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John Antunes, founder of Distintive Granite and Marble, arrived at JFK airport in New York City in the winter of 1966 when he was 16 years old. He had never seen snow, didn’t have a jacket and didn’t speak English. He was coming to join his father who had arrived in New York a few years earlier to earn enough money to pay for a farm in Lisbon, Portugal.
In New York, Antunes and his father worked construction, living in Jamaica, Queens, with other Portuguese immigrants. He enrolled in school but left after a week, determined to learn English quickly and frustrated that the school’s program was not intensive enough.
“They wanted me to learn history,” said Antunes. “I wanted to learn English.”
Today, Antunes speaks English just fine, plus Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French. He has acquired all the trappings of success: a sprawling waterfront home with garages full of classic sports and race cars. His businesses, Distinctive Granite and Marble and AGM Imports, have locations throughout the southeast and more than 100 employees. His son John Jr. is general manager of AGM and buys the stone, and his daughter Andrea is Distinctive’s sales manager.
In the early days in New York, Antunes did whatever he could to get ahead. Luckily, he had a green card. He worked in a handbag factory, played elite club soccer, and started learning about concrete, marble, block and stone. In the late 70s, with a struggling economy, Antunes left construction, working for the airlines, and later opening a restaurant.
Antunes’s life changed big-time when he met Alice, a hairdresser who was ten years younger.
They married in 1982 and worked together at John Antunes Contracting, Inc., which still exists today.
At night, after Alice finished styling hair, they would drive to upscale neighborhoods to place flyers in mailboxes for their tile and marble services. They soon had 18 employees, many of them Portuguese immigrants who lived in their downstairs apartment.
In 1984, John Antunes Contracting started doing work as Distinctive Granite and Marble. Antunes opened a large showroom and was soon installing stone in 300 homes a year. In 1988, he got his biggest contract; with Delta Airlines for the stone in a new terminal at Newark Airport. This led to other airlines jobs at Kennedy, Philadelphia, and San Juan. Antunes took advantage of every opportunity. He also took care of his employees, paying them well and expecting loyalty and hard work in return. Everyone prospered in the good times.
In 1994, Antunes visited Alice’s cousins Philip and Carol Schembra on Hilton Head Island. He immediately fell in love with the island and saw the opportunity.
“No one was doing stone. The big oceanfront houses had Corian and the fireplaces were tile. They were 50 years behind the times. This place was golden, ” recalls Antunes.
It took only three days for Alice and John to decide to relocate. John went home to New York and moved to Hilton Head two weeks later. It took Alice a little longer to sell her hair salon and uproot her family, but they were in business within three months.
Antunes found that the local stone suppliers could not fulfill the needs of the growing luxury home-building market. He worked with the contractors, shipped stone from New York, and brought in skilled craftsmen. The whole family was involved in the business. Alice worked the show room and ran the office, John Jr. started polishing stone by age 8 and Andrea answered phones.
AGM was started in 1996 when Antunes saw an opportunity to import stone. He regularly visits quarries in Europe and Brazil, now with his son John Jr., selecting and importing stone through the port of Savannah, and distributing to outlets throughout the southeast via his own fleet of trucks.
When asked about the hard work, Antunes simply says, “I love it.” He is most happy working at his state-of-the-art, half-million-dollar leathering machine at AGM in Hardeeville, or in the fabrication center at the River Walk location.
And, the American dream? It’s alive and well with Antunes. He continues to give opportunities to anyone who wants to work hard. He offers training and his workers acquire skills that earn them a better life. Antunes points to Tony Oliveria who was 17 when he started working for Antunes in New York. Today (40 years later) Tony is the Operations Manager of Distinctive in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
“I help people, give them a break, because people did that for me,” said Antunes. “America is the greatest country; it gives a chance to anyone who wants to work.”