Originally published in Business Digest, May 1998

I've got 20, who'll give me 25?

by Julia Lynam

An auctioneer needs to know a little about a lot of things,” Thomas J. Hirchak Jr. says, musing on his colorful past. He didn’t set out to be an auctioneer — like so much else in his life, it just seemed to be a good idea at the time. And, unlike some of his other schemes — it was!

“The general picture of an auctioneer is of someone selling chairs under a tree,” says Hirchak, explaining that, in fact, the sale is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a huge amount of work that goes on in the background, first to make sure auction is the right course to take, then to inventory and appraise every item and, in the case of real estate, check the title and liens on the property to make sure the sale goes through smoothly.

Thomas J. Hirchak Jr.“The finest things are sold at auction,” according to Thomas J. Hirchak Jr. who established Thomas Hirchak Co. of Morrisville in 1979 following a two-week course in auctioneering. His initial assetts were a $350 public address system and his car.
(Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Hirchak’s office is in a modest building that formerly housed the Morrisville commission sales. “So it’s been an auction house since 1946,” he says. He lives in the town, having moved there in 1965 to buy first a small “hobby” farm, then a larger dairy farm at Cady’s Falls. The farm was not one his better ideas, and turned into something of a nightmare. At the same time, he was also in a partnership on a 40,000 bird chicken-raising venture, and he realized one morning he was coming to the end of his tether. “I was over-leveraged when I bought the farm, then I had two bad crop years. One Sunday morning I was in the chicken house at 5 a.m., shoveling manure. The feeder was broken, the smell of ammonia was overpowering, and I wanted to do something with my kids that day. I just thought: ‘I need to get on with my life.’”

By this time he’d already had a wide variety of life experiences, all of which helped contribute to knowing a little about a lot of things.

Raised in Torrington, Conn., by parents who ran a grocery store, Hirchak had done two stints at college, first studying electrical engineering at the University of Hartford, then enrolling in Vermont’s Goddard College where, among other things, he studied pottery and silversmithing. During and after Goddard he lived in Stowe, teaching skiing, running a ski lodge, making jewelry, and selling insurance, before his ill-fated foray into farming.

But, to return to Hirchak’s story of that Sunday morning in the chicken house: “Dick Posey, who used to own Lake Buick on Dorset Street in South Burlington, always used to tell me I could make $40,000 a year selling cars,” he says. “So I decided to take him up on it.”

After a successful 18 months as a car salesman Hirchak wasn’t enjoying himself. “It wasn’t stimulating enough — I needed to be involved in development,” he says. Then came another Sunday morning moment of inspiration when a friend, Morrisville cattle dealer Sonny Miller, said: “Tom, why don’t you go to auction school?”

It was the idea Hirchak had been waiting for. “Next day I called around to auction schools,” he says. “I found one I liked and went for a two-week course in Kansas City, Mo., in June 1979, where I got the fundamentals. Because I already had a real estate license (he’d also worked for a land developer) they put me in classes on real estate auctioneering. I came back and got into it seriously full-time. At that time my assets comprised a $350 P.A. system that I’d had to borrow the money to buy, and my car!” But Hirchak had finally found what he wanted to be when he grew up. The timing was right and the rest is history.

Specializing at first in real estate, which still makes up a large part of the business, he doubled his earnings in each of the first five years, then settled down to steady growth. Twenty years later auctioneering is still a growing business.

The Thomas Hirchak Co. is now Vermont’s biggest property auctioneer. “I got into auctioneering 20 years ago, when it was just busting out,” Hirchak says. And it’s a big market. The total value of property auctioned nationwide rose to $161 billion last year, according to a recent Gallup poll quoted in the March edition of Auctioneer magazine.

“But we don’t do half of that!” adds Terry Owen, vice president of the Hirchak company and a specialist in real estate auctioneering. Although she’d studied accounting at college, Owen realized pretty soon after joining Hirchak’s that she didn’t want to spend all her time crunching numbers. “I really like being out there with people,” she says, and the auction business, although ultimately a numbers business, is a lot more besides.

Vermont can be a frustrating place for selling real estate, she continues: “I appreciate people trying to protect ducks and swans. But Act 250 is a major challenge in our business, and proposals to tighten that law (by closing the 10-acre loophole) will affect people who’ve been working on the land and paying taxes all their lives.” She points out that Act 250 has different regulations governing auction sales rather than conventional real estate deals. “It’s discrimination against a particular method of marketing,” Hirchak adds. Last year’s Vermont Supreme Court “Bianchi” decision, which appears, in some cases, to make the seller responsible for defects discovered after a sale, also complicates the picture.

