ASU business 'generals' help drive Barrett-Jackson car auction

The hundreds of thousands of people that flock each January to Barrett-Jackson’s annual collector car auction under the massive white tents at WestWorld of Scottsdale have no reason to know their names.

They are far away from the auctioneer’s staccato urgings as dream vehicles roll across the stage under the bright lights, racking up bids that stretch into the millions of dollars.

But behind the scenes, the contributions of two company executives equipped with a dose of ASU business pedigree are not to be denied.

Call them the “generals,” as in general manager and executive vice president Nick Cardinale (MBA ’14), and general counsel Matt Ohre (BS Finance ’99). Together, these two Sun Devil colleagues again helped make sure the mega-event successfully crossed the finish line.

“I tell everybody I help the CEO oversee everything, except the cars,” says Cardinale, as he took a break from the blur of activity at the event. “People say, 'But Barrett-Jackson is a car auction.' That’s true, but it’s so much more.”

Ohre says he mostly does his heavy lifting before and after the actual event, working on contracts and offering his counsel to others in the company on the issues of the day.

Once the gates open, it’s all hands on deck for the 325,000 people expected to attend the 48th annual Barrett-Jackson auction, a nine-day event that now encompasses 73 acres and roughly 1 million square feet under cover. More than 5,000 bidders have registered for the opportunity to buy one of 1,800 vehicles offered at the just-completed event.

Also up for grabs was a variety of auto memorabilia, plus a hefty offering of other merchandise for sale. Not to mention a bevy of food and drink.

Experts say the company has the best name in the industry and that attending the annual January affair is an experience.

“We just continue to grow and grow,” says Cardinale, who came to the company in 2013 after 10 years as a Harlem Globetrotters executive. “The hobby seems to be getting bigger and bigger each year.”

Millennials and GenXers redefine 'classic'

Cardinale, 40, says those driving the growth are ever younger, replacing the baby boomers that once dominated the business. Millennials and Gen Xers now seem to rule the garage.

“Cars that people never in a million years thought were collectible are now,” says Cardinale, who sold his 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle and 1990 Toyota Sera at the Scottsdale auction. “The new generations are changing things.”

Among those drawing high interest in the auction marketplace are sport-utility vehicles, Chevrolet K5 blazers and Ford Broncos. Not to mention Japanese cars. Toyota is an auction sponsor for the first time.

Also popular among the buying public are resto-mods, classic cars with the look of the old fixed up with all the comforts of new models like power steering, brakes, and air conditioning.

Cardinale says the high-end, pre-war classics used to be the stars of the show. Now those staples are joined by modern supercars like a 2019 McLaren Senna that sold for nearly $1.5 million.

“We like to play right in the middle, and I think the middle part of the market is thriving,” says Cardinale, who credits his MBA at W. P. Carey with helping with networking and team-building skills needed in this competitive industry. “That’s what we have been seeing.”

Ohre, a self-acknowledged “car guy” who joined Barrett-Jackson in 2014 after a stint as outside counsel, says the nostalgia — the chance to step back in time to those high school or college days — helps drive the business.

“You sit in a vehicle and it transports you back in time,” says Ohre, who still has fond memories of his first car, a 1989 Ford Mustang GT with a Fox Body that he might buy again down the road. “There’s a real emotional reaction. I think that’s why a lot of people go out and buy these kinds of cars.”

Ohre, 41, says the auction attracts the kind of bidders that one might expect at these affairs, but one characteristic seems to stand out.

Most of them are entrepreneurs no matter what industry they are in. Do we have lawyers and doctors? Of course, we do. But I would say that most of the people have their own businesses and are entrepreneurs who have done well.

He says his time at W. P. Carey helped provide him with the business foundation and discipline needed to work successfully at the growing company.

Numbers behind the wheel

Barrett-Jackson is one of seven auctions held in the Phoenix area, a gathering that turns a week or more in January into a mecca for car enthusiasts from across the world, generating a potent economic punch.

This year, the seven companies sold a combined 2,660 vehicles and rang up total sales of $251 million in Arizona, according to Michigan-based classic car insurer Hagerty. Of that figure, Barrett-Jackson led the pack by a large margin, selling more than 1,800 vehicles for a total of $126 million and raising a record $9.6 million for charities.

Ohre and Cardinale say that company executives continue to look to the future with high hopes. The company continues to explore expansion opportunities that complement the company’s line-up, one that already includes Scottsdale, Palm Beach, Florida, Las Vegas, and Connecticut. No possible new auction locations have been disclosed.

Cardinale says the company also is keeping its eye on the rise of autonomous and driver-less vehicles and what that will mean to the Barrett-Jackson and the rest of the car collector industry. He believes that there will be a day such a vehicle will cross the WestWorld stage for all to see.

“One day you will see that and it will be pretty cool when that happens, too. But I hope right in front of that you’ll still see a ’63 Corvette split-window and 1970 Chevelle. You can’t fight change, you have to be part of it. And we will.”

By David Schwartz