Central Maine Auction Center is a third generation auction house that has grown from a small, part-time farm auction to one of the fastest growing auction centers in the region.
There’s a rhythm to the typical week at Central Maine Auction Center (CMAC). On Monday, Kevin and Cathy Tilton finalize details with their staff for the week’s two used auto auctions at their locations in Hermon and Auburn. They post on-line inventories of the cars up for auction, and answer questions that potential buyers may have.
Then there’s the Tuesday auction in Auburn and the Wednesday sale in Hermon. On those days, cars fill the lots to overflowing and dealers assemble at the center and log in on-line, waiting for the bidding to begin. A small army of drivers, all part-time auction employees, move hundreds of cars through the auction, one-by-one. By 12:30, the auction is over and the paper work begins. Titles change hands and the dealers take possession of the cars. Around 3 p.m., the last of the cars stream out of the lot on their way to used car dealerships throughout Maine and New England.
Maine Trails caught up with Kevin and Cathy Tilton, owners of Central Maine Auction Center and the Southern Maine Auto Auction, at their Hermon location on a cool fall Wednesday afternoon, just as a group of 20 or so cars sold earlier in the day was leaving the lot. Already the Tiltons were looking ahead to the public equipment auction scheduled for the coming weekend. There would be a preview on Friday and an auction on Saturday. The phones had been ringing off the hook with buyers, many of them collectors interested in the lot of 26 Farmall tractors scheduled to go on the block. The Tiltons were expecting close to 300 bidders.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from all over the country,” said Cathy.
“Some of these Farmall collectors are pretty serious,” added Kevin.
Kevin Tilton is a third generation auctioneer who attended the College of Auctioneering in Mason City, Iowa. He officially joined his father Benjamin R. “Jock” Tilton III in the family’s auction business, Ben Tilton and Sons, in 1986 as an auctioneer, a business founded by his grandfather Benjamin Tilton, Jr. in Corinth. Kevin had worked alongside his dad long before that, doing odd jobs for the business which had grown as a sideline to the family’s farm.
In the old days, Kevin and his father auctioned every kind of livestock imaginable, as well as farm equipment. “We sold cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, goats. . . you name it,” remembered Kevin. In 1994, the family, including Kevin’s brother Scott, launched the Central Maine Auto Auction in Brewer, a dealer-only auction.
But auctioneering wasn’t the Tiltons’ only line of work. Kevin and his wife Cathy had bought a dairy farm in 1990 in Charleston, and their days were grueling. They were up at 4 a.m. to feed and milk a herd of 300 dairy cows and get three young daughters ready for school. Kevin would later head off to the auction house and Cathy to her job as a middle school math and science teacher. “Those were long days,” said Kevin with typical understatement.
Kevin and Scott took over the business when their dad died in 2000 at the age of 58. The Tiltons bought out Kevin’s brother in 2003. (Scott went into municipal administration and currently is town manager of Chelsea, Maine.)
During the boom times in the early 2000s, the business grew rapidly, outgrowing its Brewer location. “We were doing about 120 to 140 cars a week in 2003 and by 2006, it was 250 to 280 a week,” recalled Kevin. In 2004, CMAC moved to a new 15-acre site in Hermon, and Kevin and Cathy knew it was time to rethink their lives. They sold the dairy farm, and Cathy quit her job teaching to join the business full-time.
They are a good pair. Both are hardworking and ambitious. Kevin’s self-proclaimed style is relaxed yet watchful. “I’m not a micromanager,” he said and then adds after a moment, “but I like to be involved in everything.”
Kevin boasts a laconic, dry wit that blossoms when he is at the podium and that helps keep bidders engaged during the fast-moving auction. Cathy is warm and outgoing, much like you remember your favorite sixth grade teacher. She manages the office and is an important presence on sale day. This is a business where strong customer relations are critical to attract and retain buyers, and in addition to Cathy, the company employs three full-time staffers in customer/dealer relations, including Kevin’s cousin Cassandra Tilton, who also manages personnel for both auction centers.
The Tiltons’ three daughters – Meagan (currently enrolled at Tufts Medical School), Emily, a high school senior, and Elise, a junior – have all helped out with the family business since they were young.
The Tiltons have overseen a remarkable era of expansion in the business over the past 10 years. In 2008, with the auto auction now selling upwards of 350-400 vehicles a week, the Tiltons purchased a second, 20-acre location in Auburn – the Southern Maine Auto Auction – where they hold the weekly Tuesday sale. They have also added regular real estate, equipment and general merchandise auctions to their growing list of services, as well as repossession and reconditioning services.
To help with the business, the Tiltons rely on a regular staff of 22, including several family members, that frequently swells to 50 on auction days with part-timers who help drive vehicles, register bidders and clean vehicles.
“It always seems to snow on Tuesdays,” said Kevin. That means it takes a small army to plow the lot, clean cars and make sure everything looks its best in time for the 10 a.m. auction start. Kevin is particularly fond of the part-timers who come in to help during the auction and boasts that the current crew includes a retired CEO, a former university president and a former professional baseball player. The Tiltons credit their staff with helping the business grow.
“We are so lucky,” said Cathy. “This is a great staff.”
“I think it’s the best crew we’ve had in 20 years,” said Kevin.
Over the past 25 years, the Tiltons have established a well-earned reputation for fairness, professionalism and good marketing that brings in buyers from across New England. It was this reputation that won CMAC the job liquidating the large fleet of heavy equipment and real estate holdings of a Maine construction firm in June 2010. The two-day sale was a major event, and introduced many in the transportation industry to the auction company.
“That sale really put us on the map with a lot of MBTA members and people in the construction community,” said Kevin, adding that since that time, CMAC has developed a brisk consignment business with several construction firms. “For a lot of companies, it’s easier to have us handle the sale of equipment that’s aging out when they want to update their fleet.”
CMAC typically holds its equipment auctions on Fridays, to ensure they get the best audience. It helps that the firm has developed a healthy on-line buyer community through EquipmentFax, and reaches out to buyers in Canada and South and Central America. That, said Kevin, keeps bidding lively and prices strong.
CMAC joined the MBTA a couple years ago and already has become an active supporter. They were a major sponsor of the 2011 MBTA Infrastructure Golf Tournament in July, and a gold sponsor of the Fall Convention. Kevin was quick to get involved with the organization, agreeing to serve as auctioneer at the 2011 MBTA Convention live auction. The Tiltons also regularly support community activities and have donated their time and talents to organizations including the National Kidney Foundation of Maine. Their middle daughter Emily, who has completed auctioneering college and is a high school field hockey standout, recently was auctioneer for the Bangor YMCA’s annual fundraiser, one of her first professional gigs.
Emily’s interest in the family business is a good indication that CMAC will continue to go strong with a fourth generation of Tiltons at the helm. Kevin said he would like to see the business continue, because he believes that CMAC really gets to know its customers and offers them a level of service that a large national auction firm cannot.
“We’re just small enough to offer the kind of personal service that makes a difference,” said Kevin.
At a glance: Central Maine Auction Center
Founded in the 1940s by Benjamin R. Tilton, Sr. as Ben Tilton and Sons, a livestock and farm equipment auction. Today, the auction includes twice weekly auto auctions (dealer only) and regular real estate and equipment auctions (open to the public). Also provides repossession, reconditioning and appraisal services.
Headquarters: 15-acre secure auction center in Hermon and 20-acre secure auction center in Auburn
Employees: 22 full time; 18 part-time