“This ruling affects everybody’s property values,” says Hirchak. “Often you get people whose retirement is tied up in the value of the farm or the house on 10 acres and all of a sudden that value is less.” The real estate market is changing drastically, he says, and Act 60, the state’s equal education legislation, has led to a lack of confidence in future levels of local taxation, which is worrying potential buyers.

Auctions are not just for people who are desperate, Hirchak says, pointing out that “The finest things are sold at auction” — horses, cars, oil paintings, and the property of famous people are cases in point. One sale he remembers with particular pride was the disposal of the L. Douglas Meredith property on Spear Street in South Burlington, which sold at auction for considerably more than expected.

Company growth has led to an increase in staff in recent years. Hirchak has a staff of 11, including three licensed auctioneers — Hirchak, his oldest son, Thomas J. Hirchak III (Toby), and Owen; Greg Vernet who runs the company’s newest venture, a twice-monthly automobile auction in Williston; appraiser Lori Mahoney-Scotnicki; bookkeeper Nancy Webster; advertising coordinator Pam Crisp; and Katherine (Katie) Riegelman who works on property management, which is an important growth area for the company. Hirchak’s youngest son, Tyler, also works for the company; his middle boy, Garret, recently set up his own company, Manufacturing Solutions, nearby in Morrisville.

Hirchak’s sons have been closely involved with the company since the outset: “When I became an auctioneer I also became a single parent,” he explains. “They had to muck in. Toby’s 30 but he’s been in the auction business for 20 years!”

For individuals, an auction might be a once-in-a-lifetime event, but Hirchak has organizational clients who bring repeat business. Among these are the U.S. Marshals Service, the Small Business Administration and the Farm Service Administration. There are also banks, including the Brattleboro-based Vermont National Bank, where Eric Stanley has had occasion to call on the services of Thomas Hirchak Auctioneers on many occasions.

In his former capacity as commercial loan officer, Stanley worked with Hirchak since 1992, dealing with business liquidations. Now assistant vice president and consumer workout manager, Stanley is responsible for, among other things, disposing of repossessed cars and has found Hirchak’s new Williston auction very useful. “They seem to have been very successful,” he says. “They have a very good crowd and a lot of active bidders.”

Real estate and cars aren’t the only things Hirchak auctions. “There were the bucket of dead rats,” he muses, recalling a sale “in the early days” of surplus state property that included several five-gallon pails of pickled rats. “They must have been from a laboratory — I’m sure we sold them!”

He’s occasionally greeted in the street by people who say: “You once sold me!” Back in the early 1980s he ran several auctions for the March of Dimes where dates with eligible local bachelors were sold. “They were all businessmen,” he recalls, “I certainly remember selling Ben and Jerry.” Those were his first, but certainly not his last, charity auctions, and he now usually runs two a year. Many of these have been for the Ronald McDonald House, a cause he was originally drawn into by Audrey Magram. “But I’ve also done a chocolate auction for Women Helping Battered Women,” he says. With generous donations from supporters, such auctions often raise $20,000 to $30,000.

Hirchak’s involvement with the community extends beyond donating his services to charities. He has held various offices, including a 10-year stint on the Morrisville Select Board from 1986 to 1995. He sits on the boards of the Lamoille Economic Development Corp. and the Morrisville Development Fund.

Timing is all-important in the auction business, as in the rest of life, says Hirchak. “People don’t call an auctioneer until they have to — I’ve been likened to an undertaker, and we do find ourselves dealing daily with people’s misfortunes. But our service is marketing. We try to help people not to liquidate if possible, perhaps to get rid of surplus inventory instead. We try to help people first of all decide if an auction really is the way to go, then to maximize their returns.”

The business, like Hirchak, never stands still. The success of the automobile auction he started in November, which is the only regular car auction in the Greater Burlington area, has prompted him to look for a permanent facility to replace the current rented site on Industrial Avenue, Williston. “It’s going well,” he says, “but it’s not an efficient facility and because it’s on a short lease, it’s not worth investing in putting over the image we really want to portray.”

Perhaps one Sunday morning soon a bright idea for a car auction location will pop up. The timing would be perfect!