By Tony Bennett
Twin Ports Bid Transforms the Local Auction Scene to Create Profit for Both Businesses and Individuals
It wasn’t that long ago that “auction” referred to an event that was generally held in a big room stuffed with items for sale. An auctioneer would hold a microphone and say a whole bunch of stuff really fast in a half-excited, half-monotone voice that no one could really understand, while people in attendance held up signs to bid on items. Then eBay came around, and auctions became individualized, virtual experiences. No more auctioneers, no more people waving their arms. You bid on what you wanted, and if you won, your prize would travel right to your doorstep.
Somewhere between those two experiences is the niche filled by Superior-based Twin Ports Bid. As it turns out, the eBay experience isn’t the be-all, end-all of online auctioning. This local business has come up with a way to marry the experience of seeing an auction item in person with the ease of placing a bid on the internet. It handles everything from commercial and industrial equipment and tools to restaurant equipment, vehicles, boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, firearms, antiques and collectibles, furniture, boats, sporting goods, clothing and more. Last fall, for example, Twin Ports Bid even auctioned a private collection of Star Wars and science fiction collectibles – almost 20,000 items.
“I thought that if we were to bring a company into the Twin Ports area, Superior’s kind of the geographic center of everything.”
– Co-owner Nate Finstad
Although most items are auctioned online, the business also conducts private sales and consignment services as well as live auctions. Today, it has grown to take items on consignment and bidders from a five-state area (Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin) and Ontario, Canada.
The guy who came up with the initial concept for Twin Ports Bid is Nate Finstad, who co-owns the business. Finstad’s story is a straightforward one; he grew up liking auctions, and various events on his life’s path led him to establish Twin Ports Bid in 2017. There was no real master plan at first – just inspiration. But oftentimes, that’s enough to get the business ball rolling.
“I grew up in the Twin Ports area,” Finstad said. “I spent a lot of time out in the country when I was younger with my grandfather, doing a lot of estate sale-type stuff – going to auctions, driving around and looking at stuff to buy. My grandpa was pretty big into that.” Finstad was in high school when his grandfather passed away. After graduation, he did “a little bit of business management for some companies,” as he puts it, and sales-related work. Then, at one point when Finstad was between jobs, he found himself drawn back into the auction world.
“My dad and I were sitting and talking, and we thought it would be fun to go to this auction in Superior for a business that had been sold,” Finstad said, “and we went and we bought some stuff there. And we started to kind of resell the product. We were, like, ‘Hey, this is fun.’”
“Nate and his team come in, and they do all the documentation. They put everything up on the website and do the auction process.”
– Operations Manager Matt Klein – Barko Hydraulics
So the game was afoot. Finstad had been reminded of how much he liked buying and selling goods. “It kind of grew and grew,” he says of his burgeoning interest at the time. “What ended up happening is that we had a lot of product we couldn’t get rid of quickly enough. That brought us into utilizing auction companies to disperse product that was basically overstock that we couldn’t sell quick enough, because we had limited space for the stuff that we were buying at the time.”
Finstad realized he wanted to make his growing hobby his actual job about three-and-a-half years ago. But it wasn’t a move he was positioned to make at the time. “I had a lot on my mind. I’m buying a new house, I had just bought my first new vehicle in, like, 15 years. And I really didn’t have a lot to get going with,” he said. He thought about taking the sensible route and going to work with his father in the construction business.
This is where Rick Lampton – the affable local restaurateur and Superiorite who owns the Grizzly’s Wood Fired Grill and 7 West TapHouse in Superior in addition to other restaurants and pubs in Duluth – comes in.
“It just so happened that I ran into a friend that I had known for a while; our kids went to school together,” Finstad explained. “And it happened to be Rick Lampton. We just started talking and it kind of unfolded very quickly.”
The two men discussed some basic ideas about the potential for launching this new business. Finstad talked about his passion for auctioning and how he thought he could make buying and selling easier and more enjoyable in the local area.
