American dream came true for Distinctive founder
John Antunes 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 a small village north of 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.”
In his early days in New York, he did whatever he could to get ahead. He worked in a handbag factory, played elite club soccer, and started learning about concrete, marble, block and stone installations. In the late 70s, with a struggling economy, Antunes left construction. He worked for an airline and later opened a restaurant.
Life changed when Antunes met his future wife, Alice, a hairdresser who was 10 years younger than him. They married in 1982 and worked together at their first company, John Antunes Contracting Inc., which specialized in granite and marble installations. It still exists today.
At night, after Alice Antunes 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; some were 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 to date with Delta Airlines for the stone in a new terminal at Newark Airport. This led to other airline jobs in New York, Philadelphia and the Dominican Republic.
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, John visited his wife’s cousins, Philip and Carol Schembra, on Hilton Head Island. He immediately fell in love with the island and saw the potential.
“No one was doing stone,” he said. “The big oceanfront houses had Corian and the fireplaces were tile. They were 50 years behind the times. This place was golden.”
It took only three days for Antunes to decide to relocate.
John Antunes went home to New York and moved to Hilton Head two weeks later. It took Alice Antunes a little longer to sell her hair salon and uproot her family, but they were in business within three months. The whole family became involved. Alice worked the showroom and ran the office, son John Jr. started polishing stone at age 8 and daughter Andrea answered phones.
AGM (Antunes Granite and Marble) Imports was started in 1996 when John saw an opportunity to import stone. He now regularly visits quarries in Europe and Brazil with his son, selecting and importing stone through the port of Savannah, and distributing to outlets throughout the Southeast via his own fleet of trucks.
Today, John Antunes speaks English just fine. He also speaks Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French. He has 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 60 employees. John Jr., now 30, is general operations manager of AGM Imports and buys the stone, while daughter Andrea is Distinctive’s sales manager.
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 their River Walk location.
And, the American dream? It’s alive and well with Antunes. He continues to give opportunities to those who want to work hard, offering training so that his workers acquire skills that earn them a better life.
“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.”