CHANGING HORSES IN MID-STREAM – PUTTING DOWN THE CHEF KNIFE AND PICKING UP THE GAVEL

I met a guy once who referred to himself as “one of the undesirable unemployables.” I had no idea why he would call himself that; he was a charming guy with a good reputation and was a hard-working entrepreneur.

But in the late 2000s, when the recession hit, I was forced to sell my business at a loss and I discovered first-hand what he was talking about. Like him, I was in my 50s, and for different reasons than him, was making a career change. And as a longtime self-employed guy in his 50s, typing up a resume and getting a good-paying job is a mountain you’ve never climbed.

After a sleepless nights and some nervous knots in his gut, Bram Hepburn’s new company—Hepburn and Co. Antiques—held its first auction.

Trying to find employment in your 50s is a challenge all on its own. People doing the hiring wonder (rightly so) if you will be comfortable taking orders or putting up with the younger crew. They’ll also wonder how long you’ll last as an employee and if it’s worth the expense of training you. Then, when you do get a job, you believe you’re so much more experienced than everyone else but wind up feeling slow and always out of the loop because everyone else knows the computer codes and the passwords and the how to change fonts and update their apps and text straight while driving.

So, I decided to make use of my business experience and my experience buying and selling antiques over the years, and go back in to business as an auctioneer.

So I traced my steps back a couple of decades and went back to my when I started my restaurant and catering business. I had gone to culinary school and was a chef, and my first steps in to business were taking a course in basic accounting at a local college and doing a local market study; basically going to lots of other businesses, looking around and taking notes. Then I made a list of questions that I wanted answered and took a few different restaurant owners I knew out to lunch, telling them what I was up to. I found that most entrepreneurs are more than happy to share their knowledge and opinions. I would ask them questions you can’t look up in a book (or now online). Questions like, “if you could do this all over again, would you?” and “what’s the part of the business you hate the most?” (it was usually dealing with insurance and tracking down unpaid bills).

Another favorite was, “If you did it again, what would you do differently?”

hepburn and company blurb

So, to begin my new venture, and while I was trying to bring in income with other seasonal work, I took those first steps again. I put together a business plan for myself.

AUTHOR’S ASIDE: As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that on this new business venture, I haven’t fully put my business plan on paper. It’s a time-worn basic for success, so bad on me. It may be that I’m gun-shy this time around and I’m just putting my toe in the water to see how it goes. You might say I’m still in a “little risk, little reward” phase. That comes with having kids to think of. And it’s hard not to be more cautious.

Nevertheless, I took those first steps, and then moved on to the real step that let the world know I was serious about this business. I applied for my auctioneer’s license. I tracked down the very tedious rules and regulations information available online and made an appointment to be tested. In Maine, auctioneers can test only four times a year, so if you fail the test, you have to wait three months to take your next text.

Still, I’m a pretty smart guy, I’ve worked part-time for auctioneers for years, and my auction buddies all told me the test was a piece of cake.

I’m sure you can guess where this is going. I went to my mailbox and found a letter from the State of Maine that I assumed was my shiny new auctioneer’s license, only to read that I had failed it by one question!

A three months delay because of one stupid question! I won’t go in to details about how the next couple of months went, but let’s just say that I didn’t take it well. But I studied hard and went back three months later and passed with only one wrong answer this time. Lesson learned.

On June 23, 2015, a pretty good crowd showed up for Hepburn’s first auction. The customers were happy and say they are looking forward to his next auction at the end of October.

So, during this time, and for many months prior, I had been doing house cleanouts via word of mouth, and had been finding and buying items for auction. I made a deal with a couple of old auction buddies of mine and asked them to walk me through my first auction. Then, after a few sleepless nights and some nervous knots in my gut, my new company—Hepburn and Co. Antiques—held its first auction.

On June 23, 2015, a pretty good crowd showed up, and the auction went smoothly. The “sold” prices for the items seemed really low, some of them cringe-worthy. But I was warned ahead of time that when you’re on the other side of the gavel, it just feels like everything is selling cheap!

The customers were happy, though, and say they are looking forward to my next auction at the end of October. I can’t wait, to tell you the truth. I know it was only one auction, but that initial fear of the unknown is gone, and I’ve got lots of good stuff to sell.

Now, I can start working on my chant: “Who’ll gimme 50? Hamina, hamina, hamian… I’ve got 50! Now, who’ll gimme 75?


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com

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