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OBITUARIES : Kenneth A. Hendricks, 1941 - 2007

Billionaire founder of roofing materials firm

December 22, 2007|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

Kenneth A. Hendricks, a high school dropout who transformed three modest Wisconsin construction goods businesses into ABC Supply, the largest provider of roofing and siding materials to contractors in the United States, died Friday after falling from a construction site at his home in Afton, Wis. He was 66.

The Winnebago County, Ill., coroner said the cause of death was blunt trauma to the head because of the fall, which occurred while Hendricks was checking on construction repairs. He was pronounced dead at Rockford Memorial Hospital in Illinois.

Hendricks, who had a net worth of more than $2.6 billion, was 91st this year on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans.

Beloit, Wis.-based American Builders and Contractors Supply, which he started in 1982 after buying three independent supply centers, has $3 billion in sales, more than 6,000 employees and 400 stores offering siding, windows, gutters and other exterior building products, according to Forbes.

The son of a roofer, Hendricks made his initial fortune in the 1970s as a roofing contractor doing business in many states while most of his competition remained local or regional. He repeated the business model with roofing supply distribution, having grown weary of lackluster service from suppliers he had been using.

He bought failing roofing supply businesses and turned them profitable, often going to unusual lengths to enforce his obsession with efficiency.

One story noted how he visited store managers and set up two boxes -- one marked budget, the other expenditures -- and used Monopoly money to show them the basics of budget vs. expenditures. But it was no game. Their annual salary depended on the results.

His strict business approach grew from his experiences as a roofer.

"Kmart will sell you roofing supplies," he told the business publication Inc. in 1986. "But if you're a small contractor like I was, you can spend half your morning waiting in line for a sales clerk who knows more about lawn furniture than about vinyl siding. There goes your job time, your profit, the whole deal."

Kenneth Albert Hendricks was born Sept. 8, 1941, in Janesville, Wis. He showed organizational talents by age 8, when he contracted out his lawn-mowing services when overbooked.

Within a few years, he once said, he impressed his taciturn father by single-handedly installing natural gas piping at a house when his father left the job for an errand. On the next job, his father reluctantly asked his advice.

Hendricks quit high school after fathering a child with his future first wife, Sandra Kislia. After their divorce, he married Diane Fox in 1975.

Hendricks worked as a power company truck driver and spent as much time looking at rooftops as at the road. He stopped at homes with worn shingles and offered to come back on the weekend to repair the roofs. He did spectacular business after hail storms.

By the age of 26, he had established a 500-man roofing operation that branched into commercial jobs including Kmart stores and military bases. Meanwhile, he invested heavily in real estate and became known for his involvement in Beloit's economic development.

In 1982, Hendricks entered the distribution side of the roofing supply industry with ABC Supply. Within four years, the company had nearly 50 stores, and Inc. named it the fastest-growing business in the nation. Later, Hendricks bought companies that manufactured building products.

In interviews, he displayed little interest in accumulating wealth for its own sake, and said he wanted to provide chances for his chief customers -- building contractors and roofers -- to trade in their blue collars for white.

Hendricks launched an effort in direct marketing and other services to enhance his clientele's own businesses.

Roofers, he told Inc. in 1991, "get a bad rap. That wore way down deep in my gut. People would say, 'Oh, you're Joe Hendricks' kid. He's a roofer.' You could tell what they were thinking. My dad made more money than any of them. He just didn't belong to their damn country club. He didn't play golf.

"He carried a lunch pail, and he went to work at 5:30 in the morning and came home at 6 at night, and he worked every Saturday. Yet they talked about him as if he were a bum. So that built my character way down inside. It's a big reason why I feel the way I do about my customers."

In addition to Fox, survivors include four children from his first marriage, Kevin Hendricks, Kimberlee Hendricks, Kathleen Murray and Kendra Story, all of Janesville; two children from his second marriage, Konya Schuh of Janesville and Kara Stecker of Madison, Wis.; a stepson, Brent Fox of Janesville; and 14 grandchildren.

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