Business Eye interviews Peter Johnston
Peter Johnston reckons that there isn't much he doesn't know about Wilsons Auctions. He started there as one of the firm's original half a dozen employees, parking auction cars for his boss Ian Wilson. And he's done just about every job since then – parking cars, valeting cars, auctioning and managing.
These days, he's Group Operations Director at a company which has come a very long way from its early days at Hydepark near Mallusk.
“Back then, at the height of the Troubles, we had bulletproof glass all over the place, and money was paid to the tellers through a hatch under the bulletproof screens. We didn't raise our heads above the parapet, to be honest,” says Peter jokingly.
Things are very different now. Wilsons Auctions, as a company, is keen to dispel the old images of the auction business. “People used to think of Arthur Daley characters, blow heaters and burger vans,” he adds. “But it's a very different business in this day and age.”
The business has its roots back in the 1930's when current Managing Director Ian Wilson's father Willie began to auction tractors to farming customers in rural County Antrim. Today it has 350 employees and no less than 15 sites across the UK and Ireland.
From its headquarters complex at Mallusk – also a busy auction site – it operates a second action site in Portadown and a third in Dublin. Across the Irish Sea, Wilsons Auctions now has auction centres in Queensferry, North Wales, at Telford in Shropshire, Maidstone in Kent, Newcastle Upon Tyne and Dalry in Ayrshire. In addition, it runs a network of seven vehicle depots across Britain.
“So it's a big operation and it all started with Ian Wilson's vision for the business back in the 1970's,” says Peter Johnston. “Once we got this business really established here at Mallusk, expansion to other centres was the obvious way to go.”
It's every inch a family business. Ian Wilson remains involved on a day to day basis, and his sons and daughter have helped to establish and grow Wilsons Auctions operations in Ayrshire and in Dublin over recent years.
Other parts of the group's expansion have been down to strategic acquisition. Wilsons Auctions bought a business owned by auctioneer Tony Esp spanning sites and Queensferry in North Wales and Telford just across the border in England. And it continues to look for further acquisition targets as it expands its nationwide reach.
“We're not just a Northern Ireland company anymore,” says Peter, who keeps a map of the company's British Isles locations on his Mallusk office wall. “We're a national company and, in fact, we qualify as an international company by virtue of an office we opened recently on the Costa Del Sol in Spain.”
The varied locations don't just give the company geographical reach. They also give it flexibility when it comes to sales.
Peter explains. “We'll move refrigerated trailers up to Scotland because the fishing industry there produces a big demand for them. We'll shift 4x4's to Dublin for the same reasons. And we'll ship good quality ex-fleet cars from England over to Northern Ireland because they're very popular here.”
Across all of its sites, Wilsons Auctions sells well upwards of 100,000 cars a year, but it also sells vans, trucks, plant and various other commercials. That makes it different from its main competitors on the national scene, almost all of whom concentrate solely on cars.
“We might be much bigger than we used to be, but we've kept the family business ethos, we've kept the friendly touch,” he says. “We want to see private buyers, end-users coming here and to all of our centres. Even if they're not here to buy, we're happy to welcome them to experience the ‘fun of the fair’.
“We see people coming here for the first time and they're nervous about taking part in an auction. They're visibly shaking sometimes. But it's generally not that long before they're back and they're not shaking the next time.
“We like to see someone heading off in a car they're delighted to have bought, or to see someone else getting their hands on a bargain....whatever it is.”
The company doesn't just rely on customers coming to its sites. Thanks to leading edge technology, anyone can log onto auctions happening at any of the Wilsons sites and play an active part.
Wilsons Auctions sells a whole lot more than vehicles of all shapes and sizes. It recently won a £25 million multi-agency contract to auction off just about anything that ranks as proceeds of crime.
Police forces all over the UK will use the NI-based firm to auction everything from private yachts and luxury cars through to property, electrical goods and every type of jewellery you can imagine.
In fact, Wilsons Auctions has sold all of those things and a lot more besides. The vessel used in the biggest cocaine haul in British waters is due to go under the hammer soon, £6 million worth of Asian gold has had to be sold off, and the company recently sold an Olympic gold medal winning dressage horse formerly owned by a property developer.
“It certainly adds a different dimension to what we do. When police forces all over the UK are at the ‘coal face’ targeting crime, our guys and their collection vans aren't too far behind them.”
“Some of these cases can be very complex indeed, and we have to spend a lot of time and effort trying to get through the paperwork and to realise some sort of value for all sorts of items with a bit of history attached to them,” says Peter Johnston.
“But that's what we're here to do. Everything can't be as easy as selling an ex-fleet Vauxhall Astra in really good nick,” he smiles.
One advantage of this particular business is that it's pretty much recession-proof. “When the economy is bad, we get very busy,” he says. “But when the economy is good, we're good too.”