From farm auctions to Wisconsin champion, second generation auctioneer takes state title

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

DOUSMAN, WI - Jenny Markham-Gehl cashiered $300,000 auctions when she was in eighth grade. It didn't make any difference what the weather was like or what they had going on, if there was an auction her dad Jim Markham was doing, Jenny and her brother Tim were expected to be there to help. There was no such thing as a day off. If an auction was booked, they were there to help — running tickets, holding up items for sale and eventually ringing. 

Auctioneer Jenny Markham-Gehl gets a photo with Bucky Badger during Bucky on Parade featuring 85 life-size Bucky Badger statues last year.

Growing up in an auction family poised Markham-Gehl for a career she loves and the recognition of being named Champion at the 2019 Wisconsin Auctioneer's Championship Contest at the Wisconsin Auctioneers Association (WAA) annual convention in Stevens Point, WI on Jan. 27.

While Markham-Gehl grew up around farm and estate auctions in Dubuque County, Iowa, when she decided to take the leap to become an auctioneer, it was as a benefit auctioneer. 

When she called and told her dad about her decision, he paused and didn't say anything. When he finally spoke he pointed out that benefit auctioneering "doesn't pay too good." 

"I did benefits for 30 some years and never charged them, you know, the local fire departments and schools," Jim Markham explained. "I just used it as advertisement for our main auctions." 

"I think he was just dumbfounded that I was going to do that," said Markham-Gehl. "I always did other roles in the auction business. I would do cashiering or even clerking."

But Markham-Gehl had done her research and sees a market for fundraising auctions, especially in the Milwaukee area. Plus she could include her dad and her brother who help as ring men and provide "signals and communication styles that just can't be reproduced."

Jenny Markham-Gehl from the greater Milwaukee area , was named Champion at the 2019 Wisconsin Auctioneers Championship Contest. The championship auctioneering contest was hosted by the Wisconsin Auctioneers Association (WAA) at their annual convention at the Holiday Inn Convention Center in Stevens Point, WI on Jan. 27.

"I think we could really make a difference in the fundraising market," said Markham-Gehl. "There's so much more to it because we do a lot of consulting, so I'll work with non-profit organizations a year ahead of their events. There is a way to set up teh fundraising auction — set it up in a way to keep interest. It matters where everything is placed in the event."

Markham-Gehl graduated from the World Wide College of Auctioneering, the same school her dad attended in the 1980s. Less than 1% of auctioneers throughout North America hold the designation of Benefit Auction Specialist.

She is the founder of Milwaukee-based  Bravo Benefit Auctions and Consulting Group, a fundraising auction company providing professional auctioneer, ringmen and consulting services for non-profit organizations throughout the Midwest. Markham-Gehl is a member of the Wisconsin Auctioneers Association (WAA) and currently serves as a director for the WAA.

Hard work

Earning the title of state champion auctioneer takes hard work. Markham-Gehl was lucky to grow up in an auction family where he dad let her bid call. She's worked with many different auctioneers, helping them run multiple rings, trying to be involved in any auction opportunity she can. 

"Even if I'm not up there bid calling, when you're listening to other auctioneers, you're picking up on stuff, on how they do things," Markham-Gehl explained.  

She got involved with Toastmasters to help with public speaking. She's competed internationally a couple of times and competed in Iowa. This was her fourth time competing in Wisconsin. Last year she was state runner up. 

Wisconsin 2019 State Auctioneer Champion Jenny Markham-Gehl is pictured with her dad Jim Markham and brother Tim Markham. Tim was the Iowa state champion in 2014.

Auctioneer skills

Hand-in-hand with that hard work lies practice behind the wheel - hours and hours of practice.

"When I’m driving I’m counting fence posts, just really working and practicing that chant whenever I get the chance," said Markham-Gehl.

A good auctioneer needs to have rhythm in their chant. They have to know their numbers, forward and backward. They need to do research and know what they are selling, market that item and get people to come to the auction.

Most importantly, "you need to have good relationships with your buyers, with your bidders and with the crowd," Markham-Gehl said. "I work hard at being engaging." 

Farm background

The auctioneer legacy all started on the farm, when Jim Markham started auctioneering to make extra money as the farm economy hit hard times in Iowa. He went to auction school in 1983 and started his own business shortly after that.

"I've been in it ever since," said Jim. "The farm economy went kind of bad. I farmed. I went into it to help bring in more income."

It was "pretty sad" back then. A lot of foreclosures, "all pretty sad because their livelihood was gone," Jim said. 

Jim can remember working 10 days to get a farm auction ready, knowing the more money the seller could make, the more commission he would get. 

"This [fundraising auctions] is so much easier. There's no setting up," Jim noted. 

While Markham-Gehl hopes to make a difference through fundraising auctions, "at the end of the day, I still love going to those farm auctions and putting on boots and getting in jeans and getting right down there." 

As the 2019 champion, Markham-Gehl will represent the WAA by participating at auction events throughout Wisconsin. In July Markham-Gehl along with 2018 Champion Auctioneer Kathy Packard will be representing Wisconsin at the International Auctioneers Competition sponsored by the NAA in New Orleans, LA.

Troy Krueger from Eau Claire was named the Novice Champion at the convention. Krueger started in the auction business at age 17 and is currently employed at Andrews Auctions in Eau Claire. He is a graduate of the World Wide College of Auctioneering.