IGH POINT — By the time Becky Tarlton takes her position behind the counter, elevated above the No. 3 Express Lane at the Mendenhall Auto Action, she already has warmed up her vocal chords.
It’s a simple exercise friend Eli Detwiler, the 2010 International Auctioneer Champion, showed her once. You keep repeating, in a rhythmic, almost inhale-exhale fashion, “Let a little in, let a little out. Let a little in, let a little out.”
As she goes faster, Tarlton’s signature chant — every auctioneer has his or her own — rises to the surface and she’s ready to go.
“I’m a little sing-songy,” she says, “but on a good day it flows.”
Saturday mornings, Tarlton, a lifelong resident of Salisbury, is part of a team of auctioneers selling a vehicle every 30 to 45 seconds.
The Mendenhall auction typically sends an average of 400 cars through three different lanes. They come in one garage bay and out another on the opposite side, stopping in front of the auctioneer’s counter for a quick sale.
The thing setting Tarlton apart is she’s probably the only woman auto auctioneer in North Carolina.
“She the only one I know of in this part of the country,” owner and auctioneer Forrest Mendenhall says. “She’s good. She’s a good girl, period. She’s kind of an exception. You don’t complain about her.”
Tarlton places her purple bandana over the microphone — no use catching another auctioneer’s germs — and she starts right in, picking up where friend and fellow auctioneer Allen Todd leaves off.
Tarlton conducts each sale like the maestro of a small orchestra. Her eyes and ears have to be everywhere. She searches, of course, for bidders in the crowd and constantly checks with her floor people doing the same.
She has two claim clerks beside her and usually a seller whispering more facts about the vehicle into one ear or telling Tarlton how low he will go.
All the while, her sing-song chant hits high and low octaves as she goes through the numbers, settling on a starting price and usually going up by increments of $100 from there.
As her right hand holds the microphone, her left hand reaches out to bidders or drums on the counter to keep a beat to her song.
“And at the same time, she’s looking for what’s coming up next,” says Gary Cox, a longtime used car dealer in Thomasville. “She so fluid in what she does. In my opinion, Becky is one of the strongest, most spirited auctioneers there are.
“I think it’s because she can sell anything on the planet.”
In 10 minutes, Tarlton auctions off a converted Ford Ranger flatbed, a Toyota sport utility vehicle, a Chrysler convertible, a Mazda 626, a Silverado truck, two Honda Accords and a Dodge Neon.
She stays positive: “Sold it right there,” she says with a flourish and motioning to the winning bid. “Good buy, Buddy.”
“Hey, lookie here,” she says with excitement as a nice Mazda 626 rolls up to her.
At the very end of bidding, she sometimes has to leave her chant to negotiate directly with two bidders or bidder and seller.
One bidder says, “You’re killing me.”
“I’m not killing you,” Tarlton answers. “I’m trying to get you an automobile.”
The bidder relents.
“Sold — $1,500,” Tarlton says.
Tarlton, who calls herself as country as a lima bean, couldn’t help but want to be an auctioneer.
In 1926, when her father, Richard Atkins, was only 15, he already was auctioning off livestock to help support his family, which included 11 brothers and sisters.
“He was like listening to someone sing in the choir,” Tarlton says of her late father.
By age 17, Atkins traveled into Salisbury once a month for court day. On a particular Saturday, he was the auctioneer for a load of wild horses that had arrived by rail from South Dakota, and it was on that day he met Becky’s mother.
Atkins went on auctioneering at horse and other livestock shows, while also establishing a livery stable along Hogan’s Alley in Salisbury.
Tarlton, who is divorced, considers herself a third generation horseman who spent a considerable part of her life attending rodeos, horse shows and state fairs. She passed her passion for horses to her two grown sons, Jeremy and Josh, who are both farriers.
As she grew older, she would stand on a box in the yard, group her stuffed animals around her and start auctioning things off to them, as though they were bidders.
“I wanted it so bad,” she says.
But her father insisted she try something else. She took retail marketing and managing courses at Rowan Technical College and spent about seven years working for the Eckerd’s drugstore chain.
Her career took a dramatic turn later when she became a security guard at the McGuire Nuclear Station, roaming the grounds with a gun on her hip.
All the time, she was still going to horse shows, and she sometimes was asked to sell the runs for timed events there. After hearing her, people said she should consider auctioneering as a profession.
Tarlton still saw barriers to women auctioneers, especially when it came to things she loved — livestock and automobiles.
Women auctioneers were doing better in the worlds of estate sales, antiques and fine art.
In February 1987, Tarlton went to the Mendenhall Auctioneering School for the required 80 hours of education. She attended school for 14 straight days, then took the state exam. “It’s really intense,” she says of the whole process.
Tarlton started out as an auctioneer for livestock and estates. She owes her first chance at selling cars at auction to Brinkley Moore, owner of Dealer’s Auto Auction in Greenville. That happened in 1996.
“Everybody flooded over to see that woman sell a car,” she recalls.
Tarlton kept going for 45 minutes before she was told she could take a break.
“I said, ‘Man, I was just getting started,’” she says.
Tarlton was used to working livestock shows without a break for eight to 10 hours — 45 minutes was nothing.
