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Pouring on the gravy: Syndicate, other groups bring fund-raising muscle to Stock Show

Worth Wren Jr. has been covering the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo for many years. Here’s his first-hand report on the final sale.

At the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, they serve two kinds of gravy in the hours leading up the the championship sales. One is classic skillet. The other is symbolic gravy for the winning exhibitors.

Sales this year reached $3.47 million-plus for 292 winning steers, barrow hogs, wether lambs and wether goats, all grown for meat, exhibited and sold by young Texas FFA and 4-H members. That’s a lot of gravy for college funds and other uses for those FFA and 4-H members.

“That’s the second highest junior auction sales total in Stock Show history,” said Stock Show & Rodeo publicity manager Matt Brockman.

HOT COALS

The real gravy – laced with meat drippings over biscuits – comes from the food for the 1,000 hungry guests expected at the sales. On a chilly morning – Saturday, Feb. 6, starting around 4 a.m. to be exact – cooks began preparing hundreds of pounds of grain-fed tenderloin steaks, sausage, quail and bacon on grills, hot coals and smokers staged out back of Casa Manana.

“We’re the rookies,” echoed Alan Garcia and Adam Love, two of nine 2016 new members of the sale bid-boosting Fort Worth Stock Show Syndicate working with cowboy chef and Syndicate member Scott Smith of Aledo and his Coleman County Catering equipment and recipes, assisted by cook Tim Chambers of Grandview. Some others among the 130 Stock Show Syndicate veterans helped, as well, while also ensuring the Syndicate newcomers performed their first-year duties. Syndicate Rookie Wrangler – the new members guide – this year was Don Marable, a financial advisor at Edward Jones.

They were ready with mounds of scrambled and chorizo-scrambled eggs, the meats, tamales, fresh fruit, 25 gallons of coffee, 600 biscuits and about 9 gallons of gravy.

Then before 7 a.m., the first diners began arriving – Syndicate members, donors, sponsors, spouses or sweethearts, supporters and other well-wishers, and members of other auction bid-pumping ventures, such as Women Steering Business, Ladies on the Lamb and Tallest Hog at the Trough.

Ready at two catering bars outside and inside of Casa Manana were outside servers Casey Decker, Shelby Hayes and Shanna Dahl and inside servers Catherine Gamez, Bridgette Mitchell and Cristine White – all working for Fort Worth-based West Wind Staffing.

“All of my servers are smart, young women, the finest workers,” said West Wind owner/manager Deborah Robertson. “My (two) girls and I served for the Syndicate at their first auction, in 1980, and all since then.” Now her team of 24 women are also serving other Syndicate functions and designated arena-side sections in Will Rogers Coliseum during rodeos and other events.

At one table sat four Syndicate donor-buyers, talking over their steer bidding plans.

“We like to support the kids,” said Fort Worth-based investments manager Bill Fuller of Fuller Capital Management. “We have our own little syndicate,” said Comanche-area cattle rancher Ronnie Wallace. Wallace and Steamatic owner Bill Sims said they’re here to help the kids go to college.

The four men discussed their plans as they devoured a mean of succulent quail, tender tenderloin, spicy eggs, pork sausage, tamales, fruit and those gravy-soaked biscuits.

I note aloud that I’m breaking my low-fat, low-carb, low-salt, no-cholesterol, little-taste diet, and guiltily I leave half or more on my plate.

“You’ve gotta grease up, again,” teased Dr. Richard Polson, a dentist and the fourth group member, laughing a bit. “What a way to go!”

They and several hundred other breakfasters then took the short walk to West Arena for the 9 a.m. annual Stock Show auction of junior exhibitors’ winning market-bound livestock.

I followed, thinking about the Syndicate’s reputation for supplementing breakfast with champagne, orange juice screwdrivers and Bloody Mary cocktails that may have pumped up their bids. I found the Syndicate’s imbibing reputation overblown, like so many Texas tales. I once probably even helped foster the legend.

Since the 1980 Stock Show Syndicate debut, and I was there, these guys – now most being non-alcohol or modest-alcohol drinkers – were and have remained serious about Fort Worth giving back more, sometimes life-changing more, rewards to the kids who show their project critters here. But it’s that and more, I discovered.

“This is a good place to have fun,” said Fort Worth investment/pension/insurance specialist Don Weeks, a Syndicate co-founder recently recollecting what he and 23 other men were thinking in 1979 as they scouted that junior auction and found that sub-champion steers were too often selling around 75 cents a pound, maybe lower. That was too close to actual market price levels, Weeks said after attending this year’s auction, his 36th, having helped make the Syndicate the consistently dominant Champions bidder.

