The role of a lifetime: John Morris

Auctioneer John Morris had never considered a career in real estate until his wife ‘dragged’ him along to an auction. The moment he saw what was involved, the former professional actor knew it was a role he was made for.

A decade later, John is Ray White South Australia’s first chief auctioneer, and as Cassandra Charlesworth discovered, he brings a whole lot of passion to a sales technique he believes should be part of every agent’s toolkit.

Ask Ray White South Australia chief auctioneer John Morris what he loves about auctioneering, and he stresses it’s the transparency involved for all parties.

“I’ve always said it’s like putting a private treaty sale into a pressure cooker,” he notes.

“It’s less work to a degree but is extremely intense if you’re doing it properly.”

John is Ray White SA’s first official chief auctioneer as the brand looks to embrace the sales technique more widely in a state where auctions haven’t traditionally been commonplace.

He has been in the position since mid-2019, and more recently also took on an additional role with Ray White Norwood as sales manager.

“My job is to help grow the auction culture while training agents,” he explains, noting he firmly believes auctions are a tool that agents can draw on to build their business.

“You can build a real estate business around auctions because you know what will happen when,” he says.

But ask John how he came to be heading up Ray White South Australia’s auction push, and he concedes it was something he never envisaged would happen.

From actor to auctioneer

John adamantly states a career in real estate hadn’t registered on his radar until his wife entered the industry and persuaded him to attend an auction.

John had previously been a ‘jobbing actor’ in London, making his living in theatre and “the odd bit of TV”.

Look closely and you might catch him as two characters on different episodes of The Bill, including one as an armed robber, while he also made the cutting room floor of Notting Hill.

Between acting roles, he held down a job as a casino croupier, dealing pretty much every game but finding a speciality in blackjack.

It was in one of these casinos where John met the woman who would become his wife, Australian-born Bianca Denham.

When the couple married, they decided to settle in South Australia.

John continued acting as part of the SA state theatre, while also teaching acting, and performing in ads.

Meanwhile, Bianca soon found her footing as a real estate agent with Ray White and in recent years has become the brand’s South Australian performance business development executive.

“She became successful quite quickly and kept trying to get me to go to auctions,” John reflects.

“I had no interest in real estate in any way, shape or form, but one day there was an auction just down the road from where we lived and as soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘I can do that!’

“My wife’s a lot smarter than me and simply responded: ‘Why the hell do you think I’ve been trying to get you to go?’”

A steep learning curve

While most auctioneers start their careers as agents, John wanted to master the art as quickly as possible.

“When I approached the real estate training college and asked how to become an auctioneer, the guy had never had that question from a non-agent before,” he explains.

John underwent the training, studied other auctioneers carefully, and soon became a qualified auctioneer whose sole client was his wife.

“My wife was my biggest client for a number of years, and in our first year working together we did 50 auctions,” he says.

Despite years treading the boards as a performer, John notes no amount of training prepares you for hosting your first public auction.

“I never get nervous, but that first auction I was nervous as hell,” he says.

That initial property sold under the hammer, as did the next 12, but just when John was beginning to think he had the Midas touch, Bianca warned him the 14th auction was unlikely to be successful.

“My wife turned to me and said, ‘we won’t be selling today’, and she was right,” John recalls.

“I had thought I was the reason we were having such a winning streak, but I quickly began to appreciate a sale is not just about auction day and is all about the skill and intuition of the agent.”

In fact, the next 10 properties failed to sell under the hammer, with Bianca negotiating the sales in the days afterward.

But John says rather than viewing those auctions as failures they offered the opportunity to learn.

“It taught me you have to have a good negotiator as the agent, and that vendor management is crucial,” he says.

Now he makes a point of meeting with the vendor in advance, spends time qualifying buyers on auction day, and should a property be passed in, works hand-in-hand with the agent to secure a sale as swiftly as possible.

“There’s a great opportunity to sell the property in the seven to 10 days after an auction, even if there were no registered bidders, so we spend time with the vendor afterward looking at things like correct pricing.”

An auctioneer becomes a premier agent

John and Bianca continued their successful partnership for the next few years until Bianca fell pregnant with their first child, and John realised his sole auction client was suddenly going to be out of the picture.

His next logical move was to go into sales, so he approached Ray White Adelaide where Bianca had worked.

“I basically rode on the coattails of my wife,” John laughs.

“She’d been a sales agent there for three years.”

