The Russo and Steele auction pitches its tents every year in Scottsdale, Newport Beach and Monterey, generating excitement and, most importantly, sales of sought-after collectible automobiles.
In the rush and frenzy of the cars coming across the unique ‘in-the-round’ block, a ringmaster, with a flair for showmanship and a deep understanding of each car, observantly and purposely moves about. Microphone in hand, the spiffy white-haired, bearded man in an elegant suit, orchestrates all that is going on — and holds the audience of faithful car collectors effortlessly in the palm of his hand.
He then snaps the crowd to attention as he shouts “SOLD! SOLD! SOLD!” There goes another cool car into the heart and possession of a new owner. He is Drew Alcazar, and cars are his passion — and racing is his latest hobby.
“I have been lucky enough to play with cars my entire life,” says Alcazar who with his wife, Josephine, founded the Russo and Steele auction company 17 years ago. But the last 17 years may just be the tip of the iceberg for the passion, work ethic, attitude and enthusiasm that began in rural Colorado.
Drew was brought up at a dude and guest ranch in Colorado where “you worked until the work was done! Whether it was feeding the livestock at five in the morning or moving the irrigation pipe on the fields in the afternoon. Hard work is what gets it done.”
It was also at a very young age, that he fell for the automobile. “It was an epiphany sort of moment. I was riding in the back of one of my best friends, Dale, mom’s station wagon — back when they had the seats facing the rear. We were riding along when suddenly Dale starts bouncing up and down in the seat and pointing at this car that was sitting behind this guy’s shed on jack stands painted in ruddy red primer. And he says ‘there! That’s it! That’s a Mustang!’” regales Alcazar.
He continues, “I remember looking at this thing and getting that pre-adolescent rush and it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. I wouldn’t find out until a couple of years later that it was a 1967 GT500 Shelby. But I was amazed at the long hood, the scoops, the side scoop behind the window, and that ducktail fiberglass lid. The body lines just pushed a button in me that I was never able to get diffused. After that, I was getting every book, buying every magazine, collecting the Hot Wheels …”
From the time he was in high school, he would buy cars, restore them, “make them a little nicer,” make some profit and roll the money into the next car.
He attended college at the University of Colorado and studied Theater Arts. Something many speculate gives the Russo and Steele Auction its fun and dramatic flair. He jokes, “I squandered a perfectly good college degree doing Theater Arts! I had a lot of fun doing it!” Alcazar agrees with the flair aspect, “Collector cars are supposed to be fun, I think the best element of the auction is the fun. If I just won the bid on a car I wanted forever, I would stand up and be like ‘Yeeeeeaaaa!”
“When I was going to school in Colorado, I restored a 1969 Cobra Jet Mach I,” recalled Alcazar, “which in the early eighties it was unheard of to go to the lengths that I did to bring it back to it’s 100 percent factory stock condition, down to the Polyglas tires. It set a world record being sold to the prestigious Otis Chandler (former Publisher of the Los Angeles Times) collection.”
From there he took the proceeds of the record setting car and opened his own restoration shop in Southern California. Alcazar said, “After putting all of my money into starting the shop, I was flat broke again, but I was in business and the entrepreneurial spirit of tenacity and insanity took hold. In 15 years it had bought me everything I had ever dreamed of or wanted, but then had become redundant.”
The passion began to fade. “The hair on the back of my neck didn’t go up like it used to when I heard ‘best in show,’ so it seemed that it had become a job — which I never wanted.”
Drew Alcazar then took a year off. There was money in the bank, and he set out to enjoy some of it. Right at that time, Chrysler’s Dodge brand introduced a legendary GT car, the Viper, and Alcazar became one of the first regional club presidents of the newly formed Viper Club. Running a club did not seem to take hold with him as much as he enjoyed the cars, “doing newsletters in my pajamas” was not particularly the aspect he loved.
Then a moment of fate struck. Longtime friend and associate, Brian Jackson, founder of the Barrett-Jackson Auctions passed away. Alcazar had run many cars through the auction house and he and Jackson had been bound by their love of early Mustangs. Craig Jackson was trying to figure out what to do, as many had written the auction house off with the death of its patriarch. Alcazar became General Manager of the Auction house and contributed to its growth on the path to what the Barrett-Jackson Auction is today — with one caveat.
