To an old horse trader like Clem D. Long, chairman, chief executive officer, and founder of National Content Liquidators Inc. (NCL), the Phipps Bend Nuclear Power Plant, in Surgoinsville, Tenn., was just one more tag sale. Water heaters and gas coolers, galvanized-steel stairways and mercury vapor lights, 14 stainless-steel tanks and 945 valves, everything had to go, all $50-million worth. Cash, MasterCard, and Visa accepted. All sold "as is, where is," right at the site, including the 1,250-megawatt General Electric reactor, priced to move at a rock-bottom $350,000.
Squeezing the last dollar out of a dying business has been Clem Long's game since he started NCL in 1964. The son and grandson of auctioneers in Dayton, the one-of-a-kind retailer has sold off the contents of everything from the 2,000-room Commodore Hotel in New York City to the rusting 350-acre United States Steel Corp. plant in Youngstown, Ohio. The 58-year-old Long is semiretired now, leaving day-to-day operations of the 45-employee company to the next generation of Longs while he spins plans to get NCL from its present $20 million in sales to $100 million by the end of the decade.
"Mr. Liquidator," as they call him in the hotel industry, is a larger-than-life salesman who in his heyday pulled into town in a black hearse. With every appraisal, Long would offer the owner the choice between a flat fee or a percentage of the sale with a minimum guarantee. "I like to gamble," he admits, "but I make sure I've got the odds on my side." Long would spend a week in a deserted hotel, sleeping in the presidential suite at night and prowling the corridors by day, cowboy hat tilted back, tape recorder in hand, cataloging every room and checking every closet, classifying and pricing each item: the furniture, fixtures, and equipment, commodes and cookware, the pictures on the walls and the pipes within them. One of Long's rare missed estimates was when he failed to notice that termites had eaten through most of the furniture in a Miami Beach hotel.
With the estimate delivered and the contract signed, Long ran his on-site sales like a carnival, as imaginative at marketing as he was methodical at merchandising. Press conferences and news stories would draw a crowed that often stretched for blocks, attracted by the popcorn and balloons and the chance to buy nostalgia or a piece of history. Long didn't just sell used furniture, he sold mementos -- a cocktail glass in memory of a prom night, or the key from a honeymoon suite. He would set up a special boutique, a sale within a sale, with wall-to-wall china, glassware, pots and pans, linens, often 50,000 pieces. Door knobs became cane handles; spoons were turned into jewelry; an engraver was on hand to personalize the souvenir.
Mr. Liquidator is as nostalgic as his customers. When he and his children built the two-story Long Building as corporate headquarters in suburban Dayton 10 years ago, they filled it with memorabilia. "Early Hotel," one of his sons calls it. The ornate carved banister comes from the Traymore, once the queen of Atlantic City, N.J. The curly maple and walnut parquet floor comes from the ballroom of the Sherston Gibson in Cincinnati. Long himself sits behind a desk once used by Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.'s historic Willard, with a silver punch bowl from the Robert E. Lee in Winston-Salem, N.C., for a wastebasket at his side. A salvaged traffic light juts from the roof deck, blinking red, yellow, and green; Long likes to sit there on a summer's night, Johnny Walker Black in hand, watching the baffled motorists.
Over the past several years, Long has changed the shape and scope of NCL, determined to make it big enough and diverse enough to absorb his nephew, two sons, two daughters, and two sons-in-law. He began by moving into industrial liquidations, now 40% of the company's gross sales. Instead of selling nostalgia to the public, Long sells industrial specifications to engineers, drawing customers with detailed fliers targeted to the appropriate purchasing agents on his mailing list of at least 50,000 names.Seven years ago, Long brought the children into profit sharing. Five years ago, he sold them 80% of the equity.
"I wanted to raise a happy family, and I wanted to create a company that could run without me before I die," Long says happily. "And that's what I've done. All my life I've been selling out people. I wasn't going to let that happen to me."