Most boys his age dreamed of becoming famous athletes or movie stars, but Billy Younkin had other heroes—those who speak a mile a minute and, in some cases, make a lot of money doing it.
They’re auctioneers and Younkin lived for the day when he could be one, too—perhaps even achieving national recognition.
That’s just what’s happened and he has become known coast-to-coast as one of the best in the land. Next year, he will once again compete in the national championships.
He started out two decades ago by selling a chicken in Brundidge and remembers getting about $2 for his efforts.
It might as well have been $2 million, because it showed he had the talent to talk his way into the big leagues of auctioneering.
Today, at the age of 39, Younkin has several fine showings under his belt—those that came his way because of performances that attracted excellent scores from the judges.
His latest achievement occurred in September when he finished third in the Livestock Marketing Association’s quarterfinal competition held at the Montgomery stockyards.
Two Oklahomians — Justin Dodson and Dustin Focht — were first and second respectively. Younkin’s third place showing earned him another trip to the national championship. It’ll be held next year in South Carolina.
The three will compete against other professional auctioneers from around the country and Canada to see if they’ve got what it takes to be the best of the best.
"There’s a fire in me to do well in these events," Younkin said, during an interview with AFC Cooperative Farming News at the Mid State Stockyards that he and two partners own in Letohatchee. "There are very few world champions from the Southeast and I’d love to become one."
He proved just how good he is by finishing in the top three at the Montgomery-hosted event. About 30 well-known auctioneers competed to earn honors at the quarterfinal event and then move on to the finals.
"The nationals represent our Super Bowl, our World Series," Younkin said. "It means you are among the best in what only a few can do well. We all strive to become the national champion."
Auctioneers have fascinated spectators since Babylonian days when women were sold to the highest bidder for the purpose of marriage.
It’s unlikely those auctioneers chanted quite the way today’s talented speakers can rattle off information, but it’s still pretty much the same when it comes to crowd-pleasing, animated hawking.
As in anything else, it takes constant practice to succeed in one’s chosen profession—whether it’s hitting a baseball heading toward the plate at 100 mph, playing a violin or driving a fast car.
In Younkin’s case, he’s never stopped practicing, not since he sold that chicken in Brundidge so many years ago. It’s earned him several trips to the national finals.
"That’s where you can say I cut my teeth as an auctioneer," he said. "I was 19 and didn’t say much, but it was good enough for somebody to bid on the chicken. I just wanted to sell it the best way I could."
He practiced as he grew up in Cecil, a little community 15 miles south of Montgomery. His inspiration was Alvin Thomas, his grandfather.
"You could say I idolized my granddaddy and I’d follow him around as much as I could when I was a kid," said Younkin, who runs the farm once owned by Thomas, who died in 1990.
When he graduated from Macon Academy, he enrolled at Auburn University Montgomery and attended classes at night, but didn’t finish his final year. Cattle and auctioneering just took up too much of his time. Besides, he had known what he wanted to do since he was a little boy. It’s not to say his marketing major at AUM didn’t help, because it did. He and his two partners—Scott Garrett and Dick Farrior—have built up a prosperous enterprise with the Mid State Stockyards.
The three long-time friends focus on the business-at-hand, but Garrett and Farrior couldn’t be prouder of their partner because of what he’s been able to accomplish on a national level.
"Billy knows cattle along with the market and he’s good with the buyers," Farrior said. "He’s got a perfect voice for what he does and he’s easy to understand when he does his auctioneering."
That’s easier said than done, because the slightest verbal stumble during competition can cost a competitor a championship trophy or belt buckle.
Each requirement is crucial because the judges are looking for specifics, not generalities. Younkin said the interviews can provide nail-biting moments as contestants try to come up with the "right" answers.
"You just about feel like you’re naked," he said. "The interviews are intense and there’s that added pressure of knowing how you respond to questions can make or break you."
Younkin has never had a problem when it comes to auctioneering and no one knows that better than Billy Powell who directs the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association.
"Billy has a God-given talent of possessing a great auctioneering voice with clarity that you can understand," said Powell, who attended the quarterfinal event in Montgomery. "It’s more than just being able to chant. People need to know what you are saying and Billy does that."
An auctioneering school in Missouri helped Younkin straighten out any rough spots he might have had. That included breath control.
"It’s important to do that right so that people can’t tell that you aren’t breathing during your chant," he said. "It helped me smooth out my chant. That was one of several things I learned at the school."
It cost about $2,000 to attend the school, but as far as Younkin was concerned, it was money well spent because of the tips he picked up during that time.
He also knew attending an auctioneering school was vital because it was a requirement if he intended to become licensed in Alabama.
"After you go to the school, you become an apprentice and work under a licensed auctioneer," he said. "That’s important because auctioneers do more than just chant and take bids on cattle. A lot more is involved."
He said licensed auctioneers are "in charge of the money" raised at events and also have other duties that must be mastered.
Southern auctioneers have had problems winning the national title and there’s no easy answer for why that’s happened, according to Younkin.
"Styles differ depending on regions," he said. "Auctioneers in California are different from those in Virginia or Alabama. It’s not easy being a judge, either, because it takes a long time to pick a winner."
That was evident at the event in Montgomery where some of the competitors had to wait for hours in a hallway or room before they got their turn at the podium to accept bids on cattle being paraded below them.
In some events, cell phones are disallowed and competitors, who are required to wear coat and ties, are sequestered until it’s time for them to answer questions from the judges.
Younkin said one of the benefits of competing nationally is developing friendships with other auctioneers. They talk about a little of everything, especially football and which region of the country has the best teams.
Some of America’s best auctioneers have been known to earn six figure incomes as they crisscross their state or region to preside at events ranging from cattle to real estate or vehicles.
"I think many people think auctioneers only work at stockyards, but they do a lot more than that," he said. "In order to take bids on real estate, you must be licensed to sell real estate."
At the moment, Billy Younkin has his eyes set on one thing and that’s next summer’s national championship where he once again will compete for the grand prize.
He knows it may be a long shot to win it all, but that’s not keeping him from practicing and thinking about the moment he’ll take center stage in front of demanding judges.
Win or lose, he’s already in the upper echelon of auctioneers in the country and that, alone, is enough to make him chant a happy tune.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.