By 2000, Mendenhall Auto Auction hired her to work every Saturday. When she isn’t the auctioneer, she’s on the floor helping the sale as a ringman or grinder.
Tarlton loves the speed of an auto auction and how diverse the crowd of dealers, sellers and bidders are.
“You have to read people,” Tarlton says, describing the instincts she has picked up in knowing when someone is going higher or set on staying where they are on a bid.
Todd, a well-known tobacco auctioneer and mayor of Wallburg, says an auctioneer’s clarity is the most important thing, and Tarlton has it. The ability to chant fast yet be understood is especially important on days when many in the audience have never been to a car auction before and don’t have the ear for it that experienced dealers do.
“Becky is a workhorse,” Todd says. “She has a passion for the industry.”
A past competitor in the International Auctioneer Championship and the 2003 state bid-calling champion in the women’s division, Tarlton is busy away from the weekly auto auction.
She worked as a contract auctioneer last year when the prestigious Iron Horse Auction group of Rockingham sold the assets of the Chinqua Penn Plantation in Reidsville.
Some $4 million in assets were sold at the auction, conducted at the Greensboro Coliseum. Besides the hundreds in attendance, 25 operators were taking bids by telephone.
“I really enjoy being a part of the Iron Horse team,” Tarlton says. “Of course, it is on an as-needed basis, but their auctions are always above and beyond. They are a truly professional company that encompasses new idea and puts them to work in everyday business. I have learned a lot from them.”
With Iron Horse, Tarlton also participated as an auctioneer in selling the assets of Phelon Motorsports in Aiken, S.C., and Junior Johnson’s farm in Hamptonville.
Twice a year, Tarlton serves as auctioneer at the Dixie Horse Auction at the Iredell County Fairgrounds in Troutman. The huge event draws 3,000 registered bidders, and Tarlton is usually one of 18 auctioneers — and, again, the only woman.
Through the National Auctioneers Association, Tarlton met Renee Jones and her company, NP Solutions of Chicago. NP Solutions frequently sends Tarlton to different states to set up or check out auction items — mostly at large commercial sites.
Tarlton spent 10 days, for example, in Springfield, Mo., finishing up the sale of assets for a Solo Cup factory.
For the first time this year, Tarlton also served as a continuing education instructor for N.C. auctioneers. She teaches for the Carolina Auction Academy, based at the Crutchfield campus of Stanly County Community College.
She recently went on the road, teaching in Kinston, Williamston and Cherokee. At Kinston, she taught a class of 147 students at one time.
Auctioneers must complete four hours of continuing education each year to keep their license.
Tarlton is licensed in North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina and a member of the state and national auctioneering associations.
Over time Tarlton has sold unusual things, such as ostriches and camels.
Sometimes she finds herself selling other things she’s not familiar with.
Rich and Rich Auction Co, once hired her as an auctioneer for a commercial farm sale in Elizabeth City. The assets included huge combines and farm tractors.
“I had no earthly idea of the value,” Tarlton says. “… There were other auctioneers there, and I thought, perhaps, I would be a ringman. I was wrong. I was the auctioneer for the day.”
The auction company’s owner had laryngitis, but he stayed close to Tarlton, giving her an idea of what things were worth.
The event had more than a thousand bidders — all men. All of the auction company’s workers on the floor were men, too.
“The only women on the entire farm were the two in sales office collecting money,” Tarlton recalls. “But it was a good day.”
Every third Saturday at the Mendenhall sale, the auction also includes large equipment, such as tractors and bulldozers.
“It is exciting to see deals come together,’ Tarlton says.
Tarlton enjoys doing charity auctions for churches and nonprofit organizations. Every year, she helps raise money for the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro, but she would like to do more of these kinds of events closer to home in Salisbury.
Though she travels a lot for NP Solutions, she also is seeking more business in Rowan County and nearby Davidson and Davie counties.
Auctioneers are more than bid-callers — the job Tarlton is really doing at the auto auction. They must be able to write contracts, accept consignments, advertise, offer items for sale, accept payments and disperse the monies collected.
Tarlton can do all of that and is available for estate, farm equipment and industrial and commercial equipment sales, as well as foreclosures, liquidations and bankruptcies.
Tarlton promotes the auction method of marketing as “the absolute fastest way to turn assets into cash.”
“We put the most buyers in position at one time to purchase the item they desire,” she says.
Though brought up on old-time auctioneering, Tarlton enjoys when online bidding is part of auctions.
“I love live auctions best, of course, but it really brings the world to you when you include internet bidding,” she says. “Nowhere else could you bring that many people together at the exact same moment to achieve the highest possible price for your seller.”
Tarlton knows how to adapt and survive. When the most recent recession hit and the government was paying cash for clunkers, the car auction business went from three and four sales a week, to one, to none for about four months.
Tarlton is quick to point out there was no unemployment for her kind of work.
“I was determined not to leave the business I loved,” she says, and she seized every opportunity that came along, from teaching, to NP Solutions, to working for Iron Horse.
Gary Cox, the Thomasville car dealer, sees her passion all the time at the High Point sales.
“If I opened an auction house today, she would be one of my first choices as an auctioneer,” he says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or email@example.com.