Press in Columbus Business First

On my desk sits a book called 401 Questions every Entrepreneur Should Ask, which provides those thinking about taking the entrepreneurial plunge with basic advice to consider before deciding if it’s the right track for them.

The book is a handy tool that helps identify character traits of an entrepreneur and the potential problems, solutions and financial scenarios entrepreneurs will encounter daily as a business owner.

If you like the sound of becoming an entrepreneur, read the book first and get a preview of what you will be walking into.

What the book doesn’t address at length are people like Jeff Baker of Bexley – a 44-year-old personal property appraiser and estate liquidator – whose backgrounds gently pull them toward entrepreneurship until an event occurs that makes them take that leap.

Valued skills
Baker sets a value to heirlooms, artwork, furniture and the like for people who are moving, have died or just selling what they have. He never envisioned this line of work, but in September 2008 a request from a friend whose wife had died set off a chain of events that altered his thinking.

The friend was preparing for an estate sale of his late wife’s belongings.

Not feeling comfortable with the price the appraiser said he would probably get, the friend approached Baker, knowing he was a regular at tag sales across the area. Baker agreed to come look at the items and told his friend they were being undervalued.

The friend employed Baker to do the entire valuation, which pulled in a nice amount for the widower.

Word-of-mouth reviews got Baker more jobs, and when he connected with an estate sale at the Park Towers condominiums, the “light bulb went on” to make it a full-time business.

“This was not the direction I was going to go after leaving American Signature,” where he spent three years as a divisional merchandising manager of bedroom and formal dining furniture in which he helped develop products.

Previous to that, Baker spent three years at Global Living and seven years running an antiques business out of the building that today houses the Buggyworks condominiums that are located behind Huntington Park in the Arena District of Columbus.

Baker has always had an affinity for antiques, attending estate sales and auctions with his grandparents, who, he said, “would not be very surprised” at what he’s doing today.

He can remember his first antique buy – a $60 rolltop desk that he bought at a county auction in Missouri – and his first sale – cast iron toys when he was in high school.

Rare route
Baker’s foray into entrepreneurship – his expertise in antiques and jobs at Global Living and American Signature – might best be described as a series of a-ha moments that led him to a final a-ha moment, says Sharon Alvarez, an Ohio State University associate professor in management and human resources at the Fisher College of Business.

Alvarez, whose specialties include the study of entrepreneurship, says this path is one she believes happens more often than is illustrated by research. The collective experience, she says, provided Baker and those like him a foundation from which to launch.

“You develop a set of skills and turn that into a business that nobody else does.”
In the opposite vein, Thom Ruhe, provided with the details of Baker’s evolution, labeled him an “accidental entrepreneur,” and says they – along with what he terms survival entrepreneurs – comprise a small portion of those who strike out on their own.

“I do however believe that both of the … categories contribute relatively small numbers to the overall entrepreneur ranks as the majority of people that take the plunge typically go through some methodical and thoughtful process – to varying degrees of course,” says the director of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo.

However people define Baker’s path probably doesn’t matter to him. He says he’s been happier, has more time with his family and is glad his service helps others.

“You really are taking care of someone else’s problem,” Baker says.

Craig Lovelace is an assistant managing editor at Columbus Business First. 614-220-5464 |

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Press in the Columbus Dispatch

Settling the Estate

Liquidators greatly expand services to help heirs clear house

Jeff Baker enters the master bedroom of a luxurious old East Side home and quickly surveys the belongings.

“That’s an old piece, completely rebuilt; that marble top isn’t original,” he says, referring to a small table on his right.

“That’s a 1920s Michigan piece,” he continues as his eyes circle the room. “And that’s an 1820s Georgian English secretary. Those mirrors are original, but they would have had candleholders in front of them to reflect the light; those are gone. That chest next to it looks old but is pine and is brand-new.”

Baker’s job is to know such things.

As one of several central Ohioans who specialize in liquidating estates, he is responsible for knowing the value of every item in a home – and for getting as close to that value as he can. When he is done, the home will be clean, empty and ready for a new owner.
Most families handle estates on their own. They sift through the belongings, gather some for themselves, give some away, and donate or sell what’s left.

But as families move farther apart and as homes accumulate more stuff, customers increasingly turn to the pros to clean house.
Victor Krupman asked Baker to help him clear out his Bexley house, loaded with art and silver collections, after Krupman’s wife, Cookie, died in 2008.

“It would have been overwhelming for me to do all that on the computer, checking the value of the art and silver,” Krupman said. “You need someone like him to help you break away from the things.”

A handful of tag-sale and appraisal companies have offered estate liquidation services for years in central Ohio. Others, such as Baker, have gotten into the business because they see a growing need.

Each company is a bit different, but most do more than just sell merchandise. They will clean the house, ship belongings to far-flung family members, find buyers for special items, and, in some cases, care for the yard and offer security services.

Estate liquidators, who blend counseling, selling, organizing, appraising and decorating skills, start by meeting the clients to discuss the estate.

Family members will typically gather the items they want and leave the rest to the liquidator. They might have some idea of what could be valuable in their parents’ home, but often, it’s a mystery to those who grew up with the belongings.

Firms will systematically search the house for items of unusual value – items that warrant a special audience. For many in the business, this is where the fun comes in.

But, liquidators caution, clients should also be wary of firms that inflate the value of the estate in an effort to get the contract.

Prized items such as art, guns or collectibles are pulled out for a targeted auction or for collectors; the rest are prepared for conventional sale, either through a tag sale or an auction.

Auction firms can have the advantage of being able to sell everything, but those who prefer tag sales say such sales might command more money for the seller.

The job lands liquidators in the middle of the two most difficult issues most families deal with: death and money, which require special negotiating skills.

Often, though, it’s not the expensive piece of art that drives such disputes.

Prices for estate liquidators can vary widely by service, and few firms will quote a price before they see the estate firsthand.

Some firms charge an overall percentage of what the estate fetches, typically 25percent or 30percent. Others charge flat fees depending on the service: tag sale, appraisal, cleanout, etc. Still others blend flat fees with a percentage of the sales.

Estate liquidators know some clients might bristle at the thought of paying up to a third of an estate to an agent. But, they argue, without the service, heirs are less likely to get full value for the belongings because they don’t know their worth or don’t know how to find the best buyer.

Liquidators recommend interviewing more than one firm and checking for references.

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