A match made on the auction block
Holt’s quest for bargain furniture leads to love, thriving business
Steve Holt was calling an auction in Colorado Springs in 1992 when he spotted a woman unlike any he’d ever seen.
A well-fed Colorado boy raised in the auction business, Holt stood tall on the block as he sold furniture to the highest bidders. Accustomed to cowboy hats, belt buckles and starched jeans, when he saw the young lady with the big hair, make-up and bedazzle, he fumbled his words.
“The only time I became tongue-tied while doing an auction was when that Southern belle walked in,” Holt says.
The Southern belle was Paige Hutcheson, a 21-year-old spitfire from Tennessee. A recent transplant to Colorado Springs, she was there to buy furniture for her new apartment. But when she walked into the auction house, she found love, as well.
Today, the former Miss Hutcheson is Paige Holt, wife and mother of three. She’s also the majority owner of Compass Auctions & Real Estate, a regional company headquartered in Chattanooga.
It’s a job that keeps Paige busy, to put it lightly. “I’m not familiar with the 40-hour work week,” she explains. Her phone dings, announcing the arrival of text message number 17,001. (This is no exaggeration; there are over 17,000 texts on her phone.)
Paige is, however, familiar with the ins and outs of running an auction company – and it involves more than standing on the block and calling for bids.
“Auctioneering is a true profession. You’re dealing with people’s assets, and you have a responsibility to manage them appropriately,” she says. “Then you have the back end, which is accounting, marketing, booking the labor and so on.”
As an auctioneer, Paige also works with bankers, attorneys and government entities daily. “Then I’ll be helping a family that’s mourning a heart-breaking loss, so I deal with a broad spectrum of people with different needs,” she adds.
All of this might sound par for the course for the owner of an auction company, but Compass is no ordinary auction firm.
Paige and Steve formed Compass in 2010 at their kitchen table. They held their first auction – a consignment auction for heavy equipment – in a rain-soaked field in Soddy Daisy. “We decided to roll it out and put it in God’s hands,” Paige remembers.
The auction went well. Afterward, Paige and her husband realized they had stumbled onto a niche market and started working to develop it. Thirty days after their maiden auction in Soddy Daisy, they landed a contract with TVA to sell the equipment the company used to build the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.
“We were one of the first companies after 9/11 to hold a live auction at an active nuclear plant,” Paige says.
Word spread quickly, and each year since 2010, Compass has not just doubled the amount of business it’s doing but also grown in size. What began at a kitchen table now includes a 50,000 square-foot warehouse in Chattanooga, additional locations in Lebanon, Nashville and Western Kentucky plus a small but productive staff.
With its focus on government surplus, heavy equipment, vehicles and land, Compass owns the bragging rights to several major transactions, including the auctioning off of a state-owned property on James Robertson Parkway in downtown Nashville for $8.9 million.
Compass also unloaded Stein Construction’s fleet of excavators, dozers, backhoes, trucks and other equipment as the Chattanooga builder closed its doors after 105 years in business.
That project, however, was a cakewalk compared to the time the company emptied a packed 82,000-square-foot warehouse in Atlanta in two days.
Along the way, Compass has often had to innovate on the fly. When faced with the prospect of auctioning off and moving a 60-ton vertical mill, for example, Paige and her team commissioned a 30-ton crane with overhead rigging to remove it and place it on the transport.
Then there were the trains Paige auctioned off. “I don’t wake up every morning and say, ‘I’m going to auction off a locomotive today,’” she offers, “but that happened.”
The next day, Paige auctioned off two locomotives.
“We experience something new every day, so every day is a new adventure,” Paige adds. “It gets me up in the morning and keeps me motivated.”
Compass was also one of the first auction companies in the Southeast to do live webcasts with online bidding, which broadened their geographic reach and enabled them to sell hundreds of lots during a single auction.
A woman in a man’s world
As each new building block in Paige and Steve’s business was cemented into place, one thing became more and more apparent: Paige was operating in what has traditionally been a man’s world – a realm of industrial tools, big machines and egos to match.
