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Amsoil founder Al Amatuzio dies

Judith Greely (from left) of Amsoil, Joanne Coombe the executive director of the St. Louis County Historical Society, and Albert Amatuzio look at an archival room during the Grand Opening of the new Albert J. Amatuzio Research Center at the Depot in Duluth. Clint Austin / Forum News Service1 / 2
Al Amatuzio2 / 2

DULUTH, Minn.—Whether it was for military service or job creation, for philanthropy or friendship, Al Amatuzio always seemed to be there for Duluth and Superior.

After 92 years of being there for the Twin Ports, Amatuzio died Friday at his home. The company he founded, Amsoil Inc., announced his passing to its worldwide network of dealers in an email on Saturday, saying Amatuzio died peacefully and surrounded by family.

"He was a visionary," said St. Louis County Historical Society Executive Director JoAnne Coombe. "He was always willing to invest in the communities that he loved — Duluth and Superior."

"He was amazing in every facet of his life," said Jeff Foster, whose company, Jeff Foster Trucking, worked closely with Amsoil, the company Amatuzio founded based on a notion he developed as a fighter pilot: that the synthetic motor oils and lubricants he became familiar with while flying aircraft would also do well in automobiles.

"Every jet airplane uses synthetic oil," Amatuzio told hundreds of people at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center in 2011. "That's where I got the idea."

He was speaking after being named Business Person of the Year by the University of Minnesota Duluth Labovitz School of Business and Economics. The list of winners is a Who's Who of Twin Ports business elite. But even in that crowd, Amatuzio stood out.

In a news release Sunday, Amsoil said Amatuzio turned down numerous offers to relocate his company.

"Al remained loyal to the Twin Ports," the Amsoil release said. "His support of local projects and events, including Amsoil Arena, Amsoil Duluth National Snocross and Amsoil Northland Law Enforcement K-9 Foundation, reflect his firm commitment."

Amatuzio lived a big life as part of the Greatest Generation. Born in Duluth on May 6, 1924, Amatuzio grew up among the hardscrabble West Duluth "Raleigh Street gang" — which would go on to produce local leaders in many fields. It was in that environment that his "entrepreneurial nature emerged," said the Amsoil news release. "He peddled newspapers, sold magazines, collected scrap iron and devised any number of ventures to help support the family through difficult times."

Upon graduating from Denfeld High School in 1942, Amatuzio attended Naval Air Corps training, then joined the Merchant Marines and, ultimately, the Air Force, said the Amsoil news release. A highly regarded fighter pilot, squadron commander and Air Force pilot instructor, Amatuzio saw his career span World War II and the Korean War. He retired from the Air National Guard in 1974 after 30 years of military service. According to Amsoil, he was twice honored as the nation's top pilot.

Foster was a pilot too. He recalled being new to the Duluth-based 148th Fighter Wing and eying a prominently displayed banner in the mess hall that recognized the unit's expertise. The 148th had won the United States Air Force's prestigious World Wide Weapons Meet, known as the William Tell competition. The banner featured a bullseye with an arrow in its center.

"You can guess who the pilot was," Foster said. "Al was an amazing pilot who flew for the longest time."

Their friendship spawned years of collaboration. Meticulous about refining his synthetic motor oil, Amatuzio used Foster's trucking company among a number of local test fleets. Foster said his company still uses Amsoil's full line of products in its trucks.

In its news release, Amsoil described the company's origin in detail: "Al ignored the skeptics and in 1963 began an intense period of research and development. By 1966 he had formulated his first synthetic motor oil. ... In 1972 Amsoil synthetic motor oil became the world's first synthetic motor oil to meet American Petroleum Institute service requirements. The lubricant industry had changed forever. All the major oil companies followed Al Amatuzio's lead and developed synthetic motor oils of their own."

His company was built on a multi-level marketing strategy, similar to Tupperware, in which much of the selling is done through person-to-person contacts. By 2006, Amsoil claimed 90,000 dealers in at least 50 countries around the world and Amatuzio predicted the company was poised to double in size.

Amatuzio was always on the lookout for new Amsoil dealers. He once joked that he would retire "when I hit 100." But he stepped down in 2015 at age 91, retaining his position as chairman of the board but ceding leadership to his son, Alan Amatuzio, and son-in-law Dean Alexander.

As of that transition, the privately held company employed 315 people nationally, with 265 of them in the Twin Ports area. Amsoil does not disclose its financial information, but Hoover's Business Data reported that the company boasted revenue estimated to be in excess of $115 million annually. Ed Newman, Amsoil's advertising manager, said at the time, "We're a ways north of that."

The company grew every year since its inception. Even in tight economies, Amsoil saw increases for the way its products could be suited to hard times.

"People want their vehicles and equipment to last longer and they are drawn to Amsoil because our products help them do that," he said in 2011.

Amatuzio loved flying. Foster said Amatuzio flew a P-51 Mustang at age 80. But Amatuzio also knew his idea to produce a synthetic motor oil was a good one.

"I became totally committed to the company," he said.

Amatuzio had commitment to spare too. He bought K-9s for local police forces, helping to establish the Northland Law Enforcement K-9 Foundation.

"He would tell us if we needed a dog to call him," said Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken. "He would outright pay for them, and it was multiple dogs. He was a great man and tremendous benefactor to this community."

Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander said the program has been responsible for four K9s in his department.

"It was with great sadness that I learned of Al's passing," Alexander said in a statement. "Al always had a special place in his heart for dogs and was particularly fond of German Shepherds."

Amatuzio and the late Medal of Honor recipient Mike Colalillo were friends from their Raleigh Street days, and Amatuzio took great interest in the plight of veterans. Coombe recalled how Amatuzio watched closely as Veterans' Memorial Hall took shape in the Duluth Depot. His sizable donation resulted in the creation of the Albert J. Amatuzio Research Center that chronicles local service history dating back to the Civil War.

"He was committed to the preservation of veterans history," Coombe said. "He was an iconic figure. He was candid and you could trust what he said."

A gathering for family and friends to remember Amatuzio will be held April 15, beginning at noon, with services at 1 p.m., at the DECC Auditorium.

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