Secrets of my success: John-Paul Savant, chief executive of Auction Technology Group
John-Paul Savant discusses his role as boss of Auction Technology Group, including meeting the 600 auctioneers who use his online tech platform.
What do you do?
I run ATG, which is an online auction technology company, across 12 different industries from heavy machinery to cars and fine art. It is private-equity-backed by ECI and has a transaction value of £2 billion annually.
It’s still built largely on antiques, so we try to inhabit the space between eBay and Christie’s — £50 to £50,000 purchases. Unlike most Silicon Valley companies, we are not trying to knock out the traditional industry but work with them. For me, that means travelling the country to meet the 600 auctioneers who pay to use the site, as well as using my experience from eBay and PayPal to improve the customer experience on our sites. I also spend time building the team.
What do you enjoy about it?
It’s rare to meet so many people who love what they do, as auctioneers do. I have a financial-services background, and people don’t usually get a buzz from a back-end payments system.
Meeting these people and being shown a medieval sword once owned by a king, or a Chinese scroll in Scotland worth £700,000, is fantastic. Just before I joined, we even sold a dismembered nuclear power plant!
As a kid, I always wanted to travel in time, so this is as close as you get. The first thing I bought from the site was a bookcase — engraved with a coat of arms — from the 1850s for £180 that a joiner told me was worth £3000. So I’m a customer, too.
What was your biggest break?
Getting the job at PayPal. They took a chance on me. I was the fifth member of their international team, which was located by the toilets at the back of the eBay offices at Mountain View, California. We thought we could be as big as eBay, but would have been laughed at. The good thing is, when you’re in triple-digit growth, the team keeps growing and it’s very positive.
We knew we were building something fun and different. Then I became the CEO of a credit provider, Elevate, but everything has its time and when a close friend in London said I had to move, ATG came along — and I haven’t looked back since.
I was surrounded by ultra-clever, competitive colleagues. I didn’t really know what I was doing and should have been fired. Somehow I got promoted, but resigned and went to business school.
Later, I realised bankers get excited about short-term deals while I prefer building something. Later in my career, I was a vice-president at an oil company in Boston. But my mother got cancer so I moved back to San Francisco, where I grew up, and took a job three levels down, which was hard. It was a tough decision but the right one.
How do you manage your work-life balance?
Everyone says I have lots of energy. In truth, I simply find time for the people I want to be with. I’m pretty decisive about what I need to do.
I live in Richmond, and I’m divorced with three kids so I spend my time helping with exam preparations, going to their sports events and I sing them one Beatles song each night — last night it was When I’m Sixty-Four. I also enjoy cycling in Richmond Park and visiting National Trust castles. My father, who was an English literature classics lecturer, and his brother married two sisters so I effectively had six siblings growing up — it means I know when to collaborate and when to just get on with it.
Any tips for those starting out?
Do what feels right. So many people take jobs because they think society thinks they should, and a lot of years get wasted. Understand what you enjoy and you can get to the same place faster and better. Try to act without fear.
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