Antonino Auto Group, How a Legacy was Born.

by Rona Mann

There are many great American stories, many Horatio Alger tales of rags to riches, but few have the serendipity, the devotion and commitment of one family, and the morals of good business, good ethics, and doing good for other people as does the story that began with Girard Antonino some 53 years ago.

Antonino was a simple man, a veteran of World War II who had never pursued his education beyond high school, but that never mattered – he had all he needed to get ahead and make his mark in the world: drive, a willingness to work hard, and the impulse to take a risk.

Girard felt it was his duty to serve, so when the war broke out, he left his boyhood home in Westerly, Rhode Island and enlisted in the Army, seeing action at both the D-Day Invasion at Normandy and the bloody Battle of the Bulge. While stationed in England, he met a British nurse’s aide named Jeanne who stole his heart, and after two years of letter writing, wooing, convincing, and perseverance, he married her and brought her back to Westerly. The Antoninos soon had children, and perhaps without realizing it at the time, Girard began to build not just a family, but a legacy…one that would continue to grow and flourish generation after generation long after his death.

In the late ‘60s, Girard and his brother, Leo opened Antonino Motors in Groton, a tiny used car lot and gas station. “It was a very small operation,” says Girard’s only son, John. “If they sold six cars a month, it was a lot.” It wasn’t long before the brothers found property on the corner of Colman and Broad Streets in New London and opened a second location. They worked hard, and their business grew, Leo running the Groton location which now had six employees and Girard at the helm in New London with three employees.

In 1966 while still in high school, John worked at his father’s New London dealership, cutting his teeth on the business, learning every aspect of it and having a one-of-a-kind teacher who taught him that ethics, being kind, and giving back to the community were the most important elements to be successful in business.

“That year Dad got Toyota,” reported John with a smile, “and it’s a great story. It was a hot summer night, and a guy pulled into the dealership and asked my father, “Hi, wanna be a Toyota dealer?”

Girard Toyota circa 1977

Girard Toyota circa 1977

“At the time, Ford and Chevrolet were the two biggest automotive franchises in America, and my father couldn’t afford the fees. But Toyota was relatively new and looking for dealers, and their price tag was just $2500 for the franchise. “So for just $2500. my father got a sign and about $1000. worth of parts, and he became a Toyota dealer.”

The first cars were the popular Toyota Coronas which ultimately ceased production in 2001, but Girard managed to sell many of the model, which was then followed up by the Corolla, “at the time the most economical car in the USA, getting 35-40 miles per gallon, which was a boon during the energy crunch of the 1970s,” adds John. The Corolla is still Toyota’s biggest seller having manufactured over 44 million in the last 50 years.

Girard’s son, John pursued a degree in Business Administration and Accounting at Quinnipiac College (now Quinnipiac University), graduated in 1970 and came straight home to the dealership in New London where he had grown up, ready to work hard, employing everything his father had taught him. It is that work ethic and way of doing business that continues to this day.

John is still at the same dealership, Girard Toyota on Colman Street, right on the corner of Broad, but today the Antonino Auto Group has grown to encompass nine stores throughout southeastern Connecticut: three Toyota dealerships, two Nissan, one KIA, one Ford, one Acura, and one BMW franchise. “From the original seven employees, we now have 500, 110 alone in this store,” John says, then he laughs, “which is why I sometimes stay awake at night.” But in truth, John Antonino is very proud of his people, from service to parts to sales and marketing. One has only to hear him talk about his staff to know how valuable they are to the organization and to him personally, something he does not ever take for granted.

BMW of New London

BMW of New London, today.

On the 50th anniversary of Girard Toyota, the Toyota Motor Corporation came to Connecticut and honored them, something of which John is arguably proud. “They gave us a party, presented us with an award, we were in Automotive News. We are now one of the five oldest continuously operating Toyota dealerships in the country.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for their success is that both John and his partner, Charlie Antonino, his Uncle Leo’s son, are hands-on all the time. “We’re here, we work hard, we give back,” says John.

The “giving back” is yet another part of Girard Antonino’s legacy as a noted philanthropist and remains a lesson he taught well to his family. “Philanthropy is our business,” John agrees. During the recent pandemic, Girard gave a “large sum” to the Coast Guard so they could help local families and take care of the community. They have also endowed Lawrence & Memorial Hospital, added a new cancer center in Waterford, and provided funds for alcohol-free parties at the local high schools.

“The automotive business has changed dramatically,” John Antonino says. “Today 80% of our business is being done on the internet. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but it’s been proven to me. Customers today are smart. They know what they want and how to find it, and in most cases, they can find exactly what they want with us. The internet not only makes the car buying process easier on a local level, but we are now doing business throughout the county, shipping vehicles everywhere.”

That all amounts to a staggering 6000-7000 cars and trucks sold annually. “Our best year we did 10,000,” adds John. Not a bad increase from when his dad and Uncle Leo sold six a month. Not bad at all. Times may have changed certainly, but the Antonino family is still doing things in the way in which they’ve been done for 53 years, and that breaks the mold and any stereotype anyone could ever have about car dealers.

Still, the legacy and way of doing business continue to the next generation as John’s sons, Girard and Christopher are both dealership managers, and son, Marc is the General Manager of Girard Toyota. This is not nepotism, it’s lessons well learned. It’s a work ethic begun 53 years ago that has endured because although the makes and models may have changed over the years, the foundation of the Antonino family remains strong in its roots. And to think it all started with taking a chance on a hot summer night. Girard would be proud.

And that’s how you leave a legacy.

Girard Toyota is at the corner of Broad and Colman in New London