Sisters Lynn Kamacho and Marci Norman talk as a dealer auction wraps up at Kaman Auctions in Edmonds. The sisters started the auction in Edmonds after losing their jobs in the recession.(Ian Terry / The Herald)

Sisters Lynn Kamacho and Marci Norman talk as a dealer auction wraps up at Kaman Auctions in Edmonds. The sisters started the auction in Edmonds after losing their jobs in the recession.(Ian Terry / The Herald)

How recession led Lynnwood sisters to open car auction

EDMONDS — When two Lynnwood-raised sisters lost their jobs during the recession a few years ago, they joined forces and chose to go where few women had gone before — into the car industry.

Though it was uncharted territory for them, Lynn Kamacho and Marci Norman melded their surnames and their talents and in 2012 created Kaman Auctions, on Highway 99 in Edmonds — a place where franchise and independent car dealers and wholesalers can buy and sell cars without having to travel to the big auctions south of Seattle in Kent, Auburn and Puyallap.

“A lot of these guys are sole entrepreneurs,” Norman said. “They’re the ones that are buying the cars but they also have to sell the cars and any time away from their lot is money. So it’s a nice option where they can get here quickly, buy some cars and get back to their lot and get back to doing what they need to do, which is, sell cars.”

With space on their lot for 100 cars, give or take, Kaman Auctions will never match the volume of those big auctions, some of which can funnel through 1,800 cars in a day. But that was never the sisters’ intent. It’s their personalized service that sets them apart, they said.

“We don’t just run the cars through the auction and then that’s the end of that,” Norman said. “We go the extra mile to close what’s called ‘offer.’ So if the car doesn’t sell across the block for the reserve (seller’s lowest) price, we work really thoroughly to make sure that, if there’s a deal to be had, that we put it together somehow.”

That can mean bringing counter-offers to the seller and then back to the buyer several times, until agreement is reached on a price.

That’s how an auction works in theory, Shoreline auto broker Troy Etley said. But it’s not what happens at the big car auctions, where a seller might get one counter-offer and then “it’s a yes-or-no moment.” That makes Kaman’s about “70 times more efficient” for him, he said.

“Every transaction that’s in their hands is an important thing,” he said.

Saed Amoura, co-owner of SS Motors, a used-car lot across the street from Kaman Auctions, called the business “an auction with a heart.”

“Their model of a business is a very good idea,” he said.

Kamacho and Norman get their cars from financial institutions, other dealers and even municipalities. And it’s not all cars — they’ve sold a sailboat, an ambulance and even a hot-dog cart.

They drew inspiration from a similar local auction in Southern California, the sisters said. Norman had moved there with her husband but then divorced and worked on developing health programs — which were then sold to corporations to help their employees become healthier — at the California Health and Longevity Institute at the Four Seasons Hotel near Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Kamacho was laid off from her job at BSR Heavy Equipment in Everett, where she’d worked for 25 years and had been in charge of finance and operations. She and her husband and then-teenaged twin sons flew to visit Norman. They were on their way back to the airport to fly home when Norman called with news she was also getting laid off.

Kamacho’s family flew home without her. She returned to her sister’s and, over lunch, the two decided it was time to go into business for themselves. Batting around ideas, they kept coming back to the concept of a car auction. So they started researching.

“We really just tried to learn everything we could about the auto industry, about the auction industry, about the needs of the car dealers,” Norman said.

Their research included interviewing franchise car dealers north of Seattle to get their thoughts on the concept. They got a green light. With all their competition south of Seattle, Kamacho said, “everybody up here in the north end really felt like there was a need up here for us.”

The sisters said their first thought was to find an experienced partner who could set up the auction side of the business, leaving them to concentrate on sales and marketing. But when the partner didn’t materialize, they set out to learn it on their own.

“Some of it I kind of knew from the heavy-equipment side, like title work and accounts receivable and that kind of stuff,” Kamacho said. “The rest of it we had to research on the internet and talking—we talked to a lot of dealers.”

And they called the experts, “a handful of really wonderful kind of sister auctions” in other states, Norman said.

“You ask a lot of questions,” she said, “some of which you don’t even know if you’ll ever need to know, but it gives you that base foundation.”

Money was another hurdle. They invested what they could, but it wasn’t enough.

“We tried to get grants, we tried to get loans,” Kamacho said.

That route led nowhere.

“Nobody wanted to loan you money unless you had three times that amount in the bank,” Norman said. “And then they’d re-loan it back to you and charge you interest.”

So they turned to friends and family members who believed in them.

“We did our own little mini-crowdfunding,” Norman said.

