Old bulldozer sales are sign of markets ‘inching up'

NEWNAN – They wore bluejeans and camos and muddy boots, and a good number of them – let’s call them the leading indicators – smoked fat, smelly cigars.

The reader will be happy to know, it gets better after this.

If Thursday’s big equipment auction at Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers is any indicator, the economy is on the way back.

Prices were up and attendance was good – about 500 at the Ritchie facility, another 500 plugged in by the Internet, from 20 countries around the world – and almost 1,200 bulldozers, dump trucks, ditch witches, excavators and their ilk moved off the lot.

“They say heavy equipment is a mirror of the real estate and stock markets,” said Darrin Hogeboom, regional manager of the company, which auctions heavy equipment all over the country and most recently here last September.

“When we’re up, they’re up; when we’re down, they’re down. Right now, I’d say we’re inching up.”

If the scene was rough hewn, and it was, would you rather spend an afternoon trying to get a fix on the Great Recession -- up, down, sideways? -- by watching CNBC?

It started at 8 a.m. and lasted until 5 p.m., the soundtrack a series of auctioneers who all sounded about the same -- like they were gargling marbles and phone numbers in a molasses milkshake, to a jazz rhythm.

“Bubbla blubb, blub, 4,250, blubbity, blub, glub blub, do I hear, blubity blug, blug, 4,300!?”

That would last about 30 seconds while the huge equipment rolled past a covered grandstand and then the auctioneer would spurt, blurt: “Sold 4,300!”

Out on the lot, guys were giving the beasts the once-over, some test-driving them, like Robert Thompson of Sandersville, who fired up a 2006 Cat D5G XL C Crawler Tractor, pulled the levers, making it sort of shuffle in place, and raised and lowered the blade.

Good deal?

“I don’t know,” he said. “It might be worth more now than it was a few months ago. But it’s kind of slow moving to the left. And I don’t know what it will do when it gets hot.”

Like anybody does in this economy?

Talking to people shopping for a deal on things that weigh 10 tons and smell like diesel fuel isn’t such a witty repartee experience.

They tend to be succinct.

The market up, you think? “Slightly,” said Matt Quarrick, from Pittsburgh, shopping for an excavator he planned to resell. You getting more work? “Yep.”

Jason Solesbee, working the back lot, was effusive by comparison. He runs a big equipment repair shop, Southeastern Fabrications, in Carrollton. Old bulldozers are his friend. They break down.

“It really tanked at the end of 2008,” he says of the heavy equipment market. “I won’t say it’s back, but a year ago, people weren’t even talking. Now at least they’re threatening to buy.”

Texan Paul Hale said, “The market is pretty soft,” especially in logging equipment, but, for him, maybe not so bad.

He was eyeballing a Case excavator that would cost about $175,000 new. He planned to bid $35,000. He wanted to test it, but it “wouldn’t crank,” he said. No biggie. One of the auction guys was on his way out to fire it up.

If things worked out, said Hale, he’d buy it and pay $2,000 to ship it back to Texas. Once he got it there, he said, "I don't know what I can get for it. But the way things are going, if I'm lucky $60,000. If I'm lucky."