“A lot of people think of an auctioneer as a man,” Paige says. “Only 16 percent of the auctioneers who belong to the National Auctioneers Association are women. In the areas of government and industrial surplus, it’s even less than that. “That makes it difficult for women to break into this industry.”
Even though the odds were against her, Paige has broken through her industry’s glass ceiling to become not only a successful female auctioneer but the owner of the only Women’s Business Enterprise certified woman-owned real estate auction entity in Tennessee.
Regardless, Paige has encountered skepticism from male clients, who are generally unaccustomed to doing business with a woman. On one occasion, a client at a farmer’s auction was selling a large piece of equipment he was certain would fetch the full retail price, despite the item being heavily used.
“People sometimes become attached to their belongings, and the perceived value versus the actual value differs,” Paige explains.
As Paige tried to correct the man, he continually talked over her and brushed her aside. The issue was not chauvinism, Paige says, but his lack of experience with female auctioneers.
“A lot of people look at me and assume I don’t know anything because I’m short, blonde and have a Southern accent,” Paige acknowledges. “I overcome those misconceptions by educating myself and then winning people over.”
As the auctioneer, Paige had done her homework and was prepared to talk knowledgeably about the equipment. But instead of asserting herself in an aggressive manner, she simply stepped up and presented the facts:
“Gentlemen, this is a D8 crawler with an S-Blade and Ripper,” she said. “The dozer undercarriage is at 30 percent and the track is at 50 percent, so it’s not going to bring in $50,000. This is a $22,000 piece of equipment.”
Thank you, ladies and gentleman, and goodnight.
After Paige explained the value of the equipment based on its specs and condition, the man’s attitude did a one-eighty. “It’s about integrity and education,” Paige continues. “Ever since he saw that I’m capable and experienced, we’ve had a great working relationship.’’
It also helped that the piece of equipment sold for precisely what Paige predicted.
“I don’t beat around the bush,” she says. “You probably won’t like some of the things I say, but you’ll appreciate them when you’re on the other side of an auction because they’re going to save you a lot of headaches.”
Steve says that while the auction industry has been a man’s world, the advent of online auctions has allowed more women to become a part of the industry and impact it in positive ways.
“Our industry has become softer and more informative because women are more detail-oriented than men,” he adds.
By “softer,” Steve does not mean “less skilled.” An award-winning auctioneer, he rates his wife higher as an auctioneer than she rates herself. “Paige has more talent than she knows,” he says.
Paige has proven her mettle on the block, and not just by selling locomotives. Having her available for auctions has allowed Compass to make considerable headway into the charity world.
Paige enjoys serving as an auctioneer at fundraisers. “I like helping them raise more money,” she says. “Some charities work for a year or more to plan for one night, and then they hire a local celebrity to handle the bidding for their auction. While it’s great to have a celebrity on stage, an auctioneer is the one person who has the ability to bring in more revenue.”
Paige isn’t joking about being able to use her auctioneering skills to raise money for a nonprofit. Once, while handling the bidding for a March of Dimes fundraiser, she passed a hat and around the room and had everyone drop in a little cash. Paige then auctioned off the hat, convinced the winner to donate it back to March of Dimes and then sold it again.
She had re-sold the hat several times during the auction and raised an extra $16,000.
Paige is proud of what she’s accomplished with Compass, not because it elevates her in the eyes of others but because she’s thrilled to be paving the pathway for more women to enter the auction industry.
“Women are learning that they don’t have to go into the medical, banking, or legal field to be successful,” she points out. “They can make something of themselves outside of the traditional sphere of job offers. That’s exciting.”
Life before Compass
Paige may have grown up to be a trailblazer, but there was nothing extraordinary about her childhood, although it did provide her with a rich tapestry of good memories.
Paige was born and raised in Bledsoe County, which she describes as “a beautiful place with many great people.”
“We would wander through town, ride bicycles through the neighborhoods, or ride motorcycles on our grandparents’ farm,” she remembers. “If we ever stepped out of line, our parents knew about it before we made it home.”
Family time consisted of trail rides, four-wheeling through the mountains and bonfires. Paige never thought about how she enjoyed the things boys typically did; she just jumped in and had fun.
