Though she grew up in an “auction family,” Johnna Wells was always too shy to take the stage herself. But when she turned 23 and her life turned upside down, she picked up the mic and found her own rapid-fire chant. Rather than focusing on antiques, livestock, or classic cars, though, she launched her own auction company, Benefit 360, where she uses her distinctive skills to run auctions that benefit Pacific Northwest nonprofits. She’s raised more than $150 million to date, and she’s only just gotten started.
My parents owned an auction house in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and held auctions every Friday night. Some kids fall asleep to the sound of nursery rhymes or favorite books, but I often fell asleep to the steady cadence of my dad’s auctioneering chant. He was a big deal in that world, a past president of National Auctioneers Association. Meanwhile, I was so shy that I hated anything that required me to stand in front of an audience and talk. If my dad was on the mic and tried to call me up there, I would curl up, completely terrified, and hide behind the counter in the back room for the rest of the night. In high school I even convinced my debate teacher to let me do a tai chi performance instead of a speech.
I’d always loved rummaging through the bins of antiques and collectibles—this was before all the TV shows about “picking” made it cool. I thought I could do a behind-the-scenes job at an auction, like researching the provenance and history of items for Sotheby’s. I didn’t think I had the chops to be an auctioneer, but this way I could stay in the business. I studied fine arts at the University of Idaho, and after I graduated I started making jewelry out of reclaimed metal and selling it at stores all over the Northwest.
All of a sudden, my life turned into a sad country song: my dog died, my dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and my family was majorly downsizing, including selling off our family home and the auction house. Once the auction house was gone, it hit me that I had this insatiable urge to speak the language of my father. Auction calling was like a foreign language I grew up hearing but never spoke—it was somewhere inside of me, and I just wanted to speak it. I announced at dinner that I wanted to be an auctioneer—my dad’s jaw dropped. My parents had wanted me to go into the profession years ago, but they never thought I would, and almost didn’t believe me. I mean, I was the kid who had all of those years with access to a microphone and a sound system and never tried it once, even when the room was empty.
I went to a three-year auction school to learn auction law, “big calling” (articulating your numbers), and to hone my “chant” (the specific way each auctioneer expresses). I found my voice, though for some reason I was still too embarrassed to practice my chant in front of my dad! When I graduated, I cold-called so many auction companies. They wanted me to be a secretary, but no one would take a chance on me as an auctioneer. There are still big differences between perceived male and female roles in the auction world. I finally got a job as a bid spotter, assisting the auctioneer.
Two years later I started Benefit 360. Fall is one of our busiest seasons, when we average three auctions a week. I’ve auctioned everything: tickets to Elton John’s Oscar party, wild mustangs, children’s artwork, rides on a private jet, even brain surgery observation. I’ve always volunteered and cared about helping others, so I wanted to do auctions for nonprofits. It can be a lot of pressure—sometimes what I bring in is the majority of their budget for the year. I may not have $150 million of my own to donate, but I love that I can still get that money to nonprofits I believe in.