"The Early Days"

Part I:



          I have always been intrigued by history and was absolutely fascinated to learn that all major car & truck manufacturers put a temporary end to production in 1942 to help with the war effort. In April of that year, all manufacturing facilities began working together purposefully to aid our soldiers by contributing to the sharing of resources, manpower, and expertise in defense production contracts. With the current state of the auto industry today, it is rather difficult for me to even imagine that no cars, trucks, or auto parts were made for personal or commercial use between February 1942 and October 1945. The first member of the Amato family who would enter the automotive business provided his nation with a different type of effort, but one that will never go unnoticed.


In the year 1943, John Amato Sr. enlisted for the second World War. He wanted to fight for his country as best as he could, and was assigned to the surgery division in the medical corp. When it comes to the subject of the war now-a-days he told me, "You did what you were told, and well... that was it." He was honorably discharged in December of 1945.


Several years after being discharged from his service, John Sr. met his future wife Phyllis Feratti at a dance in Chicago at St. Ignatius Church. Both John Sr. and Phyllis attended nearby Catholic parishes at the time. They were married in Illinois and had four children that would later go on to be known as the "Rhythm Kids".


- Joann Stewart - August 21st, 1953

-Sue Amato -  May 28th, 1955

-John S Amato - November 14th, 1957

-Dianne Chase - October 29th, 1959



After the war, John Amato Sr. worked as a tailor for some time before entering the automotive industry. Although he was successful at his job, he found himself relatively unhappy. One day, John returned home from a long day at work and told Phyllis that he had quit his job to which she simply replied, "Thank God!" She knew that he hated his current position and wanted to do something else.


In his free time, John Amato Sr. played softball in a league with his good friend Ralph Ebert. Ralph's father was the owner of an Oldsmobile dealership in South Chicago. During one of their games, John Sr. mentioned that he had quit his previous job as a tailor and after Ralph's inquiry about what he planned to do next, John Sr. did not really have any idea.


After a few weeks had passed Ralph asked John Sr., "Have you ever thought about selling cars?" Shortly thereafter, he accepted a position in the sales department at Adams Motor Sales. At the time, this business was a very successful used car lot in Chicago. John Sr. would later find out that Ralph's father was paying his salary and over the course of his training program he was being groomed to be a salesman for the Oldsmobile dealership. John Sr. was earning about $60 per week with an added commission of $30 per car sold.


Around the year 1953, Oldsmobile cut production and it was becoming evident that there would be no more for John Sr. at this particular store any longer. John Amato Sr. gratefully thanked Mr. Ebert and transitioned to another sales position at James Motor Sales on the northside of Chicago. His new job was selling vehicles for a Lincoln-Mercury dealership where he worked for seven months before relocating again to Fencl Chevrolet on Madison St. in Oak Park, Illinois.


After two years of hard work John Sr. shifted gears again to work for Bridance Chevrolet that was also located in Oak Park, Illinois. This location would prove to be a "high powered store" made up of a very energetic sales staff. Even though there was only a total of ten desks for the twenty sales associates, each of these individuals were selling between twenty-five and thirty cars per month. He was able to make a good deal of long standing friendships during his time at Bridance and this would prove to be beneficial for him in the long run. To this day, John Sr. will tell you that this is where he gained his true experience of the car business.


Hard work and diligence would eventually earn John Amato Sr. a position as a used car manager. One of his major responsibilities was to "wholesale cars" that were traded in for new car purchases. In the Chicago area in 1957, retailing used vehicles was not particularly popular. In Milwaukee however, used cars had become relatively more appealing. This inevitably created a huge opportunity for him as he would ultimately make the move further north.



When 1958 rolled around, John Sr. was still working for Bridance and he was approached by Ford and asked if he would be interested in running his own store. He mentioned that he would be very excited to take the chance and he was enrolled in their "dealer development program". One of the influential colleagues he made while working for Bridance, Frank DeFranco, and himself put up $20,000 between the two of them and purchased their first store in Grays Lake, Illinois. Both John Sr. and Frank borrowed their share of the $20,000 from their mothers, and financed the remaining $30,000 through Universal CIT at the low rate of 4.5%. This was an opportunity they could not pass up and they both took full advantage of it.


