Finding Her Calling

A big black bug bit a big black bear.

Repeatedly.

Two years ago, Johnna Wells spent 13 days in an Indiana auctioneers’ school reciting that sentence over and over until she could say it as cleanly and quickly as Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.

Mastering the tongue-twister paid off. Last month, the 27-year-old Southeast Portland resident became the youngest female international auctioneer champion in recorded history.

Though recorded history goes back only to 1994, when the women’s division of the national championship began, the honor has become the auctioneering world’s equivalent of winning the Miss Universe contest. Wells will share the limelight with Cary Aasness of Dalton, Minn., who bested 66 others to become the men’s division champion.

Wells, 27, will travel the globe in the coming year as the female ambassador of the National Auctioneers Association. The industry’s top trade organization represents 6,500 members in the United States, Canada, Australia and several other countries.

Her duties will include teaching people that auctioneering is more than just a bunch of fast talk. Today, auctioneering involves consulting with clients about timetables, procuring and appraising auction items, and advising on marketing and public relations.

Wells shatters the stereotype of an auctioneer as a grizzled gramp in a cowboy hat who sells cattle with a patter faster than a NASCAR pace car. She is a second-generation auctioneer who specializes in benefit auctions — fund-raisers for charities such as Morrison Child and Family Services, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and the Rose Festival Association. Though cattle, farm equipment and motor vehicles are still among the biggest segments of the auction industry, more and more not-for-profit organizations are relying on annual auctions to supplement their budgets.

Wells is definitely not all talk — although talking had a lot to do with her winning the championship.

She was judged on her rhythm, chant, clarity and ability to engage the audience as she auctioned off three items: a Dell laptop computer, a pair of Victorian bracelets and a full-page ad in Arts and Antiques Weekly. She also had to answer various questions about the profession in front of hundreds of fellow auctioneers.

“My knees were buckling,” she says.

By the end of the contest, Wells’ 22 competitors were going, going, gone.

Wells says she intends to spend the year traveling and talking about the growing role of women — particularly young women — in a business dominated by men. Only about 7 percent of the auctioneer association’s members are women, she says.

She also wants to sell the value of live auctions for not-for-profit organizations, which often overlook auctions in favor of rummage sales and other fund-raising activities.

“She’s dynamite,” says Bill Sheridan, president-elect of the National Auctioneers Association, the world’s largest auctioneers group. “She’s one of the best ladies that’s won in the last few years.”

Sheridan said Wells will be a good spokeswoman for a profession that’s going through “a major paradigm shift” from the stereotypical cattle-seller to auctioneers who are younger, sophisticated and eloquent.

As for the auction industry, Sheridan and Wells point to studies by Morpace International that show live auctions growing from $189.8 billion in 2003 to a projected $217.3 billion this year, not including charity auctions.

Morpace says charity auctions grew from $13.4 billion in 2003 to $14.5 billion in 2004.

Wells grew up in Post Falls, Idaho, in a family that sold real estate and personal property, including items on consignment, antiques and collectibles. Her father, Randy Wells, got into the business 25 years ago, when he bought an auction business from an acquaintance on the spur of the moment.

Though Randy and Annette Wells hoped their daughter and son would take over the business some day, the children inherited their mother’s love of art and left to earn college degrees in fine arts. After college, Johnna Wells moved in 2001 to Portland, where she made and sold jewelry under her Olio Designs label.

In 2003, while taking a month off to help her parents auction off the family estate during a downsizing move, Johnna recalled the fun she used to have with her family during auctions. Suddenly, it occurred to her that auctioneering could be an exciting career.

She told her parents that she wanted to go to auctioneers’ school and learn the craft.

“My head got really big,” says Randy Wells, himself a 2004 Idaho state champion and a director of the National Auctioneers Association. “I couldn’t get out the door. Thinking about it, it still gets to me a little bit.”

She enrolled in the Reppert School of Auctioneering in Auburn, Ind., studying up to 12 hours a day for 13 days. She learned auction law, marketing, management, accounting and ethics, which addresses such issues as how to represent the best interests of a buyer and a seller at the same time.

And she learned to say, “A big black bug bit a big black bear.” (She admits to limbering up her mouth these days with a numbers-and-words chant in her car with the radio turned up.)

After winning the Northwest Rookie Champion title in 2003, Wells contacted Steven Talbot of Portland-based Talbot Auctions and Fundraising. Talbot specializes in benefit auctions, having conducted more than 2,000 of them since 1980 and raising more than $120 million for a variety of not-for-profit organizations such as Self Enhancement Inc. and The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families.

Talbot says Wells called at just the right time. He was beginning his search for a talented woman auctioneer who could not only do bid-calling but also could consult with clients about the fund-raising process from beginning to end. Talbot says he felt benefit auctions were growing so large that they needed the additional perspective that women could bring.

In Wells, he found a woman who could walk the talk and talk the walk.

“Johnna is natural, and she lights it up,” Talbot says. “She’s comfortable and confident and enjoys that give-and-take and repartee with that audience.”

Wells, however, is occasionally caught tongue-tied.

“She would call me up after auctions,” Randy Wells says, “and be completely — how do I say this? — she would cry after some of them, she was so happy with how they went.”