Manheim at 100: The story of a 33-year career at Manheim

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To celebrate Manheim at 100, Adrian Kelly, Director of Inspection and Assurance Services, relives his Manheim career journey and reflects on some of his favourite stories over the years.

“Adrian Kelly”

This milestone has made me reflect on my own long career with our business and the changes I have experienced and been a part of 33 years after I first started way back in 1988!

My journey started at the age of 18 when I left sixth form college early - which was both the best thing for them and me at that time. My career plan was to try to work in and around my hobbies so a career in music production or with cars was the aim. I used to regularly visit Central Motor Auctions in Mitcham on a Monday evening for no other reason than I enjoyed the atmosphere and the buzz of the auction night, so when I saw an advert for ‘Trainee Manager / Auctioneer’ listed the local careers office, I applied and was delighted to be successful. My first proper job.

The remit of the role was to work in every department with the requirement to train to become an auctioneer after six months. I didn’t think at the time I would have the confidence to go ahead with the auctioneering part but thought the management training plan would help me develop my career.

Times were very different back then. I started working in the yard and immediately experienced some ‘firsts.’ On day one, I drove a car with an automatic transmission. On day two, a large van and on day three I drove HGVs (mostly council refuse trucks) through the sale. In subsequent weeks I moved onto inspections, into administration to complete the hand-written entry forms, hand-typed and posted catalogues to buyers and I also worked the cash office taking payments on my own on a Saturday. Having close relationships with buyers, vendors and colleagues could only be done in person or over the landline telephone and were vital to the success of the business (no mobiles, internet or email) and were essential to repeat business. 


A photograph for a feature that was used in Top Gear Magazine, 1996. Picture taken hanging over the rostrum at Wimbledon.

CMA Mitcham sold vehicles for many leasing and finance companies and vehicles of all types from local councils, authorities, and utility companies. I also always remember a continued strong entry of six-month-old cars from rental companies, although the direct main agent part exchange market did not exist to any great degree but there was a high volume of trade entered vehicles, with many traders earning a good living just buying from one auction to sell in another or trade into retail sites. 

The internet was many years away and therefore, pretty much every vehicle came to auction and, given the close proximity to central London, we used to have a steady supply of high-end stock from the banks in the City. There was no CAP disc or automated pricing and the leasing companies used to rely on the valuations that were provided by the auctioneer. Within a couple of months, that auctioneer was me and with a CAP book and Glass’s Guide rarely out of my hand, I was valuing scores of vehicles every day. The telephone for valuations from traders and companies was also always busy and I used to visit local businesses to value their cars on site. I recall more than one visit to the famous art auctioneers Christies in Kensington who sent their company cars to us to sell.

Over time I found I could often accurately value stock without the need to check the guidebook which was a skill that was to come in useful during a break from my auction career. 

The auction buying environment was also different in those days to now. Cash was king and there were no bank cards in use, although buyer accounts with cheque payments were common as is now. Before it was a legal necessity to do so, Manheim were to lead the industry with the introduction of buyer identification and card-only auctions in future years, but back then a cash payment and no-ID requirement meant that the auction always attracted a varied buying audience from a smaller number of sharp-suited main agents to many an east-London hoodlum with most of their business interests outside of the motor trade. In future, the regulation made the auction event a bit easier to manage (!) and most of those interesting characters moved on to other pursuits. 

As I mentioned before, I always loved the buzz – and the pressure – that came with putting on a successful auction which I have always seen as a show / performance that the team needed to work together to put on multiple times every week. Even then, everything always needed to be 100% correct from the presentation, audience attendance and there is always a result that lets our customers and us know if we got each aspect of the job right at the end of each auction. However, there was no CAP % or conversion tables to determine this - the business success came from service excellence and the quality of our partnerships with sellers and buyers.

Soon I was also regularly auctioneering at Shepshed, and Gloucester too, and was selected as one of the auctioneers who sold cherished number plates on behalf of the DVLA. This was at the start a wider government programme to sell off private plates which continues to this day. But those early years there were some very desirable and previously unavailable number plates on offer which sometimes sold into six-figures. 

The auctions were held at memorable venues including Ragley Hall, Royal Botanical Gardens, Bath Pump Rooms and I do recall a very large crowd for the sale (and my nerves on that day as a result) at the Scottish Motor Show event. We would regularly sell £3m of plates over two very long days with a couple of late and enjoyable nights in between. These events were held by us for many years. 

Due to a council compulsory purchase order for the Mitcham site in October 1990 (for a bypass which still hasn’t been built) the CMA business moved to a new, larger, state-of-the-art multi story auction at Wimbledon. I can still recall the excitement of being a key part of the operation and business change process so early in my career. Wimbledon’s stock profile was all lease and company vendors and manufacturer closed sales were hosted there too, which is also a change from the stock mix of today. 


Auctioneering at CMA Mitcham in 1990 (with an advert for the new Wimbledon centre in the background).

At the launch sale on the third storey of the auction centre car park around the watching audience, the famous stunt driver Russ Swift drove a car on two-wheels and performed handbrake-turn parallel-parking stunts in a space just 33cm longer than the car itself to replicate a famous and memorable TV advert he starred in at the time. Unfortunately, he was not available to use those parking skills to assist us in future with the space issues that the success of Wimbledon has often brought since.

I was approached by HR Owen in 1998 and left my role at Manheim to join them as a Group Used Car Buyer, becoming a customer of ours and our competition. I bought cars directly from companies, dealerships and the trade too. They also had a part-exchange sale programme at Wimbledon which gave me a new perspective and context of the customer’s needs. Whilst this was enjoyable, I missed the auction team-ethic and excitement- of the sale and re-joined 18 months later for a management role at our Colchester centre. 

Within nine months I returned to Wimbledon as the General Manager and in 2003 I relocated as General Manager of Bristol (where I still live today) before progressing into other roles as Regional Operations Director, National Auction Director and then a new role as Strategic Partnership Director in 2016.  In January 2020 I took up my current role as Director of Inspections and Assurance.  


Ian Nicholls and I celebrated a record month at Wimbledon in 2001 by bringing out a cake into the front car park. .

My personal proudest career moment was receiving the International President’s Award at the Cox Automotive Autos awards in January of this year. 

Manheim’s centenary celebrations have made me look back on my own career and it fills me with great pride but also complete astonishment to acknowledge the number of years that have passed. 

The market and our business has transformed over those years and the speed of change has never been faster than it has been in the last two years. However, the core elements of a successful business are the same now as they were when I started - understand the needs of our customers, deliver a world-class service and build a great team to deliver these results. Digital-first or not, the requirement was the same then as it is now. 

When I am asked the question - “why work at Cox Automotive?” -  I find it an easy question to answer. I have been fortunate to have such a long career because I still find that every day is different, even after all these years and my aim is to continue to drive this change and success for many years to come!

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