“Craig and I were not seeing eye to eye on the direction on some very fundamental things,” said Alcazar. “I did not particularly agree with Barrett-Jackson being such a large extravaganza.” Alcazar disagreed with the lowered focus on the cars versus the lifestyle. He felt the buyers — and sellers — can get easily overwhelmed in an auction like that. Many people started approaching Alcazar about the auction itself being the focus of the event as opposed to just being another spoke in the wheel. This was long before Gooding and others were doing the “ballroom” sales.
Like so many entrepreneurs before them, the Alcazars liked the auction business enough and the way it melded with their passion. However in starting the company, they checked their egos at the door.
“When Josephine and I started Russo and Steele, we didn’t need the ego edification to have our name in lights,” explains Alcazar. “At that time we were the only auction company that did not name themselves after the principals. The ego that proliferates in the collector car game can be astounding! There are very huge fragile egos that are everywhere.”
So what to name this company? Certainly the brainstorm ultimately created a strong and prestigious sounding name — but it was a process. “I always liked names that were ‘something and something’. Everyone has help being successful. No one just shows up and becomes successful because they did it all by them self. Perhaps it was a friend, a mentor, a family member. But every name we were coming up with sounded like a law firm or a mortuary,” Alcazar laughs.
“I learned that the very dark color red on vintage Ferraris was called ‘rosso-rubino’ so we took the name rosso and twisted it into Russo,” continues Alcazar. “I thought well, if that is going to represent my European sports cars, then I need a name to represent American muscle cars, hot rods and customs. We thought ‘Detroit Iron,’ ‘Metal working,’ ‘Steel …’ We took Steel and put an ‘e’ at the end of it and that is how Russo and Steele was born!”
The first year, 1999, Russo and Steele consigned 70 cars and sold 10. “People were asking if I should have my head examined,” claims Alcazar. This is where the tenacity aspect of entrepreneurialism comes to play. The Alcazars went back to the drawing board to the format and what could make their auction more appealing.
Realizing that having the cars roll across the stage was not as conducive to the excitement, he came back to the Barrett-Jackson principle of having “people down with the cars”. This is where Russo and Steele’s noted “in the round auction” concept emerged. By putting the cars right through the center of the crowd at ground level.
“It puts the cars at an exciting visceral level — its a kind of coliseum, gladiator, Mad Max Thunder-dome experience,” exclaims Alcazar.
In 2016, Russo and Steele’s annual gross sales were close to $40Million, selling over 1,000 cars.
Drew and Josephine Alcazar together are very passionate people. They are fun to be around, but business when they need to be too. Never underestimate the amount of dealmaking Mrs. Alcazar brings to the table. Their long marriage produced several successful businesses, three children and five grandchildren.
“When you have routine board meetings around the dinner table, I can assure you, when you have a Sicilian on one side of the equation and a Spaniard on the other, there are many times we will peel the roof off the house,” Drew laughs. “I think that it is those passions that burn brightly infuse that enthusiasm. We have good energy together. It’s the times that Josephine gets quiet that I start to worry …”
2016 has been an interesting year in the auction business. Many have cited that a great deal of ‘electricity’ was not present at many of the auction houses. Some claim ‘election year,’ others observe a ’bubble’ in the collector car market. Russo and Steele has managed an increase, year over year.
“While other (auction) houses were experiencing a re-adjustment, we are very gratified that our numbers continued to expand in 2016,” declared Alcazar. “It requires a lot of hard work and the Russo and Steele team really does work hard. They share the same enthusiasm as Josephine and me along with passion for the car culture.”
Even if Drew and Josephine were not in the auction business, “We would still be doing this kind of thing anyway, whether it be vintage racing, concours, road rallies, car shows … I think that enthusiasm bleeds through and that is what differentiates us from other auctions. The market environment has become more conservative, and the buyers have become more discriminating in what their demands are and what they are looking for,” Alcazar explains.
“It is not a rising tide floating all ships — which has occurred over the last several years. It is impossible for the exponential acceleration curve to continue. I like the marketplace that we are in much better, where things are much more stable and much more level headed with discriminating buyers that are taking more time to vet the cars better.”