Paige’s first memories of the auction world are tied to her grandparents, who took her to the stockyard auctions when she was 4. She remembers loving the fried apple pies and fresh pork rinds.
The entrepreneurial spirit ran as deep through her family as the waters that ran through Fall Creek Falls, where she and her siblings would swim in the summer. Paige’s parents owned convenience stores, beauty shops, car dealerships and more, and aunts and uncles on both sides of her family ran auction firms.
Paige’s parents expected her to contribute to the family businesses. “I had to work when I was younger,” she recalls. “That instilled a strong work ethic in me.”
After graduating from high school, Paige entered the paralegal program at Chattanooga State in the hopes of finding work within the “traditional sphere of job offers” for women. Then, not long before she had earned enough credits to graduate, she took a life-changing trip to Colorado.
Paige didn’t know she was about to take a hard right turn in life as she headed west; she was simply going to visit friends. But once there, she loved it enough to stay.
“I was 21 and ready for a change. I had an adventurous spirit and I wanted to see and experience something different,” she recounts. “So, I called my mom and said, ‘I have an apartment. Would you bring my car to me?’ I wasn’t afraid to hit the gas and go.”
After recovering from the shock, Paige’s mom drove her daughter’s car to Colorado. Then the pair hit the local thrift shops and auction houses to furnish Paige’s apartment.
A month to the day after Paige arrived in Colorado, she purchased a carved ivory side table with a glass top at an auction house. But that’s not the only thing she picked up; that was also the day she met Steve.
“Mom kept elbowing me in the ribs and telling me he was cute. I was looking for a job, so she asked him if he knew anyone, and he asked for my phone number,” Paige adds. “We got married one year later.”
Since nearly none of the credits Paige had earned at Chattanooga State would transfer to a Colorado school, she skipped finishing her degree and went to work.
After leasing apartments for a short time, she took a job with the district attorney in Colorado Springs, then the entrepreneurial bug bit her and she started providing concessions for auction houses.
As Paige and Steve settled into their life together, their entrepreneurial ambitions grew. Paige went from running a concessions business to launching a real estate investment company with her husband. She and Steve then opened a powersport and tractor dealership.
The couple also had three kids. When they moved to Tennessee in 2007 to be close to Paige’s family, they brought the real estate investment company with them.
After taking a few years to settle into their new life, Paige and Steve sat down at their kitchen table and founded Compass. She became the majority owner with 51 percent of the company, while Steve received the remaining 49 percent, making Compass a rare breed in the auction world.
While Paige has the strength and fortitude of a pioneer woman, she still struggles with the same issues other business owners face.
In addition to managing a company, Paige has maintained a household and raised three kids, often on her own. “Steve is gone 75 percent of the time,” she estimates. “He did 172 auctions last year – while we had an active business and three kids in school.”
With this in mind, Paige says the biggest obstacle she’s encountered hasn’t been gaining respect of her male peers but finding a balance between running a growing company and taking care of her family.
“That’s been hard,” she says, her face tightening slightly. “I’ve discovered that achieving a balance is a myth. Most days, it’s about surviving the chaos.”
Paige wouldn’t trade the chaos for an easier life, though. To do that, she would have to discard a big part of who she’s become. “Compass is not just a job or business to us; it’s a lifestyle. We eat, sleep and breathe for our industry and truly invest our whole selves in it.”
Steve is proud of Paige and even more impressed with her today than he was the day she walked into his auction and made him fumble his words. Without dropping any syllables, he describes her as being “dedicated to her staff, committed to her clients and tenacious in all things.”
Steve adds her greatest asset, however, is her flexibility. “When we did the auctions in Soddy, she would come out in mud boots, a ball cap and a pair of jeans,” he recalls. “She still does that today, then she changes into a dress and goes to a benefit auction. She’ll get in the mud with us and then be the belle of the ball.”
Paige is simply pleased to be living a life that’s unique and offers value to others. “I’m proud to be a woman auctioneer,” she says. “It takes a certain amount of wherewithal to go to toe-to-toe with the major players in the industry, but I have a job to do, and if I’m not capable of doing it, then I’m not going to move forward and neither is this company.”
And neither, some might argue, would her industry.