Giving Back

There is a well know proverb:

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a Man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

The Amato Family Foundation was created in 2002 with this in mind.  Our main focus is on Job / skill creation!   

One of our first projects was an Auto Mechanic Pavilion built in a poor town of Piura Peru. It was built in 2016 and the first class of 31 students has been enrolled. The goal of the program is to teach these kids a skill they can use to better their futures and community. They leave the 1 year course with a set of tools they get take back to their home village! 

John S Amato and Cindy Kay Amato surrounded by the first 31 students to be enrolled at the Amato Auto Mechanic School they built in Piura Peru.

 Moving Forward we would like to move the focus of their giving closer to the Milwaukee area. We look at our involvement in the Foundation of Wisconsin Auto and Truck Dealers as a strong start!


This fall we would like to provide 3 grants of $5000 towards local job creation and growth. 

 To apply please mail in applications to:

 John S Amato

8301 N 76st

Milwaukee WI, 53005

How It All Began

In 1943, John Amato Senior enlisted for the second World War. He wanted to go to war for his country and was assigned to the medical corps in the surgery division. When asked, he is very short-winded when it comes to talking about the war. "You did what you were told, and well, that was it." He was discharged in December of 1945.


A few years after the war, he meet his future wife Phyllis at a dance at Ignatius Church. They were both from nearby Catholic parishes. 


They married and went on to have 4 children; Joann, Sue, John, and Diana.


John Amato Sr. was a tailor for many years. He was successful, but not happy in his work. One day he came home to his wife, Phyllis, and told her, "I quit my job". She simply said, "Thank God." She knew John Sr. hated that job. 


Outside of work, John Sr. played in a softball league. In the league, he had a friend named Ralph Ebert. Ralph's father owned an Oldsmobile store in South Chicago. At one of the games, John Sr. told Ralph about his recent decision to quit his job. Ralph asked John Sr. what he was going to do next, but John Sr. did not know. 


A few weeks later, Ralph asked John Sr., "Have you ever thought about selling cars?" Shortly after that, John Sr. was given a job at Adams Motor Sales, a used car lot, as a salesperson. He would find out later that Ralph's dad, Mr. Ebert, was the one paying his salary. John Sr. was entered into a training program and he was being groomed to be an Oldsmobile salesman. John Sr. spent five months selling cars at Adams. He was earning $60 per week plus a commission of $30 per car sold. 


Around this time, Oldsmobile cut production, and it was clear that there was going to be no more room for John Sr. at the Adams dealership. John Sr. thanked Mr. Ebert and moved on to James Motor Sales on Western Avenue on the North Side of Chicago. This time, it was a Lincoln Mercury store, where John Sr. sold cars for seven months before moving to Fencl Chevrolet on Madison Street in Oak Park, IL in 1953. 



In 1955, John Sr. moved on to Brigance Chevrolet in Oak Park, IL. It was a high-powered store with a high-powered sales staff. There were 10 desks and 20 sales people, each selling 25-30 cars.This is where John Sr. got his first true education of the makings of the car business. 


He was eventually promoted to used car manager. One of his key responsibilities was wholesaling the cars that got traded in on new car purchases. At the time in the Chicago area, retailing used cars was not popular. However, in Milwaukee it was big, leaving a huge opportunity open to John Sr. when he would eventually make the move. 



In 1958 while selling at Brigance, Ford approached John Sr. and asked him if he would like to have his own store. John Sr. agreed, and they enrolled him in their "Dealer Development" program. In 1959, John Sr. and his business partner Frank DeFranco who he met selling cars at Brigance, put up $20,000 between the two of them and purchased a dealership in Grayslake, IL. They each borrowed their share of the $20,000 from their mothers and financed the remaining $30,000 through Universal CIT at a low rate of 4.5%. It was a great opportunity, and they took advantage of it.


The first year in business, they outsold the local Chevrolet store that had been in the area for 50 years. Thus, their reputation grew due to their success. However, the store quickly became too small for them. They were used to selling 30 cars per month each, but the dealership was located in a farming community where selling 20 cars per month was a good month. In 1960, they sold their store to a Buick Dealer in Fox Lake, IL, and both John Sr. and Frank walked away with $20,000 in their pockets.


Later that year, Ford came calling again. They were looking to put a new store on the south side of Milwaukee, specifically South 27thStreet, to replace a dealer who was already there, but not so successful. The dealership, located on North 3d Street, was called Roberts Ford. The operator was another Dealer Development dealership who "couldn't cut the mustard", as John Sr. put it. Thus, the partners would build a new dealership at the coveted South 27thStreet location.


Working at Roberts Ford would teach John Sr. many lessons. The first lesson was in accounting. Since the store was not profitable, they carried forward a huge tax loss which actually made things easier on the new operators. However, winning over the staff presented the real challenge. The service department was represented by a union. It came down to the fact that the employees simply didn't trust John Sr. and Frank DeFranco, even though they were known as "Jovial John" and "Friendly Frank". 


