When Steve Wagman founded Sterling Bailiffs in 1994, he had no idea it would spawn such a successful enterprise of other related businesses. Its brother company, Platinum Liquidations Inc. is a prominent auction centre and storage facility in the Greater Toronto Area, which services the likes of the Toronto Police Service, York Regional Police, and the City of Toronto. We spoke to Steve to learn the ins and outs of the auction business, including what he considers to be his best-selling items and how he markets his business in such a competitive industry.
How did you get into the auction business?
We started off as a bailiff company, Sterling Bailiffs. Repossessing items was a big part of our business, and once you repossess something you have to sell it. So the auction business seemed like a natural “next step” considering the nature of our initial business. The business really started to grow however, a short while after we got into the auction business. We were approached by the Federal government under their Proceeds of Crime Act and asked if we could sell off some of their assets which were seized from, and I quote, “bad guys”. After we began selling some assets for them, the Provincial government asked us to do the same. They were seizing large assets like cars, motorcycles, and trucks, and soon they began asking us if we could store these items for them, which is how our storage business came to be. If you can imagine, it was sort of a domino effect from one business to another. We started storing hundreds of cars and motorcycles, and held onto them during the court process. Once they were forfeited to the crown, we would auction them off, take our commission, and give the court the proceeds so they could pay her majesty the Queen.
From where do you receive the majority of your products?
A lot of our clients are private companies. We get a lot of companies wanting to liquidate stock. We have lighting fixture companies, plumbing companies, and so on. Whatever the product is, we sell it, take our commission off of it and give them the proceeds. In the end, two years ago, the Toronto Police Service awarded us a contract to sell their unclaimed and found items. In this case, they wanted us to auction off the items but do so online. In order to keep up with the request, we started an online auction site. Though we originally built it to accommodate the Toronto Police Service, we soon began receiving stock from the York Regional Police as well. You know they’ve got thousands and thousands of bicycles and that sort of thing. Soon we figured, why not put our stock on the site as well? Fast forward to two years later and we now have a contract with the City of Toronto to liquidate all of their surplus assets. We work with other companies like Vallen, who also have a lot of surplus assets that they send for us to sell. We also work with a lot of charities like Habitat for Humanity and the Diabetes Association. They get a lot of assets donated to them which is great, but they would benefit more from the cash so they turn these items over to us, we liquidate them, and give them the profits.
How do you advertise or market your services when you’re in a business like this?
We don’t do a lot of advertising to be honest, especially since we cut down on the number of live auctions we do. The Toronto Police Service’s website is linked to ours and so is the City of Toronto’s. Most of our clients come from those types of “endorsements” you can say, and that’s some really powerful marketing. We had the site up for about six months when the City of Toronto wanted us to liquidate all of their decommissioned street signs. That was back in May of 2014. Plenty of newspapers and radio stations picked up on this and when they announced the decommissioned street sign sale we had 1.35 million hits within the first two hours. It was great free publicity. The site has tens of thousands of users at this point. Every day, more and more people are signing up and a lot of it is through word of mouth.
What are some examples of products you commonly receive? What is the appraisal process for them?
Most people bring bicycles, electronics, and jewelry. We always have a lot of jewelry since there are a lot of wholesale jewelers who are processing the product itself and we sell it for a lot less than retail. So if you buy something, you are getting a deal. If it’s a very expensive item we have it appraised by a third party, sometimes a second outside party will have a look as well. That way we can certify that the item is what it’s said to be. In house we have three certified personal property appraisers, not for jewellery but for reviewing assets when we do a closure of a business. They can go in and appraise the equipment, furniture and that sort of thing.
What would you consider the most stressful part of the job?
I would have to say that the most stressful part of the job is not being able to sell something for what it’s worth. Sometimes in the auction business, you get a real deal and our contenders have to realize that sometimes things might go cheap, other times they might be sold for more than they’re worth. Another thing is that sometimes we are getting a lot of product coming in, and if it’s coming in in big quantities! It gets stressful to bring it all in and then sort it all out. It takes quite a bit of time to photograph all of the items coming in and then upload them onto the site.
Which category of products would you say sells the best?
Everything sells. When we put something on the site, it sells. The bicycles are always selling. As soon as they get put on we get bids on them. All the bidding starts at one dollar, and whatever the highest bid is when the auction closes is the winner. Other things that are usually in demand are work wear and tools. There is a big demand for tools in the market. Household appliances and hardware go fast as well.
What is the most expensive item you’ve sold at an auction?
Last month we sold a Maserati for $160,000 when all was said and done. It was a few years old, low mileage and in mint condition. We also sold a couple of cement trucks for $115,000. The trucks were retrieved from a bank repossession, but the Maserati was a part of the Proceeds of Crime.
Which do you find is more popular, the live auctions or online auctions? Why do you think that is?
The online auction has tens of thousands of users. For the live auction, there’s only a few hundred. We’re finding that it’s more beneficial to do it online. Now that we have the online auctions set up, our costs have been reduced because they are live 24/7. Live auctions are becoming less frequent. We still do them, probably around once a month. But by doing the auctions online and shifting away from live auctions we’re eliminating all of the advertising and promotional work we would otherwise have to do for it. Eliminating all that extra labour ends up saving us time and money. For items like vehicles we still like to do them live. For things like that people still like to slam the doors and kick the tires. Online a picture can be a little deceptive because you’re not going to see all of the nicks, dents, and scratches that a car will have.
Is there any specific advice you could offer someone looking to get into the liquidation/auction business?
The auction business is one of the oldest businesses in the world, it’s been around forever. In order to get into these days, you should do what it takes to get into any other business; get a job with someone who’s in the business and learn from them. I’d say a mentor would be the first step.
Platinum Liquidations is located at 1001 Petrolia Road in Toronto. Keep up with their online auctions by visiting their website, or email John or Steve for more information on liquidating your assets.