“I thought that if we were to bring a company into the Twin Ports area, Superior’s kind of the geographic center of everything. You’ve got Ashland, you go down to Minong, Spooner, down into Eau Claire,” he said. “And then you go up an hour the other way [to Minnesota], and you’ve got the Iron Range. We’ve got a plethora of communities around us; we’re not just Duluth and Superior. I thought that we could make a good goal of this.”
“It’s not a great story,” Lampton said with a laugh. “I was, like, let’s create a business plan and see what we can do.” What he means is that the impetus for Twin Ports started out with a guy with an idea and another guy with business experience having a bunch of conversations – and then joining forces on said idea.
But that’s how many businesses are born – through the entrepreneurial spirit.
“I was familiar with them because I watched their auctions in the past. I wanted to find a local auction company that had the best reach for what I was trying to sell.”
– Owner Erik Lietz – BoomTown Woodfire Bar & Grills and The Whistling Bird
Lampton thought that developing an auction business might even help him with managing inventory at his other businesses. “Having multiple restaurants,” he explained, “I’m always buying and selling.”
So after establishing a business plan and getting Twin Ports Bid up and running as a concept, Finstad and Lampton set out to make it a reality. They bought pallet racking and worked a 15-hour day going to New Ulm, Minnesota, and back to get items for their warehouse. “I didn’t even know what pallet racking was,” Lampton noted, again with a hearty laugh.
And what had they created? “Twin Ports Bid is an online auction service that is a nice, easy way for people to make a little money and buy and sell,” Lampton explained. “And it’s definitely a nice place where you can go buy used stuff that you don’t necessarily want to buy brand-new. We run the whole gamut, from tools to collectibles and housewares – a wide variety of items.”
It really is about that simple. Customers – which include businesses and individuals – talk to Twin Ports Bid staff and set up an auction for one item or a lot of them. Then they either hand their items over for display at the Twin Ports Bid facility, or let people look at them right on-site on their own property. Auctions take place on the twinportsbid.com website. Lickety-split – easy-peasy. It’s that simple.
The business opened at 1322 Banks Ave. near VIP Pizza in October of 2017 and started expanding almost immediately. “I think it was three months later – January – when we were able to expand into the next room,” Finstad said. “About six or eight months later, we took over the rest of that side of the building. It was very quick.”
It was fast, unexpected growth – and a good problem to have. However, while the business took off, Finstad focused simultaneously on his main objective. “Our big goal,” he said emphatically, “was nothing but customer satisfaction and making sure that our customers were getting the best possible treatment from day one and into the future.”
“there are not a lot of [other] places to get larger antique pieces in town.”
– Becky Scherf, bidder and seller
Making sure stock was always available was another priority. “You’re calling friends, you’re calling family, you’re putting ads on social media,” Finstad explained. “You’re running through all these channels and trying to develop that audience.”
It’s been a whirlwind couple of years, but Finstad’s got a whole new career – and he’s loving it.
“I don’t like using the word ‘chaos,’” he said. “But we’re like Christmas every week – the decorations go up, the decorations come down. There’s an auction closing and one area of the warehouse is completely cleaned out. And then I have a customer already set to bring their stuff back.” In addition to special auctions, the company typically closes an online auction every Thursday at 7 p.m.
Twin Ports Bid has so far hired three people to help with its auctions and customer service and interfacing. “I’m lucky to have employees who utilize every square inch of this building for the process,” said Finstad. “We can make sure we don’t have empty times in the warehouse and don’t turn away business.”
The company has also made a regular practice of helping local businesses unload equipment for which they no longer have a use. When equipment was upgraded, businesses would typically end up selling items on Craigslist, giving them away, or just throwing them away or recycling them. Now, with Twin Ports Bid, it’s much easier for them to make money on those items.
Barko Hydraulics is one of those businesses. Barko – a leading developer, manufacturer and distributor of tough, innovative heavy equipment for the site prep, forestry and material handling industries – is one of those companies. The company’s Superior headquarters are on a campus at 1 Banks Ave. that’s close to the Blatnik Bridge. Barko has a dealer network encompassing North America, South America, Australia and Europe, and this company serves industrial customers that rely on its equipment every day.
