Business Eye interview with Peter Johnston

In February's edition of Business Eye, editor Richard Buckley sat down with Peter Johnston to discuss Wilsons Auctions continued growth...

Growth Continues For NI-Based Auction Giants

Wilsons Auctions, already one of the UK's leading auction groups, has continued its growth agenda over the past year....and shows few signs of slowing up on its progress.

The Mallusk-based group has more than 360 staff spread across nine UK and Ireland auction centres and a similar number of storage depots. It continued on the expansion trail late in 2017 with its very latest acquisition in South Wales.

The Belfast company bought over the Newport-based auction business off Jon Collingbourne, one of the South Wales area's leading car auctions. The deal added Collingbourne's 40 staff to the total headcount at Wilsons Auctions, and increased Wilsons' footprint right across the UK. The company also has a busy site at Queensferry in North Wales.

"When I started out in this business with Ian Wilson, there were just 12 of us here in Mallusk," says Peter Johnston, Wilsons Auctions' Group Operations Director. "Now it won't be too long before we're passing the 400-employee mark."

Around the UK sites, car and vehicle auctions form the mainstay of Wilsons Auctions business. But the company has also established itself as the industry leader when it comes to government asset disposal contracts.

It holds contracts to auction proceeds of crime and other goods on behalf of a growing number of clients including the Home Office, a number of police forces, the National Crime Agency and other government authorities.....and that can mean selling off everything from luxury vehicles to jewellery, boats and foreign properties. Even thoroughbred horses have come under the hammer.

"We've built up a lot of expertise on the asset recovery front," says Peter Johnston. "In fact, we've been invited to speak at a number of international conferences on the subject and, just recently, we hosted a delegation from the Maltese Government who were keen to find out more about best practice when it comes to asset recovery work."

Johnston is well aware that the company's asset recovery work can leave it open to some element of bad press. "There are always a few who'll say that we're profiting from the misfortunes of others, not when it comes to the proceeds of crime but when the goods being sold are the result of company failures, for example.

"But our argument is that it's simple economics. We're providing an important service and the goods that we're selling off are being bought and put to good use by other companies and individuals. It might not always be popular.....but it's important."

The sheer volume of items being put under the hammer at Wilsons Auctions is staggering. The company sells over 170,000 vehicles alone per annum across its branches and has a hammer total of over £300 million.

One of its busiest car auction sites outside Belfast is at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, where Wilsons Auctions bought over a former British Car Auctions site a number of years ago. The Newcastle site sells some 32,500 vehicles a year, and has just benefited from a £1.2 million refurbishment investment by the parent company.

Wilsons Auctions remains a family firm at its core, and was honoured in December at the UTV Business Eye Awards, where it was named as Family Business Of The Year. With Managing Director Ian Wilson at the helm, members of the Wilson family are also closely involved in the business right across the UK and Ireland.

Peter Johnston, for his part, spends a fair amount of time travelling around the company's bases in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. "It's important to us as a business that we maintain our high standards wherever we are doing business," he says. "We've built up a very strong reputation for providing the most professional auction services available anywhere on these islands."

It's inevitable that the company's future plans revolve around further growth. "We now have operations across the UK and Ireland but, when you look at the map, there are gaps. We're always interested in plugging those gaps."

Wilsons Auctions nowadays ranks as one of the leading players in the UK auction sector. It's smaller than the big guns of the business, companies like British Car Auctions (BCA) and Manheim, but considerably larger than most of the others in the industry around the British Isles.

"We don't want to be the Tesco of the auction business," adds Peter Johnston. "We're still a family business and we're determined to remain close to the communities that we serve. So we'll not be spreading ourselves too thinly across the country. That said, there is plenty of scope for further growth."

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