Howard Phillips just turned 80 and he shows up to work every day. “What else would I do?” he asks.
Wife Barbara works alongside him at Powell Auction and Realty. They ride together.
“Lately, we’ve been getting up at 15 ’til 5, but she can’t get out the door by 5,” says Howard.
“We used to get up at 15 ’til 6, but I fell behind (with year-end business) and decided to get in here an hour earlier,” says Barbara.
Howard’s credentials are impressive: auctioneer since 1976; four terms on Tennessee Auctioneer Commission, appointed by Govs. Haslam, Sundquist and Bredesen; real estate agent; and entering 2020 debt-free.
Barbara’s ID just reads office manager. But she gets email (Howard does not) and she wrote those checks this week to finish paying for their second building on Pleasant Ridge Road. “The kids will take over with no debt,” says Howard, “and they will grow this business.”
Oldest son Kenny is already president and principal broker for the company; his wife, Tina, is involved as well. Son Brian and his wife, Missy, operate the Union County office of Powell Auction. And their son, Justin, is equipment auction manager. The first seven names on the website are Phillips.
Howard’s office is filled with various items: a jukebox, a TV playing the impeachment hearings, a Trump cap, stuff he’s acquired over a lifetime in the auction business. “He likes junk,” says Barbara. “You ought to see our house.”
Howard remembers when they got married. He had just graduated from high school and had worked as a bag boy at Winn-Dixie in North Carolina. His family home lacked indoor plumbing. Money was hard to come by. He was netting $23 a week and Barbara was netting $15.
Howard had saved $35, but the newlyweds did not go to a hotel for their honeymoon. They stayed, instead, with his grandparents. And soon they rented an apartment near Biltmore. It was $20 a month. Howard was assistant produce manager by now and Barbara got a part-time job in the Biltmore bakery.
“She said something that I’ve never forgotten,” Howard says. “She said, ‘Your mom and dad have done great, but I want us to do a lot better.’
“And I’m wondering how I could do better. I was working my butt off at Winn-Dixie.” By now, Howard was earning $35 a week and Winn-Dixie bumped him to $75 when he took a transfer to Maryville. Kenny was born and Barbara found a part-time job at J.C. Penney. “With child care and expenses, I figured she was just clearing about $20 a week, but she said that’s $20 we wouldn’t have.”
“I loved working there, says Barbara.”
But Howard was transferred again, this time to Atlanta. Barbara went along for his final interview. He was anxious because he knew they had to drive back to Maryville that night and he had to drive back to Atlanta the next morning to start work. And he suspected Barbara might be angry because she was waiting in the lobby during the exhaustive interview.
“Finally, it was over. I walked out and she was sitting there with the biggest grin.”
Barbara had gotten a job in the regional headquarters of Winn-Dixie while she was waiting. Howard was 29, Barbara 25. The company had created a job for her, collecting bad checks. They grabbed Kenny and moved south. After 18 months, Howard was offered a transfer to Knoxville. He worked at the Clinton Highway store until the Halls store was built, then came to Halls as store manager. Winn-Dixie wanted to keep Barbara, offering to pay for a plane ticket so she could visit Howard on weekends. They declined and all moved to Knoxville.
Barbara’s words echoed in Howard’s mind: “I want us to do a lot better.”
He knew he needed to work for himself. Soon he had a chance to purchase Powell Auction. Barbara left her job at Dempster Bros. in 1979 to join him.
“We had saved $4,000,” Howard says. “We borrowed $10,000 to buy the business, and I used the $4,000 to buy inventory.”
Barbara recalls the early years when she did the bookkeeping and “a little bit of everything.” People don’t understand how it is to own a business, she says. “They think you can just hire people to do the work.”
Howard said they have a stack of voided checks – written to pay themselves but not cashed because the money wasn’t there. He started a flea market on land owned by O.B. and Charlie Rutherford (Emory Road at I-75 where Ingle’s now stands). “We’d set it up on Thursdays (for weekend sales) and were working from 4 a.m. until midnight,” Howard recalls.
Over time, Howard gave up the flea market. Kenny suggested he and his dad get a real estate license in 1988. Now real estate is their No. 1 money-maker with auctions claiming the second spot. Howard and Barbara own 12 acres and two buildings on Pleasant Ridge Road plus some warehouses on Callahan.
“We’ve just finished the best year we’ve ever had,” says Howard. He credits the Trump tax cut with fueling the economic surge. “But he didn’t cut any programs. He just added to the deficit,” I said.
“That’s faulty thinking,” said Howard. He believes the Laffer curve – that happy spot where a tax rate cut will result in more taxes overall as the economy grows. “We’re just one little family business. Multiply that across the country.”
Never argue money with a fellow who has more than you do.
(Editor’s Note: Howard Phillips was 32 when we met. He was the store manager of the new Halls Winn-Dixie. I was 23, editor/publisher of the Halls Shopper and running for election to the state legislature. Howard bought a weekly ad, and I won the election. We’ve been friends more or less ever since.)