“We try to replenish tools and equipment from year to year to keep our production tooling and stuff pretty fresh, and we needed a channel to get rid of that stuff,” said Barko Hydraulics Operations Manager Matt Klein. “I can sit on Facebook or Craigslist and post these things all day long; I just don’t have time to manage that. So an auction is kind of the perfect environment for us to get rid of some of these goods and get a little bit of money back on them. It’s pretty hands-off as far as my part in it; I have to organize items and get them ready for bid. And then Nate and his team come in, and they do all the documentation. They put everything up on the website and do the auction process. When that’s over, they take care of coordinating all the shipping and payment and everything like that.
“We’re already talking about a bigger warehouse, where we could bring in more equipment and people could unload inside, out of the elements.”
– Co-owner Rick Lampton
“It’s a lot more money than if I were to throw it all away in the dumpster. That’s the easier way to manage everything – I could just throw it all away in the scrap dumpster and pay 10 cents a pound or whatever scrap steel is at right now,” Klein said. “But that doesn’t get us anywhere. And there’s people out there that actually want some of the stuff we’re selling.”
So in that fashion, Twin Ports Bid helps to recycle items and equipment back into the community, cutting down on waste and maximizing these items’ productive lives. Klein cited one example: “Twin Ports Custom Climate purchased a bunch of storage bins we had, because they were putting up a new warehouse and they needed some bins to organize some of the materials they had. If we wouldn’t have sold them, they would’ve just ended up in a landfill somewhere.”
Erik Lietz is the owner/operator of BoomTown Woodfire Bar & Grill, which has two locations in Hibbing and Eveleth, Minnesota. He also runs The Whistling Bird restaurant in Gilbert, Minnesota. Lietz recently acquired the former Sunset Bar & Grill in Rice Lake, located on Martin Road just outside of Duluth. Twin Ports Bid helped him unload a lot of equipment that needed to be replaced before his renovation plans to turn the Sunset building into a new BoomTown location could begin.
“I was familiar with them because I watched their auctions in the past,” Lietz explained. “I wanted to find a local auction company that had the best reach for what I was trying to sell. The prices that they had gotten were really good.”
Lietz was happy with Twin Ports Bid’s services, and he found them a refreshing alternative to selling on other online outlets. “With Facebook, you’re tied to that listing and you end up with a pile of tire-kickers,” he explained. “Or you give up your morning to go look at a piece of equipment [with potential customers] and the buyer doesn’t show up.” Lietz says he’s had better luck with Twin Ports Bid than he has in his attempts to sell items on his own.
Customer Becky Scherf – who is both a bidder and seller with an astute eye for unique and vintage items –uses Twin Ports Bid for personal purchases. And her employer uses Twin Ports Bid, too. “There are not a lot of [other] places to get larger antique pieces in town,” Scherf said as to why she likes Twin Ports Bid. “We have a few small tchotchke stores, but there’s nothing where you can get nice, larger antique pieces.”
The business has also supported the community by holding fundraising auctions for twin ports organizations including the Superior Police and Fire Departments, Superior Sunrise Centennial Rotary Club and the Lake Superior Zoo.
The co-owners plan to keep improving and growing the business’s operations. “We want to ensure that our sellers are getting top dollar for their items,” Lampton said. “And we’re already talking about a bigger warehouse, where we could bring in more equipment and people could unload inside, out of the elements.”
The business has also supported the community by holding fundraising auctions for Twin Ports organizations including the Superior police and fire departments, Superior Sunrise Centennial Rotary Club and the Lake Superior Zoo. In addition to more charitable work and hiring more employees, Finstad looks forward to even more success. “Basically,” he said, “being successful down the road and keeping a steady rate of growth is the biggest thing. Our customers’ satisfaction is paramount.”
Now that Nate Finstad and Rick Lampton have reinvented the auction scene locally and beyond, there are bound to be a lot more people looking at potentially salable items – both at their businesess and in their homes – with an eye toward profit. PS
Tony Bennett is a Twin Ports-based freelance writer.