At this year’s auction, Fort Worth lawyer and 2016-2017 Syndicate Chairman Blair Norman reported, Syndicate-led buyers accounted for $3,034,622.50, or 87.45 percent of the Sale of Champions total winning bids of $3,470,059.50 for the kids. Members, by the way, love precise numbers; many are CPAs and lawyers, after all.

“It was our second largest sale volume in our history,” Norman said. “We were not looking at a gloom-and-doom economy.”

With actual slaughter market (Texas Panhandle) choice steers selling around $1.30 a pound, Syndicate efforts came through with steer bids ranging from $5 a pound to $20 a pound and more. Included was the Junior Grand Champion Big Boy steer’s $210,000 winning bid, paid to 4-H member Jagger Horn of Anson by Hillwood Properties via its bidding Chairman H. Ross Perot Jr. and President Mike Berry. It counts for Syndicate-related efforts because Berry is a longtime Syndicate member.

“I think $5 is reasonably high” for a bid-up over the market, Norman said, noting the bottom end of the auction bidding.

In last year’s auction, the Syndicate tally hit its record of nearly $3.35 million, or 90.27 percent of the Stock Show record just over $3.7 million for 286 animals.

“Our community supports this thing so well. … It’s a live auction,” Norman said, adding that it’s impossible to be certain how much if any impact came from the current sharply slumped oil, gas, stock and export markets. “Every year is different.”

And no doubt, oil and gas incomes have helped grease the auction, probably forever.

THE ORIGINALS

The original Syndicate auction posse – the 24 men, including accountants, investment advisors, business executives, at least nine oil and gas men, a banker and maybe a lawyer – met one night in Downtown Fort Worth’s venerable Petroleum Club, ahead of the 1980 Stock Show junior auction. They opted to pool their money to bid up prices on the non-champion steers.

Their classic, full gravy-topped, cocktail-sipping breakfast – their first – was in Burdav’s Café in south central Fort Worth at 6 a.m. on that 1980 auction morning. With permission, several brought their own cocktail “fixin’s.”

I wasn’t invited, and was unaware of the Syndicate and its plans at the time. Then that bunch of mostly Downtown-based Cowtown businessmen first walked into the old metal, drafty, Cattle Barn 6, the cramped sale venue with bleachers for bidders.

I thought they had just casually walked in off the street, all friends on a dare or lark or bet and most warmed, primed for spending by champagne or other cocktails served by two or three attractive young ladies. The men weren’t as tipsy as they seemed, in their show-reserved bleacher area.

They paid out $17,346.52 for about 20 steers in their first auction. The 1980 grand champ steer went for more than $16,000, to a Syndicate friend.

In today’s climate-controlled, 642-capacity West Arena with its theater-style comfort, they still have a cordoned-off Syndicate area. Still with standing-room-only crowds, the auction remains loud, hard on conversations.

WHOOPING

Between auctioneers Doak Lambert’s and Bruce Miller’s chants and farming and ranching expert Phil Stoll and the other whooping arena-side callers relaying bids, I found Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse restaurateur and regional manager Greg Kalina repeatedly venturing into the bidding. Restaurateurs have become prime Syndicate backers and members.

Del Frisco’s has bought steers here for 20 years, under Kalina and previous Del Frisco’s managers, including Adam Jones.

Jones repeated his long auction participation; he led a grand champ-bidding group in 1999; he’s now a proprietor of The Little Red Wasp and Grace restaurants downtown.

Kalina was ready for whatever to boost the bids as I sat down on the steep West Arena concrete steps, knowing that my jeans would leave with traces of boot-trailed steer essence.

“We’re shopping,” Kalina said, having spent hours the previous day searching for prospective buys at the Junior Steer Show in Watt Arena and the cattle barns. “I caught the fever,” joined the Syndicate seven years ago, he said. “This has been a blast,” said first-time Stock Show visitor Kendall Cree, sommelier and an assistant manager for Kalina at Del Frisco’s Fort Worth restaurant, an upscale dining establishment where spending $100 for dinner is easy.

Then along came a beautiful, ruddy red and white shorthorn steer led by a Howe-area FFA girl, and Kalina refused to quit bidding.

“We’re going to make this girl some money,” he said, taking it to $18 per pound, at or beyond $19,000. Kalina would leave this auction with Del Frisco’s spending about $33,000 on three steers. For each purchase, he said, “it comes down to the kid, to showmanship” and “bumping the bids when they dip.”

On Friday night, Feb. 5, the grand champion and reserve grand champion steers’ exhibitors and families dined at Del Frisco’s – with the Syndicate, Del Frisco’s and the families sharing the tabs.

