Osborn's legacy as mentor continues with NAAA scholarship

Ken Osborn (center in black pullover) during a Dec. 20 ceremony at ADESA Dallas to commemorate the Ken Osborn Auction Education Scholarship. Photo courtesy of ADESA.
CARY, N.C. - 

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Jan. 3. Ken Osborn passed away the following week. AuSM sends its condolences to his family and ADESA team. An updated version of the story is below. 

The night that Ken Osborn earned his bachelor’s degree in the early 1980s, he saw his mentor Richard Dupriest at the same restaurant where he was dining.

“And I went over to the table where his family was and shook his hand and said, ‘You know, Richard, I owe you and I appreciate what you’ve done for me,’” said Osborn, the late general manager of ADESA Dallas. “‘What can I do to repay you?’ And Richard looked at me and said, ‘You’ve got to pass it on. Now that’s your job.’”

Passing it on, paying forward the fruits of mentorship, is what Osborn had been devoted to these past 35- years.

And now that legacy is about to increase tenfold.

The National Auto Auction Association has honored the longtime ADESA leader by naming the Ken Osborn Auction Education Scholarship in his honor.

“That’s absolutely perfect for him,” said XLerate Group chief operating officer Pat Stevens.

That was a pretty common sentiment around the industry when folks talked with AuSM in December about Osborn’s impact on the auction business.

Bill Roberts, a former general manager at ADESA and now retired, said Osborn’s nature was to counsel employees in a way that wasn’t brow-beating, but rather supportive.

His door was always open, Roberts said.

As such, an education scholarship is a fitting tribute to a career built on mentoring others and empowerment through knowledge.

The scholarship is one of the 12 initially set up in 2008 as part of the NAAA Warren Young Scholastic Foundation.

Black Book had purchased the naming rights to two of those scholarships. When the idea of renaming it in Osborn’s honor came up last year, NAAA planned to rename one of Black Book’s if that company was willing — and it was, said NAAA chief executive Frank Hackett.

“When we approached Black Book and asked them if they would consider renaming that scholarship, they didn’t hesitate,” Hackett said. “They are a first-class company when it comes to doing the right thing and respecting what other people are trying to do to make somebody’s life better.”

So, on Dec. 20 in Dallas, a ceremony was held to award Osborn the plaque and commemorate the occasion.

“I’ve seen him in action whether he’s been an auctioneer on the block at his auction or even mentoring other people in the association,” Hackett said in an interview prior to the ceremony.

“I didn’t have the fortune of serving as the executive when he was president, but from everything I’ve gathered from the staff that were around when he was president, he was a great NAAA president and a true leader in terms of the direction for the association,” Hackett said.

“I’ve never met anyone who’s had anything negative to say about Kenny Osborn. He’s just a class act and somebody that I’ve come to admire and respect over the years.”

And, as it turns out, quite the educator. Or better yet, even a head coach — the kind that incubates talent on the staff that goes on to successful skipper gigs themselves.

“He’s mentored many, many people in the industry. We used to always say that the Dallas location really was a place that a lot of men and women learned the business there under Kenny, and then went on to bigger and better things in the industry,” said Tom Caruso, who is the chief client officer for ADESA’s parent, KAR Auction Services.

Caruso was previously the president and CEO of ADESA, following his tenure in several leadership positions within ADESA. Some of those were parallel to Osborn’s, including the time they spent respectively running the east and west operations of ADESA.

“Many of the men and women who worked in Dallas have gone on to be regional vice presidents, general managers at other locations,” Caruso said. “They’ve always talked about Kenny’s work ethic and just the way he ran the business.”

One of those people is Stevens, the XLerate COO. Interestingly enough, when Stevens was GM of ADESA Dallas, Osborn was his boss and “took me under his wing,” Stevens said.

When Osborn later returned to lead that auction, Stevens was his boss.

“I was his regional (manager) and he was still teaching me things,” Stevens said.

And now in his role leading XLerate’s operations, Stevens still has some takeaways from his days working with Osborn.

For example, the importance of developing employees, looking for the next candidate to step up to the plate and fostering a strong bench.

Or, the importance of having employees educated about the operational and financial side of the business, and awareness of economic and international trends outside of the auction business.

Stevens remembers GMs working for Osborn having to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review, and attend financial statement classes once a month.

Osborn was also a stickler for the importance of college.

“If you do interview people who have worked for me over the years, they’ll all tell you that I grind on them to go to college. It’s a funny thing; it’s an idiosyncrasy with me, but if you’re a general manager that worked with me when you were in my region, I made you read the Wall Street Journal every single day,” Osborn said.

“And these guys still walk up to me and say, ‘Hey, I still read the Wall Street Journal every single day.’ Because if you’re a business student more or less — which a general manager should be — what’s the No. 1 focal tool, bibliography of business that you can get your hands on every day? The Wall Street Journal.

Going back to Osborn’s point about college, that emphasis may have stemmed from his own mentor and former boss and eventual business partner in forming Tri-State Auto Auction and Albuquerque Auto Auction.

When he was hired by Dupriest (initially on the retail side of the car business), Osborn was given an ultimatum. Go to college. If you flunk out, you’re fired.

“And I believed him,” Osborn said. “He helped me go to school early, he helped me go to school late at night. It took me seven years to get a four-year degree because I never actually went to school during the day.”

Osborn remembered being in an accounting class and struggling with financial statements. Dupriest had him sit down with the controller and learn how to read statements.  

“Everything I needed an example of, Richard made it into real-world,” Osborn said. “So I tried to do the same thing.”

For example, the statement classes he ran with his managers.

“You had to understand, it’s one thing to sell a lot of cars; it’s another thing to make a lot of money,” Osborn said. “And that was the way we ran the business.”

As important as the financials are, so is the holistic nature of education. For instance, you need the communication skills from English class in business, too.

That’s why Osborn gave employees books to read and quiz them on it.

That extends to social sciences, as well.

“If you’re not good at psychology and sociology, how are you going to manage 400 people?” Osborn said.

So now, Osborn’s name is cemented with a foundation that will help folks gain the education he so strongly emphasized in his business.

A perfect fit, indeed, as NAAA continues to make education scholarships a priority.

“I just think that’s just the right thing to do. I think it’s important to help our members who have family members that are going to college and are looking for assistance financially as college becomes more expensive,” Hackett said.

The NAAA CEO estimates that more than 150 scholarships have been awarded since the foundation was started.

Appropriately enough, when Osborn was NAAA president in 2001, his theme was “education.”

And so, too, will be his legacy.


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