Alcazar explains their position in the market: “We are the good intermediate group that serves as the next step for car collectors who have been seasoned before; the houses that have collectors willing throw multiple seven-figure offers at cars. We pride ourselves in having a little something for everybody. Our buyers and sellers are knowledgeable and savvy.”
Like most good entrepreneurs, the Alcazars have a strong belief in empowering their employees. Employees that bring the same passion and relationship skills they possess, is of supreme importance.
“If you do not give people responsibility and authority, you have toothless tigers. You have to walk the walk and talk the talk for any type of car. It’s that relationship and knowledge base that I think my team does arguably better than anybody else out there. Because at the end of the day, you don’t need a great collector car auction to sell a great collector car,” says Alcazar.
“Most guys who have kick-ass cars have a glove box full of business cards from people like me who say, ‘if you ever want to sell this car, please call me first,’ because it is that spectacular of a car. But if they do finally make the decision that they don’t want to get ‘ground down’ in their driveway or placing ads in publications and having people call them at three o’clock in the morning asking if the ‘Boss 302 is an automatic?’ They don’t want the headache of selling their car private treaty.”
There are many advantages. By going with an auction, the seller has anonymity, good group marketing and when going with the bigger auction houses, will have their cars marketed at places like Scottsdale and Monterey — where there is a savvy buying audience.
This coming January, during the famed Scottsdale car week, Russo and Steele will move to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick — also the pre-season training facility for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies baseball teams. Large acreage will allow Russo and Steele to put on a more ‘Concours’ styled event in how the cars are displayed.
Passion for the show aspect, had always been the main pursuit for the auctioneer. “I have always been on the concours-side of the equation. I have been a collector and an avid spectator, but in 2012, we were fortunate enough to have our Ferrari 250 Cabriolet on the lawn at Pebble Beach as an exhibitor. That was a bucket-list moment, that had been a long time coming in spending a life creating these perfect show cars, correct down to their smallest detail.”
In racing cars, Alcazar came to the grid on a different path as well. “Racing just happened fairly recently. The bug just bit me. Many people joke that my racecars are much like my concours cars in their detail. I spend ten-times more time polishing them than I do having them on the track.”
“The racing thing was just a new facet of my enthusiasm for cars. We jumped into the deep end of the pool. I had never driven a racecar before. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to purchase the Warren Tope (1969) Boss 302 Trans Am car and joining with the Historic Trans Am racing group.”
“A lot of it was precipitated by the camaraderie that that group has in the vintage racing scene. We all are great friends and the wives are always there participating. We stay at the same hotels, eat at the same restaurants, get together for test and tunes, and golf outing We recently had a fabulous trip back east, racing at both Watkins Glen and Lime Rock.”
Alcazar also races a Group 6 GT350. “It’s an extension of my love of Shelbys. It’s nice to have a couple of cars to race during a weekend at some of the larger events, when your track time is more limited. It gives you those extra sessions and seat time so you get to know the track better which works out well for us.”
Alcazar has a humble perspective when it comes to racing historic cars, “We are merely drivers in racecars, we are not racecar drivers. If I had made a choice 35 years ago to be a race driver, perhaps that would be different. I would never pay my bills by having a car on the track. I just enjoy the fun and enthusiasm — and the West Coast Historic Trans-Am group embodies that for us. It’s always nice to be on track; if you are going into a corner and you know it’s with somebody who has an equal investment and you are good friends it’s ‘you get this apex, I’ll get the next one.'”
On success, Drew is direct. The goal is to outlast those around you. “Entrepreneurialism is combination of tenacity and insanity. You sprinkle a little naivety on top and you have the magic recipe. There are just those people who do things that others wouldn’t, others won’t, stick with it longer than others wouldn’t. That formula has never failed me.”
When they were racing at Watkins Glen, a number of those fortunate racers got into an existential conversation about entrepreneurialism and what got them to this point in their lives. The common thread and lowest common denominator? “It’s only one key ingredient: hard work. If you are willing to work harder than the guy next to you, or work harder than your competition, I have never had that fail.”