Matteo Agosta was born in Trapani, Sicily, Italy, before moving to a location in the United States that was a foreshadowing of his future: Detroit.
“As a kid, I was always interested in cars,” Agosta said. “You couldn’t help it, being in Detroit.”
He recalled that his paper route took him past a Jaguar dealership, “and I looked lovingly at the XKE.” As a teen, he made going to auto dealerships on October 1 a regular routine in order to see the new lines of cars. “But my dad was always a Packard lover, so up to 1961, we had only Packards.”
Agosta eventually bought a Fiat 850 Coupe as his first car, and since there was always something going wrong with it, he had to learn to do the repairs himself.
“I had wanted a 180-horsepower ’65 Corvair I saw for sale, but my dad had recently passed away, and my brother thought he had inherited Dad’s role, so he told me to get the Fiat,” Agosta said. “I called it my Fred Flintstone car, because in three short years, it had developed huge rust holes in the floorboard.”
By the way, the paper route was Agosta’s idea of a way to get out of working at his dad’s cement construction company over summer vacations, but that plan didn’t work out too well. He ended up doing both jobs. “But getting up and going to work taught me responsibility and also built up my character,” Agosta said. “I never had a summer vacation, but I’m glad for the lessons he taught me.”
In high school, Agosta took college-prep courses, “and was teetering between business or becoming a doctor.” But in senior year, they had career day at Wayne State University School of Medicine. “A roomful of cadavers changed my mind, and I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore, so I switched to business administration and marketing.”
As he was transferring to the University of Detroit—“I still didn’t know what exactly I was going to end up doing”—he met Carolyn, who would later become his wife. “When you meet a woman that you think you can have a future with, you start studying,“ Agosta joked.
At the time, Carolyn’s father, Lynn H. Steele, had a tool and die shop and was also making rubber parts for classic cars. When he went off to places such as Hershey and Carlisle for car shows, Agosta began going along to help. The rubber parts became a more successful business venture than tool and die, so Steele moved from Farmington, Michigan, to Denver, North Carolina, to open Steele Rubber Products.
Because the company was in a rural area, Steele had trouble finding employees. He also needed someone to help with marketing and running the business. Agosta and Carolyn were married by this time, and Matt was working for Hertz Truck Leasing as a rental salesman and agency manager. Steele invited him to come to North Carolina, and he stepped up to the challenge, despite being slightly nervous.
“I had done some business management, but Lynn also needed help in the tool room and I’d never done that,” he said. “On the first day, he had me operating a milling machine and making molds.”
In the years to come, Steele taught Agosta tooling and mold-making techniques, and he also attended school at night to pursue an industrial mechanical engineering curriculum.
Before long, Agosta was managing production and customer service as well as handling marketing for swap meets and car shows, and the business began adding more employees. Today, Agosta is the president/CEO of Steele Rubber Products and has been since 1985. His youngest child, Danny, is the new-product R&D manager, and his oldest, Joanna, is currently vice president but is transitioning to president, “which will make it the third generation working in the business.”
Agosta attended his first SEMA Show around 1991. At the time, the restoration industry was dealing with trademark licensing issues with General Motors and its licensing group.
“A lot of us venders knew each other and were wondering what we were going to do,” Agosta said. “I remember having a meeting with several other companies about it. Jim Wirth, who was part of our group and a member of SEMA, met with Chuck Blum, then the president of the association. From that meeting, the Automotive Restoration Market Organization [ARMO] was born, bringing restoration companies together to address issues. Another rising battle was the proposed ‘clunker bills’— crushing old cars for pollution credits. It was David fighting Goliath for our survival. SEMA helped even the playing field.”
Agosta became an active SEMA member at the forefront of legislative issues, and he opened dialogs with the auto makers and developed educational opportunities for SEMA members. He also volunteered his time as a board member, chairman of the SEMA ARMO council, and a founding member of the SEMA Political Action Committee and President’s Club, as well as participating in task forces and chairing a variety of committees.
“One of the most satisfactory projects was the two years in which we presented the National Educational Conference,” he said. “We had some real superstars that were presenting business seminars.”
Agosta has received both the Chairman’s Award and the Person of the Year Award from ARMO, and also the SEMA Ambassador award.
“The thing I like about SEMA is that it has brought my main competitors into the group, and we have gotten to know each other,” Agosta said. “Though we furiously compete, we have become friends and respect each other. When it’s an industry issue, we all come together.”
Throughout the years, he has encouraged his own managers to get involved in SEMA and other associations. Agosta has volunteered outside of SEMA as well, including in the Knights of Columbus, as a speaker at marriage-encounter weekends with Carolyn, and on the board of for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Additionally, he has worked with the surrounding county schools and chambers on mentoring and intern programs.
“I enjoy being involved,” Agosta said. “One of my passions is getting small companies to work together, even if we are competitors, to avoid being rolled over by big government or destroyed by the difficulties of keeping up with massive changes in technology and how we do business. I firmly believe that the entire industry does better when we work together reasonably. And when it comes to SEMA, I know that when I take on a project with other people in the industry, I’ll be working with great people and have fun doing it.”
Which is why he was “blown away” to be named to the SEMA Hall of Fame.
“I always see myself as a worker bee, but I can’t think of any one thing I did that was enough to put me in the same company as many of the others whom I look up to in the Hall of Fame,” Agosta explained. “It’s a matter of, I got involved, whether at the board level, educational, legislative or whatever I thought was worthwhile to do. I did it because it was the right thing to do.”