‘From fast cars to the bling to the planes and watches ... the proceeds of crime really do raise the eyebrows’
Peter Johnston of Wilsons Auctions tells Margaret Canning about the buzz of the business, from his days on car parking duty to its recent work disposing of ill-gotten gains from gold to private jets
He started out his career at Wilsons Auctions in 1987 parking cars that were to be auctioned at the company’s headquarters outside Mallusk. Now Peter Johnston has progressed to the boardroom of the Co Antrim-based company as operations director.
The family business was formed in 1936 by William J Wilson — it’s now celebrating its 80th year in business — and is directed by his son, Ian.
Wilsons Auctions has become the UK and Ireland’s biggest independent auction house, with turnover of around £11m and interests ranging from auctioning off cars and property to working with government agencies to disposing of the proceeds of crime following a successful conviction.
It’s also won platinum standard as one of Ireland’s ‘Best Managed’ companies in the Deloitte Best Managed Companies Awards Programme.
Peter has got to know the business inside out since those early days of parking cars. “I suppose I caught the bug at that age, and it’s all been great fun.”
He progressed from the car park into sales — then faced the most important rite of passage for all auctioneers as he ‘took the gavel’ — the small hammer-like tool of the trade which is knocked on a lectern when a sale is made — for the first time.
“That was a big thing after starting with parking the cars, to sales and up. You learn all the different things about the company when you come from the bottom up. You can help and advise all the staff as you know what exactly the pitfalls can be.”
It may be a “fun” industry but the responsibilities are great. “You’re working with other people’s money all the time. We’d have £200m in goods under the hammer every year,” he says.
Traditionally, we think of auction houses presiding over sales of art and family heirlooms — but the work of Wilsons Auctions can be much more cutting-edge.
Over the years it’s built a large portfolio of government clients, auctioning off the proceeds of crime netted by government agencies — including 30 UK police forces, the Home Office, HMRC, the Driver Vehicle and Licensing Agency (DVLA) and Border Police.
That work encompasses all the trappings of criminals such as drug dealers and fuel smugglers, including their ‘bling’, and even their jets. On Thursday it will hold one such auction, with lots including a £100,000 Cessna P210 plane flown by a drug dealer in England who used a business taking aerial photographs of houses as a front. Andrew Wright flew 268kg (591lb) of cocaine from Germany to the UK in eight trips in his light aircraft.
Mr Johnston said representatives of Wilsons Auctions attend the homes of suspects with police forces or government agencies after a convction to see what goods have been amassed and could be seized and auctioned off.
“We’re looking at the fast cars, the bling, the Floyd Mayweather diamante watches (the US boxer is notorious for his fondness for multi-million pound bejewelled timepieces).”
The company has also opened an office in Spain to deal with holiday home disposals.
But dealing with the proceeds of crime can be fraught. The company operates a live bid system online, so that you don’t have to attend an auction in person to make a bid.
“If you are selling any contentious assets the online system means no-one will feel intimidated by anyone (with connections to the convicted person) turning up, which has happened. And our regional network means that we can move items out of the region where they’ve been lifted.”
Spoils from crime have also included gold bullion — which Wilsons sold last year following Chaudry Ali’s conviction after he was caught leading a gang which had been smuggled large quantities of gold bullion and gold jewellery from Dubai.
“Every day your eyebrows are raised,” Mr Johnston said.
The business now has a network of 15 sites, including one in Dublin.
Mr Johnston said maintaining a cross-border operation was important to the firm.
Even though it has sites all across the UK, and a major auction site in Dublin, it’s still “very much a Northern Ireland company”, Mr Johnston said.
A site in Dalry outside Glasgow was its first opening in Great Britain.
Now its network includes Queensferry in Wales and Telford in Shropshire.
Earlier this year it announced two acquisitions in Kent and Newcastle.
The Maidstone site, which formerly belonged to surveyors Lambert and Foster, will be used initially for online auctions before eventually becoming a physical auction house.
The site in Newcastle, meanwhile, will be used for car, fleet and plant and commercial auctions. It was bought from British Car Auctions (BCA) after that company acquired SMA and had to dispose of some of its assets.
Wilsons Auctions has been in a strong position for such acquisitions, with a healthy financial performance. Turnover in 2015 was £11.1m, up from £10.9m in 2014.
Pre-tax profits, meanwhile, had more than doubled from £292,827 to £768,023.
But the company has retained what Mr Johnston describes as a “real family atmosphere”.
“It’s been nearly 30 years and I really feel like part of the family. I know every nook and cranny of the place and it’s always important to keep that personal touch,” he says.
Diversifying into government work was a deliberate strategy. “We just realised quite a while ago that having a spread would open quite a few opportunities.”
But the core of the business remains its regular vehicle auctions. It auctions cars on behalf of car giant Lookers plc — and its subsidiary Charles Hurst in Northern Ireland.
In the case of Charles Hurst and Lookers, it will auction off cars which have been left in to the dealer to be traded in for a newer model. Finance companies and private individuals also use the auctions for car disposal. And it auctions off unclaimed clamped cars on behalf of the DVLA.
Peter is immersed in the business and conveniently lives just three miles away. He’s a keen runner, sometimes running into work and back.
He left Belfast Royal Academy at 17, going straight into work at Wilsons Auctions earning £50 a week for car parking. And his dauagther Jessica (18) is following in his footsteps, helping with duties such as taking deposits from bidders.
The industry retains an allure to the public, partly thanks to its portrayal in TV programmes like Bargain Hunt and Homes Under the Hammer. Even when not interviewing for staff, they receive 40 or 50 unsolicited CVs a week, Peter said.
As a cross-border business, he’s adamant that staying in the EU is best. “I think it’s a backward step to try and close down borders again. People say there are more opportunities to be had if we are out, but I don’t think it’s the way forward.”
. He admits a strong voice helps in the theatre of auctioneering and the all-important sales patter of the auctioneer. “People do want a bit of razzmatazz. They come to an auction for a night out and almost for the buzz,” he adds.
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