They got their business license and their building at 23110-B on Highway 99 in May 2012 and held their first auction in October 2012. It did not go as expected. Thirty to 40 dealers showed up for the auction, but no one was bidding.

“They just stood there with their hands in their pockets,” Kamacho said.

“Nobody wanted to be first,” Norman said. “They all wanted to see, they were all like, standing. So we were watching a parade of cars.”

“So we thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we did all this work and it’s just going to be a parade,’” Kamacho said.

Finally Mike Harb, then-owner of Shoreline Family Auto Care and Sales, broke the ice and bought two cars, forever earning a place in the sisters’ hearts. Harb died last year and he and John Stomberg, who worked for Mazda of Everett and also supported Norman and Kamacho before his death, are named “Kaman’s Guardian Angels” on the Kaman Auctions website.

Also listed on the website are words the sisters said are the “core values” of their business: authenticity, integrity, honesty, respect, professionalism and happiness. And their founding philosophy includes philanthropy.

“One of the things that we had always said from the beginning is, we want a business where we can also be able to give back,” Norman said.

It was three years before the company was profitable enough to pay them a salary, they said.

They celebrated their one-year anniversary by holding a charity auction for the Edmonds Boys & Girls Club, chosen because it’s local and focuses on children.

“At the end of the day our kids are our future, right?” Norman said. “Anything we can do to give them the tools and the resources, it makes you feel good.”

The charity auctions are popular in the community and raise more money every year, she said, totaling $36,500 over four years. Kaman Auctions keeps growing as well, though it’s a tough business and the sisters realized early on they had two strikes against them.

“One being, I think, being female,” Norman said, “because that is less common in the industry but also, coming from outside of the car business.”

They had to earn their way into the tightknit group of car dealers by working hard and proving their capabilities, they said. And they need to do that continually.

But in some ways, their gender may work in their favor.

“There’s not many women in this industry, so it’s a nice change,” said David O’Brien, used-car sales manager at Campbell Nissan/Volkswagen Edmonds. Norman and Kamacho are friendlier and have more follow-through and better customer service than men, he said.

While acknowledging it’s not an easy business for women, as “a lot of these car guys have pretty good-sized egos,” West Coast Autoworks owner Matt Kalmus said the sisters have a great team and they all work hard.

“They kind of make me feel like family there,” he said. “It’s a great experience, at the end of the day.”

Since their first auction, the sisters added new software that allows them to scan a car’s VIN numbers into the computer, rather than having to write them down and type them in. That made it easier to hold auctions every week, rather than every other week, as they did at the start.

Dealer auctions are held every Thursday, noon until 2 to 2:30 p.m. Dealers no longer have to be physically present, as Kaman Auctions now has simulcast, which allows dealers to bid online.

Public auctions were added in December 2014 and are usually offered quarterly, though the sisters said they’d like to expand to monthly. One advantage of public auctions is that they can include drug-seizure vehicles, which by law have to be offered to the public, but a disadvantage is that it’s harder to find cars in general because there is no reserve, or lowball price, set by the seller.

Everything sells “no matter what,” Norman said, which makes it riskier for the seller but also makes for a high-energy auction that draws 150-200 people, compared to 30-40 at the dealer auctions.

The next public auction will be this Saturday, May 13, with the gates opening at 9 a.m. and the auction starting at noon.

Kaman Auctions makes money through fees calculated according to the sale price of a vehicle. At the dealer auctions, Norman said, it’s a flat fee based on a tier system, and varies depending on where it falls in the tier. At the public auctions, the buyer pays a percentage of the sale price.

“They’re paying to be able to buy a car in a wholesale auction,” she said. “It’s a service we provide and it’s the only way we’re paid.”

The sisters are also exploring the idea of hosting meetings, parties and other events at their site, like “The Princess Bride” 50th birthday party they threw for a friend.

“We had the Pit of Despair, we had the Cliffs of Insanity, we had the Fire Swamp,” Norman said of scenes from the movie. “It was really cool, it was amazing, it really was.”

Added Kamacho, “We had a DJ and we had karaoke and we had it catered and it was a very fun event. And we shocked ourselves, I think, when we transformed it.”

They dream of one day creating a chain to bring their “unique style of auction” to other locales. And they talk about their father, a onetime Navy mechanic and “huge car buff” who died in 2006.

“He made us drive manual transmissions ‘because you’ve got to learn how to do that, it’s a life skill,’ ” Kamacho said.

