Ken Hendricks would have hated the headlines generated by his death. Across the nation, news services and Web sites described the founder of ABC Supply Company first and foremost as a "billionaire," as though making money was his great achievement. Hendricks, who was 66 when he died on Dec. 21 in an accident at his home outside Beloit, Wis., never saw it that way.
Ron Nief, director of public affairs at Beloit College and a longtime friend, remembers having lunch with Hendricks and bringing up his ranking on Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans. Nief was just joking, but Hendricks seemed abashed, almost apologetic. "He looked at me and said, 'I can't help it. It just happened," Nief recalled. "He said, 'What do people expect me to do, hide it in a closet?"
Bill Barth, the editor of the Beloit Daily News who knew Hendricks for 30 years, recalls why the entrepreneur turned against yachting. "He told me he didn't enjoy the company of other folks who owned yachts and treated the hired help like hired help," Barth said. "He said he'd much rather be down in the engine room with the motor guy."
In deeds as in words. Steve Gillespie, a product manger at Amcraft, another of Hendricks' companies, recalls the time he attended an air show sponsored by ABC Supply. The program was winding down; people were watching the final acts and chatting. In the background, employees of the catering company started breaking down the food-warming stations, loading them onto small carts, and hauling them out to trucks parked some distance away. "I turn around and there's Ken, breaking down containers so when the girls came back, they could take the next load," Gillespie said. "Ken sat there quietly watching how they did it the first time, then he just pitched in and helped. He was the only one who did that. He did things like that all the time."
Of course, helping those caterers wasn't Hendricks' great achievement either -- but helping people was. Hendricks liked money because it allowed him to build and buy companies. (He owned 37 as of September 2006 -- and that was before he bought a railroad, a wind farm manufacturer, among others.) He liked to build and buy companies because that allowed him to create jobs. "If you're willing to work hard and you want to do something with your life, I'm going to give you an opportunity," Hendricks told Inc. in an interview last year. "Some of these people working for me are guys that would have never had a chance in hell of going anywhere because some big shot in an office looking at their resume says, 'He's got no college education, did drugs when he was 19. Naahh, I'm not interested in this guy."
"This company is just blooming," Hendricks said. "We're growing 25 percent a year and people say, 'How do you do that?' Well, I can't get a bunch of phony executives to do it. But I can get a hell of a lot of people that have dreams."
Hendricks had reason to value dreams and a work ethic over formal education: it was the formula that worked for him. As a boy, the entrepreneur labored beside his roofer father, dropping out of school in 11th grade to take two 40-hour-a-week jobs. In 1963, he opened his first roofing company and began buying land and real estate in the 1970s. Then, in 1982, Hendricks launched American Builders and Contractors Supply, which combined local market expertise and service with centralized support and cost efficiencies. That company made the Inc. 500 list at No. 3 in 1984, at No. 2 in 1985, and at No. 1 in 1986 -- a feat no company has ever replicated. Today, ABC Supply, which is still private, has an estimated $3 billion in sales.
Over the past two decades, Hendricks devoted much of his time and money to reviving Beloit, a rust belt community that had been hemorrhaging jobs and people. That story appeared in Inc.'s December 2006 issue, which pronounced Hendricks "Entrepreneur of the Year." This past year, Hendricks had been busier than ever. In addition to rearranging Beloit's real estate like a chess grand master, he persuaded town officials to help him launch a state-of-the-art vocational training program in part of an abandoned mall. He also leveraged his massive real estate holdings to prevent Kerry Ingredients, a large Beloit employer, from abandoning the town. (Thanks to Hendricks, Kerry is instead expanding its presence there, creating several hundred jobs in the process.) "Ken was instrumental in restoring more than just physical structures," says Barth. "He was instrumental in restoring confidence that there was a future here. His legacy is a community that believes in itself. He taught people how to do that."
Hendricks' other great achievement was his family. He and his wife Diane were inseparable in life and in business. They sat on boards together, and worked down the hall from each other. At a Christmas party two weeks ago, they played Santa and Mrs. Claus, handing out gifts to the children of ABC's employees. Most of their seven children also work at ABC or Hendricks' other businesses. "I couldn't be prouder of my kids," Hendricks said last year. "When they wanted a car, they earned a car. I paid tuition for their colleges but every one of them did waitressing or worked other jobs during school. I have seven winners."
Much will undoubtedly be made of how Hendricks died: the irony that a man who made his fortune fixing roofs was killed falling through one. But it isn't irony. Ken Hendricks never stopped going up on roofs, because that was where real work was done by real people. And even though he was, yes, a billionaire, Hendricks always cared most about the real work. "He judged a man by his ability to carry the shingles up and how fast he could nail them," Nief said. "Someone would be talking to him and he would just look at them and say, 'How fast can you nail a square?"