In their first year, they outsold the top selling Chevrolet store in the area that had been in business for fifty years! Their growing reputation was due to their prosperity and success. However, it quickly became apparent that their store that was located in a modest farm community was "too small" for their preference, and they wanted to expand even further. The community in which they were running the business primarily consisted of farming families, and selling approximately twenty cars per month was considered above average. In 1960, they sold the store to a Buick dealer in Fox Lake, Illinois. Both John Sr. and Frank found themselves walking away with $20,000 in their pockets.


That same year, Ford came calling again. They were planning to establish a new location in Milwaukee to replace an existing dealership and the store was to become Roberts Ford. The store's operator was another "development dealer" as John Sr. had previously been, and he couldn't "cut the mustard" as he so eloquently put it. Roberts Ford was located on North 3rd Street but Ford was interested in having the location on South 27th Street. A newer, more modern building was developed as John Sr. and Frank closed out the Roberts Ford store.


Managing Roberts Ford would teach John Amato Sr. a great many lessons about life as well as the automotive industry itself. One of the first major lessons that would be learned fell in the accounting department. Due to the fact that Roberts Ford was not particularly profitable, they carried forward an enormous tax loss which made things easier for the new operators. However, winning over the trust and companionship of the new staff would prove to present real challenges for John Sr. and his partner. In that year the service department was represented by a union and it essentially boiled down to the fact that the employees simply did not know, or trust the two primarily Italian partners.


The troubles would continue into 1961 as they opened Southgate Ford in the newly constructed facility on South 27th Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After acquiring years of experience, actually running the store was not their primary issue. By this time, John and Frank had become competent and confident operators in the business, but they had trouble gaining their licenses in Madison. Word would get back to them that they had a reputation as "the two boys from Chicago that were not quality people". Members of the community in the area would look at the partners' last names and make the assumption that these two were involved in "criminal activities".


John's sister, Marian, worked for a man named John Walsh who was the commissioner of banking and insurance in the state of Illinois. Marian asked Mr. Walsh if he knew anyone that could be of any assistance to John Sr. & Frank, and in fact, he did. He put in a call to his counterpart in Madison to vouch for them which effectively landed them their licenses.


John Amato Sr. would be in charge of used car sales and the parts department, while Frank took over the responsibilities of new cars and service. John Sr. recalls many customers who mentioned that they were interested in meeting him after purchasing a vehicle from Southgate Ford. "We heard you were in the mob and we wanted to meet you!" they would tell him. This reputation seemed to be following John Sr. and Frank longer than they had anticipated.


John Sr. recalls a particular story of one customer who had been shopping around with all the dealers in town. He arrived at Southgate Ford and asked them to beat a deal he had been quoted across town at Heisser. John took one look at the deal and said, "This is one heck of a deal! You had better go back up there and buy this car!" The customer took John's advice and went back to purchase that vehicle. Later that day, John Sr. received a phone call from Sam Scaffidi who was in charge of the Heisser store. This one interaction sparked a long professional relationship with Sam, who later would ask John Sr. to "put a value" on Heisser's used car inventory as Sam had the ambition to buy out Heisser in the upcoming 1980's. To this day Heisser remains in the Scaffidi family. There are countless stories just like this one that highlight John Sr.'s ability to move into a market, network effectively, and progressively build long lasting relationships.


Southgate Ford was an open point, meaning it was a brand new point with no customer base. This is where John Sr. would learn just how hard it is to build something from nothing, and also became one of the most important life lessons that he would eventually pass along to his children and grandchildren. In their first two years of business, John Sr. and Frank worked diligently but never saw much of a profit. These were the "tough times" as the partners worked opposite schedules of two-days-on & one day off. On the days that John Sr. was not responsible for being at work, he would commute back to Chicago to spend time with his family. When it was his two days to work, John Sr. stayed in a rented room at the White Court Motel. Although this lifestyle was not very easy at first, John Sr. recollects with a smile, "Once we were rolling, we were rolling!"


The first store that the partners had purchased was small so they did not require additional financing through dealer development. Southgate Ford was a very different story. They had effectively repaid $200,000 at 10% interest in just five years. An accomplishment of this magnitude was unheard of at the time. A man by the name of John Macoarow controlled Ford's dealer development programs in those days, and he took to John Sr. when he heard the news, and John still considers this act a great honor.