Conceding that coming into sales as an experienced auctioneer “was a strange way to enter the industry”, John quickly earned his stripes by becoming a premier agent.

When Bianca returned to work, the pair continued to work as a team before John was approached to run the Real Estate Training College while still calling auctions for Ray White.

A short time later, he was invited to become Ray White South Australia’s chief auctioneer and most recently also teamed up with Ray White Norwood who have a major auction focus.

A streaker, a runner, and a theatrical approach

After almost a decade as an auctioneer, John says he’s enjoyed some fabulous highs along with a few hair-raising moments.

“We had a streaker at one auction where a car drove by and a guy came out of the sunroof completely naked.

“I said something like ‘even though the sun is shining it’s still apparently cold’ and that saw him off.”

Then there was an auction where the highest bidder did a runner.

“I went to congratulate him, and he said: ‘I don’t want the property. It’s a mistake. My wife’s going to kill me, I was on my way to buy bacon and eggs’.”

When the man ran off, John was forced to sign on his behalf before spending the weekend negotiating with the next highest bidder and the gentleman who had backed out.

“I called the underbidder and asked whether he would be willing to go to the winning bid price of $519,000,” John says.

“He said his budget was $500,000, so then I went back to the winning bidder and told him I could sell the property to the underbidder, but he would have to pay $20,000.

“In the end, the winning bidder told his wife, took her to the property and she loved it, so it all ended up OK, but it was a hairy weekend and a big learning curve.”

John says the constant learning is something he loves about the job, but maintains auctions always work best as a true partnership between the auctioneer and the agent.

Auctions are a partnership

Auctioneers might steal the limelight on sales day, but John says the most successful campaigns see the agents working behind the scenes to drum up interest and bidders.

“The reality is auctioneers are one per cent of the sale,” he states.

“They can eke out an extra $5,000 to $10,000 on the day, but all the hard work is done prior.

“The agent is the one who works tirelessly to actually get the bidders there.”

With this ethos in mind, John works in close partnership with agents.

“I consider the agents I work with friends. We talk a lot during the campaign because it’s got to be a relationship built on trust,” he explains.

While John might be in regular contact with the agent prior to an auction event, his public role commences just a few days before the auction when he steps in to meet with the vendor.

“I turn up and present all the facts, working through the campaign, analysing the numbers, and looking at things like the number of open attendees,” he says.

This initial meeting ensures the vendor feels confident in their auctioneer because as John bluntly states: “We get paid decent money to do an auction, so the least I can do is turn up and meet them prior”.

“My role is to deliver the good, the bad and the ugly of what could happen on the day, because I can deliver the bad news while the agent maintains their relationship,” he says.

“It’s all about transparency. Sometimes the vendor is apprehensive after that meeting but it ensures they have all the facts.”

What it takes to be an auctioneer

As for what it takes to be an auctioneer, John says it’s a skill any agent or performer can master, but it involves constant refinement and a commitment to learning.

“There are still some things I don’t know and can learn,” he says.

“I watch auctions on a Saturday in between my own and, yes, I totally steal the best lines, we all do!

“But everything I’ve done so far has gone into making me a decent auctioneer and I honestly believe I was born to do this job.”

John’s top tips for auctioneers and agents

  • Follow other auctioneers and attend their auctions – John started with local auctioneers but regularly watches the auctions of Ray White counterparts Haesley Cush, Jason Andrew and Justin Nickerson. He also follows Tom Panos.
  • Regular training and practise – Vocal warm-ups are a must, practise the event in advance, regular upskilling is non-negotiable.
  • Be organised and prepared – John reads through all documentation in advance and again on the morning of the auction.
  • Be clear – People are buying their biggest asset and they need to know what’s going on, so ensure your words are clear and people can hear you.
  • It’s important to be likeable – The auctioneer needs to get everyone on side, because later you will be pitting people against each other.
  • It’s theatre – An auction is a performance and has to be theatrical to some degree.
  • Bring the energy – John has a high energy playlist, and also listens to podcasts.
  • For agents using the services of an auctioneer – Befriend a good auctioneer you trust and work together closely.
  • Keep the auctioneer informed – The auctioneer should be fully abreast of the campaign progress, and John recommends they meet with the vendor prior.

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Cassandra Charlesworth

Cassandra Charlesworth is a features writer for Elite Agent Magazine with over 15 years’ journalism experience in metropolitan and regional newsrooms. She has a specialist interest in real estate, tech disruption and a good old-fashioned “yarn”.