Tony Gullo, senior, loves cars and has managed to use this passion to build a legacy for his family and community. At age 89, you might think his work is done, but he still has a hand in many endeavors in this special place he calls home.
Conroe is growing fast, but unlike other bustling cities, it still has multiple large, family-owned businesses with ties to the area operating here. As a result, a deeper bond between business owners and residents often forms.
"This community is just unbelievable," says Tony Gullo, senior, sitting in an office at his Ford Dealership. "You're dealing with families here. I've had people try to buy me out, they go to Wall Street and throw stupid money at you, but that is not going to happen."
You could say Mr. Gullo's business and Conroe came up together. You can't pass through town on I-45 without seeing a Gullo sign for one of the three dealerships he owns here. For 22 years, he was partners with Fred Haas in Spring, but they each have three sons, and as their sons' interest in the car industry became apparent, the original partnership needed to dissolve. Mr. Gullo started his Conroe endeavors in 1992 when he purchased Western Toyota, changing its name to Gullo. Now Tony Jr. operates the Toyota franchise, Sparky runs the Ford store, and Corky heads the Mazda dealership.
He bought his first franchised dealership in 1955, and over the decades, there have been many accolades and awards, but Mr. Gullo always knew he was building the Gullo Auto Group to pass on to his family, "Yes, 100 percent," he says. "In my mind, it is really priceless to have your family, your kids come into your business. There is just no substitute to come into work and be able to see them every day."
Mr. Gullo realizes combining family and business doesn't always work out, so he never shied away from the challenges of selling cars. Or that working nights and weekends are hard on relationships. This is why he is all the more thankful that nine of his more than 600 employees are now grandchildren or their spouses.
"The good Lord has been good to me and my family. At this particular time, I'm celebrating quite a few things. My wife and I are celebrating 70 years together. We have five kids, one in heaven we lost to cancer. We have 11 grandkids, one in heaven we lost to cancer," he says thoughtfully. "We have 19 great-grandkids and one on the way that will make it 20. Just found that out at Easter; kind of exciting!"
Of course, he built his business for all of them, but he also wanted to help others. Though he admits he couldn't foresee the impact he and his Gullo Auto Group would have on the community. "When you start, you go in saying, I hope I can make this better, I hope I can make a difference," says Mr. Gullo.
A jovial soul, it seems natural that besides cars, Mr. Gullo also loves Christmas, and it was with this holiday he started a tradition of giving back. He chose to don a Santa suit every year for 50 years, and he also sets up over a million Christmas lights on his five-acre property in Magnolia to simply bring cheer to his neighbors near and far.
"I don't do these things thinking that they are going to come and buy a car from me. That is the least of it. That's not why I do it," he says. "It's just a good thing to do."
The giving doesn't stop there. Mr. Gullo also sponsors Gullo's Christmas for Kids at the dealership. It began in 1992 to help the less fortunate during the Christmas holidays. The counselors in the Conroe ISD help identify the families who are genuinely in need during the holidays. Christmas For Kids is part of the Gullo family's not-for-profit charitable organization that now helps 50-55 families annually. Every participating family is given a tree with ornaments, a ham, and gift cards to Target so they can have a Christmas they otherwise could not afford. And again, Mr. Gullo's efforts tie family and community together.
"When we do Christmas, our great-grandkids serve with their moms and dads," says Mr. Gullo. "You know, you start early, and you teach them what it is all about, and it just makes them a better person when they get older."
Covid-19 brought his days of wearing the red suit to an end, but he continues to play Santa in many ways you may know, plus others that are not for publication. With so many causes, it is hard for him to pick favorites, but he says a couple do stand out. For example, supporting MD Anderson is very personal to him due to the loss of his daughter ten years ago.
Earning by Learning, run by his daughter, Linda Gullo Rodriguez, and granddaughter, is another charity that makes him proud. The reading program rotates between the county's schools and pays third graders to read, starting at a dollar a book. Upon its completion, the kids get a party where they are awarded their earnings. "Those kids, you'd think they'd won the lottery, they yell and scream, it really is something," he says.
Of course, Mr. Gullo also gives back by using his extensive luxury car collection. "I never really said I wanted to have a collection, but it kinda grew and grew, and it just kept a-grow'n," he chuckles.
On special occasions, the doors to his private museum open so clubs and organizations can hold functions and fundraisers in the 52-thousand-square-foot facility. From American muscle to the more exotic, over 300 luxury automobiles are represented in his collection. It is a hobby his wife, Dolly, tolerates but does not share.
"You know, she wouldn't give 15 cents for any one of these cars." Mr. Gullo says with a smile. "When you gonna stop? Enough is enough- and she is absolutely right," he laughs, a twinkle in his eye.
So is he stopping with the cars or giving? Not likely. Auctioneers always offer up more cars, and he is currently supporting a new installation for Montgomery County's Veterans Memorial Park. And given the responses, why would he want to stop? "If I'm out in the community and people say thank you, that makes me feel pretty good," he says.
The family's dealerships have contributed significantly to Montgomery County and Conroe for years. The roster of Montgomery County community service and charity credits past and present include; Gullo Christmas For Kids, Conroe Kidzfest, Parents Against Cancer, United Way, American Cancer Society, Education for Tomorrow Alliance (EfTA), South County Football League (SCFL), Orwall Baseball Park, American Cancer Society, Montgomery County American Red Cross, Child Advocates of Montgomery County (CASA), Texas A&M Athletics, Rotary Clubs of Montgomery County, Boy and Girl Scouts of America, Kiwanis and Knights of Columbus Clubs, Montgomery County Fair, and many other fundraisers for schools, clubs, sports teams and individuals including scholarships for graduating seniors.
Staying true to the slogan he coined, 'Treating You Like Family,' Mr. Gullo wants his family's special relationship with Montgomery County to keep growing for years to come." he says. "I hope they continue to keep the businesses, even when they get ready to retire. I hope the younger ones will take over."
Staying true to the slogan he coined, ‘Treating You Like Family,’ Mr. Gullo wants his family's special relationship with Montgomery County to keep growing for years to come.