The troubles would continue into 1961 as the business partners opened Southgate Fordon South 27th Street. Running this new dealership was not the issue. By this time, John Sr. and Frank were competent and confident dealership operators. However, a black cloud hung over them. Their dealer license got held up in Madison. Eventually, word got back to them that they had a reputation as, "two boys from Chicago that were not quality people". People looked at their last names and just assumed involvement in criminal groups.


John Sr.'s sister Marian worked for a man named John Walsh. He was the Illinois commissioner for banking and insurance. Marian asked Mr. Walsh if he knew anyone in Madison who could help her brother and DeFranco, and in fact, he did. Walsh called his counterpart in Madison, vouched for John Sr. and Frank, and thus, they were able obtain their license. 


John Sr. was still in charge of used cars and the parts department while Frank took over new cars and the service department. To this day, John Sr. remembers customers who, after their purchases, would request to meet him. Like the rumors they had heard before, the customers would tell him, "We heard you were in the mob, and wanted to meet you." The alleged reputation seemed to be following Frank Sr. and DeFranco.


John Sr. recalls a story of a customer who was shopping all the dealerships in town. The customer came to Southgate Ford asking them to beat a deal he had gotten across town another dealership, Heiser. John Sr. looked at the deal and said, "This is one heck of a deal, you better go back up there and buy this car!" The customer did just what John Sr. suggested, and later that day, John Sr. received a phone call from Sam Scafidi who was running the Heiser dealerships. This transaction and phone call would spark a long professional relationship with Scafidi, who would later ask John Sr. to put a value on Heiser's used car inventory when Scafidi bought out Heiser in the 1980's. To this day, Heiser is still another well-known dealership in the Milwaukee area. There are countless stories just like this one which highlight John Sr.'s actual reputation: the ability to move into a market, network, and makes allies quickly.


Southgate Ford was an eye-opening venture. It was there that John Sr. learned just how hard it was to build something from nothing. The first two years, John Sr. and Frank worked hard, but never saw a profit. Times were tough, and to make matters worse, John Sr. and Frank worked opposite schedules. They both worked two days on, one day off. When it was John Sr.'s day off, he would commute back down to his family in Chicago. When it was his two days on, he would crash at his rented room at the White Court Motel. Although it wasn't easy at first, John Sr. recounts with a smile, "…but once we were rolling, we were rolling."


The store in Grayslake was small, so additional financing was not needed through Dealer Developing. Southgate Ford was a different story. $200,000 at 10% interest was repaid in just five years, something unheard of in those days. Tom Macoarow ran Ford's Dealer Development at the time. When he heard this news, he knew he had to work with John Sr., and to this day, John Sr. still considers it a huge honor. 



Southgate Ford continued to grow, and in 1964m John's family was finally able to join him in Wisconsin. They purchased a house in Brookfield, WI where John Sr. and Phyllis still live to this day.


By the mid-1970's, John Amato Sr. had built Southgate Ford into one of Wisconsin's largest and most respected Ford dealerships. Frank DeFranco had two sons, but neither had interest in the automotive industry. However, DeFranco saw a light in a young John Amato Jr. running around the car lot. As the years passed, the dealership continued to grow while DeFranco's health took a turn for the worst as he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Eventually, too many differences came between the business partners and John Sr. told Frank, "I think we should split." Frank replied, "I agree."


It was then that value was placed on the Southgate dealership so that John Sr. could slowly buy Frank out. However, as Frank's health deteriorated, he needed an influx of money for rising medical costs, and he needed it quickly. The pair came to an agreement and sold the franchiseto Tom Swenson. In the deal, Amato and DeFranco kept the land and current building, which would provide a stream of income moving forward. 


It was the end of an era, and the end of a 20+ year partnership between "Jovial John" and "Friendly Frank". Up to this point, everything about the business was split 50/50 between the two business partners, and there was never a serious problem that the pair couldn't work out together. John Sr. states, "If I ever had to have a partner, aside from my son, it would be Frank."


In the 1980's, John Amato Sr. moved on to his next business venture. He purchased an Oldsmobile Franchise from the Krause Family, and it becameJohn Amato Oldsmobile, Inc located at 7793 W. Appleton Avenue on Milwaukee's Northwest Side.  


It has been said that it was always John Sr.'s dream to operate an Oldsmobile dealership. When asked why Oldsmobile, he seemed confused. He said that truthfully, he would much rather have had a Chevrolet dealership, but at the time of the offer, the Oldsmobile Cutlass was popular, and he was offered a deal that he couldn't refuse: Krause was in bankruptcy and out of trust with General Motors, which enabled John Sr. to purchase the Krause dealership for only $1000, and the only thing he needed aside from that cost was operating capital. 


Amato Oldsmobile, like his other dealerships, was soon recognized as one of the consistent industry leaders - not only in sales, but also in service and overall customer satisfaction.


By 1984, Amato Oldsmobile was outgrowing its Appleton Avenue location. John Amato Sr. purchased a seven-acre parcel on North 76th Street in Milwaukee. He purchased it from Menards, which was operating right next door at the time. In July of 1986, the hammers began ringing, and Wisconsin's newest and most modern Oldsmobile facility grew out of an empty field.



In 1993, after 30 gratifying years in the business, John Amato Sr. sold the dealership to his son, John S. Amato, the current president of the Amato Automotive Group. 

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