As Southgate continued to grow, by the year 1964 John Sr.'s family was finally able to join him in Wisconsin. They purchased a house in Brookfield where John and Phyllis live to this day.

By the mid-1970s, John Amato Sr. had built Southgate Ford into one of Wisconsin's largest and most respected Ford dealerships. Frank had two sons but neither of them had any sincere interest in the car business, but he saw a spark in a young John S. Amato running around the lot. As the years passed, Frank's health took a turn for the worse as he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The partners were becoming relatively fed up with all of the politics being demonstrated at Ford. John Sr. would tell Frank, "I think it's time to split" and Frank agreed.


A value was then placed on the store so John Sr. could slowly buy Frank out. As Frank's health quickly worsened, he needed an influx of money and he needed it fast. They then sold the franchise to a man named Tom Swenson, but retained the land and building as part of the deal in order to provide a stream of income as they moved forward.


It was the end of an era, and consequently the end of a more than twenty-year partnership between "Jovial John" and "Friendly Frank". Everything was always split 50/50 between them and there were never any serious issues. John Sr. said, "If I ever needed a partner, [aside from his son John], it would be Frank."


In the year 1980, John Sr. would move on to his next big venture. He purchased an Oldsmobile franchise from the Krause Family, and John Amato Oldsmobile, Inc. came into existence on Milwaukee's northwest side at 7793 W Applet


It has been said that it was a dream of John Amato Sr.'s to operate his own Oldsmobile franchise. He mentions that he would much rather have operated a Chevrolet store, but with the Cutlass being a hot commodity and the deal that was presented to him, he just could not pass it up! Krause was in bankruptcy and out of trust with General Motors at the time. John Sr. purchased the dealership for only $1,000 and aside from the down payment, the only other aspect he needed was the capital to operate.


John Amato Oldsmobile, like his other dealerships, was quickly recognized as one of the consistent leaders in the metro Milwaukee area. Not only was Oldsmobile favorable in the sales department, but also in service and overall satisfaction.


By 1984, Oldsmobile was outgrowing its location. John Sr. purchased a seven-acre parcel of land on North 76th Street in Milwaukee from a Menards that was in business right next door. The building still stands today. In July of 1986, the hammers began falling and Wisconsin's most modern Oldsmobile facility got a new home in what used to be an empty f


In the year 1988, after thirty gratifying years in the automotive business, John Sr. sold the dealership to his son John S Amato with the hope he would keep the business thriving.


John Sr. and his wife Phyllis are currently selling their Brookfield house, and are currently living together in Florida. John is 94 years old, and prides himself on regularly shooting under his age at the local golf course.



"The Legacy of John S. Amato"


John S. Amato is the current president of the Amato Automotive Group and has been in control of the business since he took over for his father in 1988. He attended Regis College in Denver, Colorado and earned his degree before coming back to the Milwaukee area and beginning his career in the automotive industry. Upon returning to Wisconsin he accepted a position working in construction for $15 per hour, and I was surprised to learn that he did not initially intend on being employed by his fathers' company. Since then, John has spent time working in just about every available position that a car dealership has to offer. He was able to effectively pay off his student loans by selling cars, and it is safe to say that he knows the "ins-and-outs" of this business better than anyone I have ever met. In an article I found that was published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in December of 1999 Bill Nelson mentioned, "John Amato knows the auto business almost as well as Brett Favre knows football and Tommy Thompson knows politics." This is certainly no understatement, and with his ever growing professionalism, integrity, and respectability John has been able to dramatically expanded his father's vision.

Since June of 1989, John and his wife Cindy (Do we want info about when/where they were married?) have raised their four children and seen them all succeed through the Elmbrook School District, as well as their individual college experiences.

       JR Amato - June 30th, 1989

       Andrew Amato - October 22nd, 1991

       Michael Amato - August 4th, 1994

       Allie Amato - August 5th, 1998

Insert family photo here:

 JR Amato like his father before him attended college in Colorado. He graduated with a degree in Accounting from the University of Colorado-Boulder in 2012. After working an internship and realizing that he would not pursue a career as an accountant he decided that he would inevitably begin a career in the automotive industry, and he told me that there was "no time like the present." Andrew Amato received his degree in Business Marketing from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 2014. (Info about Michael and Allie here.)

