Karen Huelsman didn’t grow up in the auction business. She’s a first generation auctioneer, which comes with some challenges. There’s something to be said for stepping into an existing family business. But Huelsman believes being first generation has helped her think outside the box and try new things.
“As the industry has changed and evolved, I’ve never been held back by ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it,’” Huelsman said.
In 2022, Huelsman will serve as the Ohio Auctioneers Association president. In that role, along with the rest of the board, she is hoping to help remove barriers to entry for new auctioneers and help the state’s auction industry after the pandemic pushed many auctioneers to make changes.
Huelsman’s father was a new and used car dealer, so her only exposure to the industry was through the car business. Before becoming an auctioneer, she owned an insurance agency. Her company started getting involved in more benefit events, and charity and benefit auctions were what first got her interested in auctioneering, around 2007.
A friend and fellow auctioneer, Doug Sorrell, helped introduce her to the industry. She apprenticed under two additional auctioneers. In 2009, she had an opportunity to sell her insurance agency and jump into auctioneering full time.
Now, Huelsman is the president of Innovative Auctions, Inc., of Fairborn, Ohio, which she bought after becoming an auctioneer. The company has grown into one of the largest auction firms in the area. All of their business comes through referrals.
Innovative Auctions used to mostly do live auctions, but started shifting towards online auctions about six years ago, after seeing more bidders and higher prices coming from online sales.
“We just decided there was no turning back,” Huelsman said.
In addition to the number of bidders, she noticed the online auctions brought more younger buyers, even college students. Online auctions also allow Innovative Auctions to do two to four auctions a week, instead of just one or two each week.
What surprised Huelsman most about her work is how much it means to her clients.
“We work in some of the most difficult situations our clients have faced,” she said.
Innovative Auctions specializes in hoarding situations. In one recent case, a client found out after a family member passed away that their family member had two houses plus a storage unit full of things. It can be overwhelming. But Huelsman finds it rewarding to help clients find a pathway forward.
That also influences the way Huelsman hires staff. She looks less for people with auction experience and more for people who are compassionate and have what she calls “a servant’s heart.”
There have been a lot of changes in the industry even since Huelsman became an auctioneer. When she first started, most of the auctioneers in Ohio just did different volumes of the same, traditional auctioneering.
Over the years, the industry has evolved to have more specialities. Some, like Innovative Auctions, do more online work. Others just do benefit and charity auctions. Others specialize in heavy equipment. Even many traditional auctioneers are adding more specialities to their resumes.
The pandemic also pushed auctioneers to move more sales online. While some of them have gone back to live auctions, some have also decided to retire since then.
As the incoming president for the Ohio Auctioneers Association, Huelsman has been talking to other board members about how the industry will move forward after the pandemic.
“On the heels of COVID, with all the changes … as an association, we are doing some regrouping and reassessing, how to serve traditional auctioneers, but also support and education for those wishing to pursue special areas of practice,” Huelsman said.
The association is also looking for some legislative changes to remove barriers to entry for new auctioneers. In particular, Huelsman and other board members are hoping to see the apprenticeship program eliminated. The Ohio House is considering a bill that would do that. Currently, to get an auctioneer license in Ohio, people have to find an auctioneer to apprentice under for a year.
It can be tough to find a sponsor. Some auctioneers may not want to raise up their own competition. And for aspiring auctioneers who want to work in a particular specialty — for example, charity auctions or online sales — it may not be helpful to spend that time calling bids for household auctions. The association would rather offer mentorships for new auctioneers, instead.
Huelsman is also seeing more and more first generation auctioneers, both in the industry, and in leadership. The association’s incoming vice president, Susan Johnson, is also a first generation auctioneer. More opportunities to specialize in areas beyond traditional auctioneering seem to be bringing more people to the industry.
“I think for a lot of [first generation auctioneers] … for many reasons, we dipped our toe in it, then became passionate,” Huelsman said.
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