Leadership Lessons from the CEO of the Largest Collector Car Auction Company
In this ongoing series, we share tips, tricks, and insights from real entrepreneurs who struggle in business daily. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you and what is your job?
My name is Dave Magers and I am the CEO of Mecum Auctions. Mecum Auctions is the world’s largest collector car auction company, offering approximately 22,000 lots for auction each year, spread over 18 annual events across the country. Offerings include classic and collectible cars, vintage motorcycles, antique farm tractors and automotive memorabilia. Each January, Mecum hosts both the World’s Largest Collector Car Auction in Kissimmee, Florida and the World’s Largest Collector Motorcycle Auction in Las Vegas, Nevada.
What inspired its creation?
The company was started in 1988 by Dana and Patti Mecum around their kitchen table in Marengo, Illinois. Dana Mecum has always been a car guy and comes from a long car-focused line. His father was the largest fleet dealer in the United States at one time. Dana’s focus, interest and expertise in the automotive business comes naturally from her family heritage. He is passionate about vintage cars.
Mecum remains a family business with Dana, Patti and their four sons all actively filling roles in the business today.
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What was your “aha moment” when you came to extend the already existing success and vision?
For the first 24 years of Mecum Auctions, the organization enjoyed considerable success and was one of the leaders in the industry. However, the brand’s recognition and strength in the market was not indicative of the company’s success. Although Mecum was one of the biggest in the collector car auction business, it wasn’t the most recognizable brand. Starting in 2013, we started to invest heavily in the brand and in Mecum as an entertainment company, not just an auction company.
Among other things, we moved our television programming to NBCSN to expand our reach to viewers outside of traditional car enthusiasts. We created and launched a new website. We built a new stage and a new TV set. We have launched a comprehensive magazine. We have built and launched a new auction and online auction management system. We started our own transport and financing activities. Many other investments in addition to these examples have been made over several years.
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Often, brand investments are difficult for an organization as they require large upfront funds over a long period of time with uncertain benefits accruing much later. For Mecum, these investments made many years ago have resulted in the explosion of the company’s success, especially in recent years.
What has been your biggest challenge and how have you pivoted to overcome it?
Of course, with phenomenal growth comes growing pains. Growth requires change, and change is hard for people. I remember reading the book Who moved my cheese? by Spencer Johnson many years ago during my career in the financial services industry. It’s a great discussion about human resistance to change and how to overcome it. We engaged every employee in the process of planning our future and the changes we needed to make. I think every employee felt they had a say in the process and were invested in our success. Coupled with excessive communication and extensive training, we were able to avoid much of the resistance to change normally encountered in an established organization.
Recently, the biggest challenge we had as a live event business was, of course, the pandemic. Mecum was in the middle of an auction at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona in March 2020 when the world came to an abrupt halt. We returned home to our offices in Wisconsin not knowing what the future held for us in general, but specifically what it held for Mecum as a live event organization.
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Over the course of two months, senior management staff developed a strategy, changed processes and developed an 11-page security protocol plan to allow us to safely return to live event auctions with buyers and in-person vendors. We’ve started talking about our plans with state and local health officials, governors, mayors and site managers. Our planning culminated in Mecum returning to live events at the end of June 2020. At that time, and for a long time afterwards, we were not only the only collector car auction company hosting live events, but the only company to hold live events, period. More importantly, we were able to demonstrate that it could be done safely. As a result, our business has grown significantly over the past two years, helping us achieve numerous event records and a world record for the most sales in one year by a collector car company and the most large number of sales at a single classic car auction.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs for financing?
The key to financing for entrepreneurs is to seek strategic capital, not just capital. Whether it’s stocks or debt, look for a partner who brings something to the table besides money. Look for partners who understand your vision, share your enthusiasm, and are ready to customize capital programs to meet both your current and future needs. The business will grow and change. Your credit or equity facilities must have the ability to be equally fluid.
When seeking funding, be sure to be clear in your description of your vision, what you intend to accomplish, how you plan to get there, and what the outcome of your efforts will be. Provide frequent detailed updates on progress. Be transparent to a fault.
I always treat the search for capital partners like a job interview. Ask what your potential funding partners bring to the table that will benefit the organization besides money.
We have been very fortunate to have several very good debt partners offering seamless corporate credit facilities that are customized to fit our ever-changing business and unique needs.
What does the word “entrepreneur” mean to you?
Entrepreneurs do what they do because they have a passion for it. Yes, everyone in business likes to make a profit, but for an entrepreneur, I don’t think that’s a priority. Successful entrepreneurs have immense passion for what they do. They are not primarily motivated by money. They are driven by their passion. They welcome adversity and challenges. They are nimble and creative. It’s about building something and creating a legacy.
What do many budding business owners think they need that they don’t really need?
You don’t need to know and be an expert in everything. Successful business owners understand what they do well and what they don’t. They seek to surround themselves with those who excel in areas they do not master.
Is there a particular quote or saying that you use as personal motivation?
I live in several. I like to say to my staff, “Even the Constitution has 27 amendments. The thing is, you’ll never get it exactly perfect the first time. Everything is a work in progress, and there is always room for improvement.
“You can never go wrong doing the right thing.” My boss at my first job, when I was 15, answered questions this way. For years I thought it was his way of avoiding having to make a decision. Later in life, I realized how profound that simple statement was. Just do what is right, and in the long run, it will be the right decision.
Finally, my wife, Karen, and I have always lived by the motto, “Leave it better than you found it.” We try to adhere to it in our professional careers as well as in our personal lives. No matter how small the improvement, if everyone were to aspire to this motto, the world would continue to improve.