“He would love this,” Norman said.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Rachel Ford and Taryn Salter watch as Erik Ford and Kam Durden play pool Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, at Vessel Taphouse in Mill Creek, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Lynnwood pirate bar faces mutiny over ‘catch the virus’ show

Employees quit, bands canceled and patrons swore off the Vessel Taphouse after it advertised discounts for people sick with COVID.

The tower of Paine Field Airport stands in a fog bank forcing flights to be averted or cancelled in Everett, Washington on January 25, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
More 5G-related cancellations as Paine Field fog persists

The FAA has not cleared certain planes to land in low visibility in Everett due to nearby 5G cellular towers.

Funko mascots Freddy Funko roll past on a conveyor belt in the Pop! Factory of the company's new flagship store on Aug. 18, 2017.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Despite Arizona move, Everett leaders expect Funko HQ to stay

The toymaker is closing Everett warehouses. But a recent “HQ2” expansion has the city confident Funko will remain rooted here.

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2019, file photo, Amazon packages move along a conveyor at an Amazon warehouse facility in Goodyear, Ariz. Amazon’s pandemic boom isn’t showing signs of slowing down. The company said Thursday, April 29, 2021, that its first-quarter profit more than tripled from a year ago, fueled by the growth of online shopping. It also posted revenue of more than $100 billion, the second quarter in row that the company has passed that milestone. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
‘Sold by Amazon’ program ends following state investigation

Washington’s attorney general found the program was anticompetitive and violated antitrust laws.

Meat dishes color icons set. Steak, beef ribs, chicken legs, burger. Fast food. Butcher shop product. Restaurant, grill bar, steakhouse menu. Isolated vector illustrations
Best place to go for BBQ in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied, here are the results.

2021 survey results from the State Broadband Survey for Snohomish County. (Washington State Department of Commerce)
$16M grant to speed up broadband to north Snohomish County

In Darrington and elsewhere, rural residents have struggled to work remotely during the pandemic. A new project aims to help.

FILE - In this March 31, 2017, file photo, Boeing employees stand near the new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner at the company's facility in South Carolina after conducting its first test flight at Charleston International Airport in North Charleston, S.C.  The International Association of Machinist says six of its earliest and most vocal members have been fired at Boeing’s South Carolina plant, months after some employees at the sprawling North Charleston campus voted to join the union.  The Machinists tell The Associated Press that half a dozen employees were terminated from the North Charleston production facilities earlier in 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith, File)
Boeing posts $4 billion loss tied to problems with 787 jet

Manufacturing problems with the Dreamliner will add $2 billion to the company’s production costs.

An Alaska Airlines Embraer 175 airplane bound for Portland, Ore., takes off Monday, March 4, 2019, at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. The flight was the first flight on the inaugural day for commercial passenger flights from the airport. Alaska Airlines began scheduled flights Monday, and United Airlines will begin commercial flights on March 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
5G-related airline cancellations arrive at Paine Field

One type of plane serving Everett is subject to restrictions due to feared cellular phone interference with navigation.

Funko warehouse in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Funko to close Everett warehouses, shift work to Arizona

The company headquarters are currently in downtown Everett, but distribution will move to a Phoenix suburb.

FILE - Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson talks to reporters, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, during a news conference in Seattle. In a 5-4 decision Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, the Washington Supreme Court upheld an $18 million campaign finance penalty against the Consumer Brands Association, formerly known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Ferguson sued the group in 2013, alleging that it spent $11 million to oppose a ballot initiative without registering as a political committee or disclosing the source of the money. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington justices uphold $18M fine in GMO-labeling case

Big grocers funneled dark money into a campaign against genetically modified labels on food packaging.

In this photo taken May 17, 2017, wine barrels are shown at a vineyard adjacent to the Walla Walla Vintners winery in Walla Walla, Wash. The remote southeastern Washington town of Walla Walla - which used to be best known for sweet onions and as home of the state penitentiary - has now reinvented itself into a center of premium wines and wine tourism. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios)
More sustainable Washington wines are on the way

Labels will indicate grape growers met guidelines in 9 areas, including water, pest and labor practices.

FILE - In this Monday, March 1, 2021 file photo, The first Alaska Airlines passenger flight on a Boeing 737-9 Max airplane takes off on a flight to San Diego from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. A Boeing pilot involved in testing the 737 Max jetliner was indicted Thursday, Oct. 14,2021 by a federal grand jury on charges of deceiving safety regulators who were evaluating the plane, which was later involved in two deadly crashes. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Alaska Airlines to add Boeing 737s to the Paine Field fleet

It’s a sign of the growing popularity of flying from Everett. So far, much smaller Embraer E175s have been the rule.