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.

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