Again, as usual, other Syndicate members and partnering donor-buyers were dedicated to ensuring as many deserving kids and exhibitors got a big check for their steers:

A donors group bid $13 per pound, paying $15,925 for the 4th-in-class American crossbred steer exhibited and sold by Jordyn Koonsman. She’s the 11-year-old Blum FFA member, ranch girl and rodeo barrel racer who lost her mother Robyn Kennedy Koonsman to breast cancer last September and her sister Hope to surgery complications in 2013.

For the last selling steer of the day, another Syndicate donors group bid $12 per pound, paying $17,100 for the 10th-in-class placing European crossbred Albert exhibited and sold by Aledo FFA member Ashlee Melton.

SURPRISES

Back in the day, I was accustomed to auction surprises in the jammed, tin and wood auction barn. At the 1978 and 1979 auctions, three or four local businessmen had squared off in surprising duels, bidding up the Grand Champion Steer prices into the $15,000-$17,000 range in 1978 and then to $52,000 in 1979, Syndicate sources recalled.

In many previous years, those prices had been hovering mostly in the $5,000-$8,000 range, paid by many longstanding Stock Show supporters among Fort Worth’s wealthier families and foundations and from the area business and corporate community.

Of course, $5,000 or even $8,000 would be a fine price for a steer maybe worth $400-$900 in 1960s-1970s slaughter markets. Today, that’s in the $1,700-$1,800 range. And except for market values, the bids were and are all or mostly tax-deductible with Uncle Sam. The Stock Show is a nonprofit.

“It was like us bidding against the rest of the world … whoever came to the auction and were not in our group,” said CPA Joe Monteleone, another past Syndicate chairman, having joined before the 1981 auction. He’s now a financial and grant manager for a private local charitable foundation focused on education and other children’s needs.

This year there were a few “rest of the world” bidders, most being spun off by the Syndicate and/or inspired by its doggedly persistent bidding crusade, started before many of today’s buyers were even born.

Women Steering Business, one of the competitors, paid $170,000 for the reserve grand champion steer, one that survived that Panhandle blizzard with the protection and feeding by owner/exhibitor and 4-H member Saige Martin and her family of Hereford. Women Steering Business finished with six steers, paying a group-record $232,377, including $8,194 to 4-H member Kendyll Williams of Huntsville for her 4th-in-class crossbred, cataracts-blind steer named Oatmeal.

Other groups got bragging rights, too: Ladies on the Lamb paid $117,000 for winning lambs. Tallest Hog at the Trough led bidders to $45,770 in pending on winning barrow hogs.

And the U Ol’ Goat Committee/Fort Worth Businessmen combo paid $40,290 for wining goats.

Few of the buyers take delivery of the animals, instead reselling them at market prices and often donating those proceeds to scholarships, charities or future auction buying here.

The Agricultural Development Fund, for more than 50 years a Stock Show nonprofit arm and once the major bid-pumping organization for the auction, paid out nearly $230,000 in donated money – going for Stock Show livestock contest cash prizes to the winning young exhibitors and market price add-on cash to the kids selling low-placing, non-winning or must-sell critters: all 1,029 barrows plus 162 lambs, 111 goats and 421 steers failing to make the Champions auction.

BIG MONEY

The auction is where the big money is.

“The kids like to come to Fort Worth because no one takes a cut out of what the Syndicate pays for it,” said Weeks, now a Syndicate chairman emeritus. Often at other shows, huge bids for youngsters’ show critters either have a cap on exhibitors’ take-home portions, or rules require taking percentages of winning bids for an overall scholarship program.

In Fort Worth, the Syndicate, the Stock Show, other organizations and several Stock Show sponsors raise, tap and/or otherwise generate separate funds or endowments for scholarships awarded to winning youth across the wider array of junior shows and contests. Just two examples: Texas ag mechanics contests and the Stock Show Rodeo Calf Scrambles lead to scholarships being awarded.

The Syndicate started its own scholarship program in 1984, after founding-member Jim Bob Norman, then a Price Waterhouse accountant and investments analyst, died. He had talked earlier about a Syndicate scholarship fund, said Monteleone, also this fund’s longtime manager.

After a fund-raiser, Syndicate members honored their dedicated, fun-loving, practical Jim Bob by creating the James M. Norman Scholarship Fund. Members still have fund-raisers, give their own money, give donors options on buying steers or contributing to the fund, and give buyers the option of reselling steers and giving the market proceeds to the fund.

With $85,000 initial seed money, the fund grew to first awarding two $4,000 college scholarships a year, to now with an endowment exceeding $2 million and awarding 20 $10,000 scholarships a year.

“It’s one of the best organizations I’m associated with,” Monteleone said of the Syndicate and its fund. “We’re run by volunteers, with little overhead, and dedicated to kids and granting scholarships.”

They and many others have poured on a lot of gravy – real and symbolic – over the years.

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