon begin leading the business
“I’ve been having fun piddling,” he said, modestly about his contribution to the firm over the years. “It’s been a challenge and a great opportunity to see a program grow. Buyers from all over the U.S. come in for what might quite possibly be the single best selection of trucks in the entire country on auction sale day.”
Bryant Wood said that marketing trucks through auction requires a lot of forethought and market research.
“Marketing means knowing what drives the specs, and what spec laws or bridge laws are changing in different states,” he said. “You must be engaged with your customer and your buyer’s needs. You must know what their needs are a year ahead of time. JD might change a spec on a truck because of something he knows is coming. We assist governmental agencies to purchase based on something that is coming out and actively review the specs that come out for bid. We’re all working for our buyers and sellers. It’s like back to the farm days cooperative. The buyers and sellers work closely and rely on us to provide the best services.
“Our entire staff does a fantastic job,” he added. “Not just our current staff, but previous staffers like John Flora and Garlon Gore. Everyone has [or had] their own unique specialties and collectively pushed this business forward to higher-and-higher rewards and success.” CEG