John and Cindy have also established the "Amato Family Foundation" in 2002 which has worked to educate individuals in skilled trades and gives back to several communities worldwide by providing substantial opportunities for prosperous futures. For example, the Amato Family Foundation has supported programs at schools like MATC (Milwaukee Area Technical College) and has even built a school (The Amato Mechanic Pavilion) in Piura, Peru to teach students helpful techniques that will guide them into careers subsequently working as mechanics.

As of August 1st, 2019 there are two hundred and twenty-one employees between the five Amato dealerships. Not only has John worked to create jobs for hundreds of people since he took over as president, but he has gone above and beyond to help those who are already employed. For example, in 1993 John implemented the "Preferred Credit Corporation" as a part of the Amato Automotive Group. By doing so, thousands of customers have been given the opportunity to purchase a vehicle through in-house financing and this has assisted those individuals in raising or establishing their credit scores. When I inquired about his decision to do this, John said, "I just wanted to help people, and I believe to be successful you have to control your own destiny." On a more personal note, I strongly believe that these words will stay with me for the rest of my life. Over the course of the last twenty-six years the Preferred Credit Corporation has loaned out more than $80,000,000 and this number is continuously growing.

In that same year, John S. Amato bought his first franchise (Mazda) from 'Best Ford' and moved it from Highway-100 in Milwaukee to 8301 N. 76th Street where Amato Hyundai is currently located today. By August of 1998, John had purchased another franchise that was previously 'Steingraeber Ford' at 1015 Main Street in Mukwonago where Amato Ford is still presently in operation. Two years later, John acquired 'Nodell Oldsmobile/Cadillac' in Glendale from the previous owner Greg Marx, and after General Motors "phased out" Oldsmobile the Hyundai franchise was obtained from Arrow in April of 2001. Hyundai joined Mazda on Milwaukee's north side and just one year later a brand new Mazda showroom was built to display Amato's commitment to that franchise. Their next big venture would come in 2009 as General Motors entered into an agreement with Nissan, and in August of that year Amato Nissan came into existence in place of Nodell Cadillac at 5200 N. Port Washington Avenue. By summer 2016, the Amato Automotive Group would add Mitsubishi to their lineup and it continues to conduct business directly across the street from Hyundai. Presently, Amato Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram just celebrated one full year since the grand opening which took place on August 28th, 2019.

For those of you who do not know, I have worked at three of the five dealerships that fall under the Amato Automotive Group umbrella and one thing I must say about the atmosphere of being a part of this company is that I have never felt more accepted or been treated better at any of my previous jobs. When it comes to the subject of employee appreciation, John and JR have frequently exceeded my expectations. Three times a year he hosts an employee luncheon at each of his dealerships, and I was lucky enough to attend my first one this past month. After being given an opportunity to stand in front of a group of my fellow co-workers and say a little about myself that they would have otherwise never known, John took a moment to recognize the work I have been doing and thanked me simply for being a part of the team. Although I have never worked as a part of the service department during my time at Amato it was especially meaningful for me to see John take a moment to acknowledge the work that our service technicians accomplish because I feel as though there are a great deal of hard working individuals who are engaged "behind the scenes" at our dealership. This kind of recognition and appreciation is what makes me feel as though I belong here on a daily basis.

The saying "Family Owned and Operated" is well known when it comes to local businesses, and the Amato Automotive Group 'family' is the epitome of this phrase in my opinion. Feeling as though this environment is more personable has made it extremely easy to get to know my colleagues and sufficiently makes each work day feel a little less like work.

 Once again, on a more personal level I have been acquainted with John's two oldest sons, JR & Andrew, for nearly the last twenty years of my life and it is blatantly obvious to me that John has succeeded in teaching his children to embrace values such as courage, generosity, and patience and how to apply them to their own lives.


Andrew, JR, John Sr. and John S Amato at Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram - 2018


A few weeks back I was able to sit down with John for a brief interview and I was genuinely intrigued to hear his thoughts about where the automotive industry is heading in the future. Not only was I interested to hear about potential plans for his business, but we discussed ideas about how he sees significant changes being implemented within the industry already. Both John and I agreed that this business will inevitably undergo some serious transitions and hearing his thoughts about the evolution of the industry since he became president was compelling to say the least. He mentioned to me that the "basics will stay the same as far as customer satisfaction and service", but he also understands that this age of online consumerism will have a momentous impact on how future generations conduct business in the automotive industry.