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He moves cattle, real estate, and your old stuff
The 2013 Platteville Journal Citizen of the Year
Clayton 3

Don Clayton didn’t say these words, but his actions indicate he loves his job, or jobs.

That would explain why he considers managing his rental properties his hobby, and why he donates his auctioneering talents to organizations holding charity auctions.

Clayton owns Clayton Real Estate & Auction Service in Platteville. He can be found Monday and Thursday mornings at the Belmont Sale Barn, in the facility his father built and he previously owned, auctioning off cattle. Other days he can be found at real estate and personal property auctions.

“I do hear the remark that they can understand me better than many other auctioneers,” he said. “I’ve never been much for running somebody down.”

In the sale barn, cows come out of one door, through the area where bidders quickly figure out how much they want to pay, and then into another door. The entire process takes 10 to 20 seconds per cow, depending on how cooperative the cow is. Pickup trucks pulling cattle trailers snake down the driveway outside the door.

When not auctioneering, he’s selling homes, farms and other lands, at the rate of about one transaction a week.
“I enjoy my rentals,” he said. “It’s a business too, but I enjoy doing it when you’re not involved in real estate.”

Clayton’s father’s building the sale barn on his farm when Clayton was 10 started him on that part of his career path. The first cattle auction was held Sept. 3, 1948, and at least one sale has been held every week since then.

“When we built it, there weren’t many sale barns around, and then everybody was doing it, and now they’re back to just a few places,” said Clayton. “I often wondered if he’d never built what I would have done — it could’ve been all different.”

Clayton has been an auctioneer since 1951, when he was asked to do a country school white elephant sale. The auction raised $100. He was an auctioneer for church and school auctions for two years before going to auction school in 1953.

Clayton and his brothers purchased the sale barn in 1963. He sold it to his nephew in 1997, and his nephew sold it to the owners of Bloomington Livestock Exchange in 2010.

He remembers when poor-quality cows would sell for 10 cents per pound, and higher-quality cattle would sell for 25 cents per pound. Now, poor-quality cows sells for 60 cents per pound, and good-quality cows sell for 90 cents per pound.
Clayton has noticed the improvements in farming — “they can farm 1,000 acres easier than you can farm 100,” he said.

In the former days, farmers sold their cattle to Oscar Mayer and Dubuque Packing Co., which were family owned. Oscar Mayer is part of Kraft, and Dubuque Pack closed in 2001.

Clayton was a farmer from 1956 to 1976, when he decided to get into real estate.

“It was kind of connected with the auctions, and I was working with people with real estate, and I could see an opening there, so I ventured into that,” he said.

He worked with Southwestern Real Estate for four years before starting his own real estate company in 1982.

“It’s not Milwaukee or Chicago or anything like that, but we probably sell 50 properties a year,” he said. “Sometimes we sell as many as 75” in a year. “The market in Platteville is for sure more active — it’s the key part of the real estate business in this tri-state area.”

The company has seven employees.

“It’s a good, honest income,” he said, “but you’ve got to be ready — there’s going to be a day when you’ll be sitting for a month or two and wondering why the hell you’re doing this. You may go two or three years before any dry spots, but on average you’ll have a month out of every year where you’ve got more going out than coming in — you might not have anything coming in.”

The national economy has more effect on property sales than local economic issues, such as the 2012 drought.
“Most of the time we won’t feel it for a year after it’s nationally felt,” said Clayton. The 2012 drought affected the area economically “not as much as you think. This last year, it didn’t seem to affect property sales.”

About 10 percent of the homes and farms Clayton sells are by auction, usually combined with a preceding personal property auction.

“It’s not an absolute sale,” said Clayton of a real estate auction. “We’re selling an offer to purchase, and the seller’s got the right to accept it, modify it or reject it” within a week of the auction.

“If I sell their real estate, I will have a personal property auction for them,” preferably outside so that potential buyers can see what’s for sale. “If you get some antique or valuable stuff, it’ll take care of itself pretty darn good.”

Without antiques or collectibles — and sometimes with them — personal property auctions are almost impossible to predict.

“We’ve had a sale when you think you’ll bring in X number of dollars, and it goes by so fast that you wonder what happened,” he said. “Anything can happen at an auction.”

In his early auction years, young couples would come to household auctions to buy used items with which to start their house. That happens less often today because, for instance, old appliances use considerably more electricity or natural gas than modern appliances.

One of Clayton’s more memorable days was a sale in Potosi that took 12 hours, “and the crowd stayed.”

One reason Clayton remains successful in the auction business is his ability to evaluate the value of what’s being sold.

“There aren’t too many people left who can appraise anything from a piece of junk to a $100,000 home or a $1 million farm,” he said. “I get lawyer business from all over.”

Clayton has a retirement plan, but isn’t looking to retire soon.

“My son [Don Jr.] is 20 years younger, and he works at the college now, and when he retires, it’s kind of in place for him taking over,” he said. “Health-wise, if you keep doing some, it’s better than doing none. It keeps me active and updated in the markets.”