John Agostino, founder of Tough Dog, retires
Thirty-eight years ago, John Agostino chose family over traveling the world and didn’t look back. December 22nd, 2023, was John’s last official day in the global business he built initially with three partners and an investment of just $3000 each.
In mid-2022, Aeroklas Asia Pacific, a 4WD accessories and automotive parts business owned by a Thai-listed company, acquired John Agostino’s Tough Dog Sydney-based after-market suspension company, for AU$70 million. Ago stayed on for 18 months.
Aeroklas Asia Pacific already owned 4WD suspension and accessories maker, TJM; canopy maker, Flexiglass and Bocar, which makes aluminium trays. Fortunately, Aeroklas is maintaining the Tough Dog business model and retaining all 32 staff.
Giovanni (John) Agostino began his career as a Qantas flight attendant – not an engineer or mechanic. However, he was a determined person, always looking for a business opportunity.
Working internationally meant half his time was spent on long overseas journeys and the other half with family at home. With his entrepreneurial spirit and strong desire to be connected to family, John looked for a side ‘hustle’ that would eventually enable him to be home on a permanent basis.
After importing cars for a time, he eventually developed a relationship with G Brothers Mercedes in Mona Vale and began importing car parts.
By 1984, like most startups, Tough Dog began from humble roots in a garage on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, where they were rebadging and selling imported shock absorbers.
Business wasn’t easy and interest rates soared, hitting over 18 percent, forcing John and Di Agostino to sell the family home, so they could extract the equity they needed for the shock absorber business.
It was at this point Allan Whiting – now publisher of the Outback Travel Australia website – became involved. He was contributing to Overlander Magazine and remembers the Tough Dog start-up, when it was known as 4Way Suspension.
The initial products were US-designed and made, coil-over-shock absorbers that worked particularly well on early Range Rovers that were the first 4WDs to have all-coil suspension.
Australian buyers didn’t like the ‘soggy’ ride quality of early Rangies and Four-Way’s coil spring mounted on the shock absorber body stiffened the ride, while simultaneously reducing body away when cornering.
The 4-Way coil-over-shocks also proved ideal after-market fitments to heavy truck cabs that lacked flexible mountings. European truck cabs had cab suspension, but North American and Australian designs dod not. 4Way filled that void nicely and greatly enhanced ‘Ago’s’ cash flow.
However, John knew the limitations of importing and reselling product. For the business to grow they need to innovate; to start developing their own products and so he set about building a strategy to create their own market leading suspension products.
John Agostino and his fledgling engineering maestro, Simon Vella, kept plugging away, producing shocks to suit all popular Australian 4WDs.
However, ‘4Way’ wasn’t a suitable ongoing name for a range of shock absorbers that weren’t coil-over-shock units, other than for a coil-over-shock steering damper – one of which is currently fitted to the Outback Travel Australia LandCruiser 75 Series, along with a full Tough Dog suspension kit.
In the late 1980s, Allan Whiting discussed Ago’ s preferred ‘Bulldog’ new brand name and AW thought that might attract unfavourable interest from truck maker, Mack, which had trademarked ‘Bulldog’ in the automotive arena. Such proved to be the case and a quick rebranding saw ‘Tough Dog’ adopted.
In the years that followed Tough Dog grew at a rapid rate. forcing the organisation to relocate to larger premises six times as the business continued to expand.
Early 4Way Suspension shop in Hassall St, Parramatta NSW
Over the years the brand achieved recognition sufficient to merit international expansion and Tough Dog suspensions are now sold all around the world.
While the business grew and continued to innovate, one thing remained a constant for John and the team at Tough Dog: the core of the business was always about family.
After working at Tough Dog for around 30 years Simon Vella, Director of Product Development, affectionately described the operating style of the business as: “Similar to the chaos of a 1980’s Italian fruit shop in Marrickville.”
“It was always run like a bit of a fruit shop, because Johnny came from a fruit shop and I think that was just natural for him.
“Things were fast paced, emotional, spur of the moment stuff, with everything always happening all at once.
“But that’s the thing about a family business – everyone just gets in and gets things done.
“The one thing that Johnny taught a lot of us in this place was: you do what you have to do to get things done; you roll your sleeves up and you just get into it.”
This family-owned Italian business always had a common theme: ‘Family before everything.’
Every school holiday, John’s kids would be in the business helping out. Roy Agostino, John’s eldest son, remembers being in the factory at just eight years old.
“Yeah, they couldn’t slow me down right from the early days, “ he recalled.
“I remember I’d have a go at anything and everything; from packing screw packs to washer packs, to – when I got older – cutting, painting and linishing,
“I had a crack at everything,” said Roy.
Reflecting on his father’s approach to the business over many years Roy said:
“Dad was always a very caring and generous person.
“He acknowledged that through his hard work, other people worked hard and he looked after them.
“He was always one that really lead by example when it came to the work ethic.”
Fondly known as Captain Chaos, John has always led the business from the front, being hands on in everything, from taking out the bins to creating the next leading innovation in suspension. He’s had a hand in all of it.
Ed Crowther, General Manager of Tough Dog, spoke about his experience working with John and his strong sense of integrity:
“John’s the consummate old-school gentleman, believing your word is your bond.
“You know you can trust in whatever he says – he’ll always make happen.”
This ethos helped John form long-standing relationships that have built significant value into the business, over many years. The 4 Tracks in Malaysia business, Tough Dog’s very first export customer back in 1992, is still consistently buying from Tough Dog.
While John is heading into retirement it doesn’t look like he’ll slow down anytime soon.
Just two years ago, at the age of 70, he got his motorbike licence and enjoys heading out for a ride. While John’s family were not overly impressed with his new hobby, they couldn’t talk him out of this new-found passion. In business and in life, John’s has always been a decisive leader whose view, like most successful founders, is difficult to sway, once he has made up his mind.
Roy Agostino spoke about John’s new passion:
“We all tried to talk him out of it, but it was just like Johnny: he was out to prove us all wrong and went ahead anyway.”
John has been a guiding hand for many in the Tough Dog business and a mentor to the team. His legacy is the vast knowledge he has imparted to the team; the strong sense of integrity and family values that sit at the core of the business.
Thinking back on his relationship with John and what he has learnt over the years, Simon Vella concluded:
“I always looked up to John and definitely in my eyes he was always the man.
“You always know with John that if he gives you his word, he will fall on his sword trying to deliver on it.
“I think this is something that we all hold true and will continue to retain as a key part of the culture at Tough Dog, well into the future.”