Albert J. Amatuzio will be memorialized Saturday, little more than two weeks after the 92-year-old aviator and innovator died surrounded by family in his Duluth home. Anybody who read his obituary will note a life that figures to resonate for ages. But for Bill Durand, one of Amsoil's biggest self-made dealers and owner to a private Amsoil museum in the countryside outside Spooner, Amatuzio started out as an elusive figure.
"I looked for A.J. for two years," Durand said. "I asked around all over Superior."
The year was 1974 and Amatuzio had been featured on a local television newscast for his burgeoning synthetic oil business, then named Amzoil.
Durand caught only the tail end of the piece and missed the name of the man and the product. But having grown up on a farm and knowing how cold winters meant adding kerosene to gear lube just to get the farm equipment to turn over, Durand was instantly struck by the potential of synthetic lubricants. Having already failed twice at similar direct-marketing business ventures, he was determined to hit on one.
Now roughly 40 years later, Durand, 78, and his wife Donna, 73, are owners of Amsoil's largest organization, Southeastern Leaders, featuring more than 20,000 "direct jobbers" - the sales people and organizations underneath them.
"I sponsored two more this morning - one in North Carolina and one in Yakima, Wash.," Durand said earlier this week, steering his pickup truck as it bounced around the grass roads on 320 acres of choice Northwestern Wisconsin property which houses his museum.
Inside the museum, a growth chart rests on an easel. It shows Southeastern Leaders retailing $54,000 in its first year in 1976 before climbing to $1.85 million five years later.
His business still growing, Durand recalled finally meeting Amatuzio after a friend and local insurance salesman ended Durand's two-year search by inviting him to an Amsoil sponsorship meeting. Durand didn't wait for the meeting. Itching to go, he signed up on the spot. By the time he met Amatuzio later that night, Durand buzzed with possibility and proclaimed to Amatuzio, "We're going to build you the biggest organization in all of Amsoil."
"That'd be nice," Durand remembered Amatuzio saying.
It was the beginning of a long and fruitful professional relationship. Amatuzio would come to sponsorship meetings at the Durand home and blended in as the couple pitched to potential direct jobbers. Up to 60 prospects at a time clogged their home.
"I was always so impressed by him," Durand said of Amatuzio. "He was not braggy. He could have been one of the guys in the back of the meeting."
According to Amsoil spokesman Terry Johnsen, Amatuzio adopted a direct-marketing model and formed his independent dealer network because his synthetic oils didn't start out selling well in parts stores. Conventional oil was cheap, Johnsen explained in an email to the News Tribune, and people either hadn't heard of or didn't yet understand the benefits of synthetic oil.
"Al recognized that when he talked to someone about his synthetic oil, he could sell it without problem," Johnsen said.
The concept popularized by organizations such as Amway also appealed to Amatuzio for the way it employed "grassroots enthusiasm to sell his product."
"He loved the idea of providing a way for the little guy to make money," Johnsen said.
Shortly after meeting Amatuzio, Durand and his wife moved to Montgomery, Ala., where Durand had been transferred by the United States Air Force.
Warned by naysayers that they'd find no takers in the hotter weather, the Durands shrugged it off, and "good heavens, it just took off like a rocket," Durand said. "You can't cook the oil. The whole idea is it starts in the winter and doesn't overheat in the summer."
Strolling through the exhibits in his pole-building museum, Durand shows off old cars, a charming filling station exhibit, a host of small tractors and oodles of Amsoil products with the seals still intact - including vintage Amzoil cans from the time before a winning legal challenge from Pennzoil over ownership of the Z.
"You can't even find some of this stuff on eBay," Durand said.
In one area, a wagon sits full of empty Altrum nutritional supplement bottles. Altrum was sold by Amsoil and favored by both Amatuzio and Durand.
"I feel like I'm 19," Durand said.
Durand likes to bring the people he sponsors to the museum and sometimes he makes his pitches to potential direct jobbers there. Joe Petrey is one of the dealers under the Durands. His Twin Ports Marketing targets commercial businesses. He called Durand one of Amsoil's foremost authorities.
"In the world of Amsoil," Petrey said, "Bill is the person to talk to. His museum is absolutely beautiful."
Available to view by appointment-only, Durand typically makes four or five trips a month to showcase the museum. "A.J. was always looking forward; he didn't look back," Durand said. "But the museum is a good thing from my point of view. I didn't want the history to be forgotten. It's something I wanted to see preserved and remembered."
A gathering of friends and family will memorialize Al Amatuzio on Saturday from noon until a 1 p.m. service at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Auditorium. Military honors will be accorded by the Duluth Honor Guard.