Revitalizing the Rustbelt
“Any chance we’ll get to become a completely red state, work on these unions, and become a ‘right to work?'” America’s wealthiest self-made woman with a personal net worth of $7.8 billion, Diane Hendricks, asked Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker, while also tacking on, ” what can we do to help you?”
He answered, “well we’re gonna start in a couple of weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is, we’re gonna deal with collective bargaining for all public employees,” adding that a “divide and conquer” strategy would be pursued. This brief exchange that falls short of being able to be considered a real conversation set off a flurry of pro-union outrage across the nation.
Walker ultimately disbanded Wisconsin’s teacher’s union and amidst his run for another term as governor in 2019, he said in a statement to Politico, “I am proud to be the pro-education governor because our reforms are working.” His opponent at the time and eventual Democrat successor, Tony Evers, told the publication that that declaration “borders on a joke. The proof is in the pudding. … I don’t think many people believe him.”
Regardless of political affiliation, nobody can challenge that Hendricks wields considerable power in her home state and has used her influence for less controversial endeavors such as breathing life back into the town of Beloit – just one of the many decaying rust belt cities in America.
Turning around the devastated economies scattered across the midwest is necessary for our nation’s continued advancement; that’s why we see candidates from both parties showing up at what few manufacturing plants remain while hitting the campaign trail. Diane is somebody who has proven her ability to do the job that, every four years, Washington politicians promise small-town America will get done.
With this being said, leading up to the 2016 election, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump added Hendricks to his Economic Advisory Team. An appointment that any candidate for public office serious about repositioning the rust belt for success ought to have the courage to administer. Yes, we said the “T” word, but this story isn’t about him.
It’s about a minimum wage-earning teenage mom who never got a college degree that had the audacity to divorce her child’s father at 21 years old. She’s a woman, who despite facing overwhelming odds, never gave up on the greater vision she had for her life and upon taking the road less traveled, that has made all the difference.
The Early Life of Diane Hendricks
Diane Hendricks was born in 1947 on a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin. “I had a beautiful life, living on the farm. Nice house, big square white house,” she describes to Forbes when recounting her childhood. “But… I always wanted to go to the city. I wanted to wear a suit.”
Being one of eight daughters, her father never allowed her to do what he deemed “mans work” around the property. “Girls did housework, and he hired young men to do farm work. I would have preferred to be outside,” she reveals. “My father was well respected in town. Years later, people would come up to me and say, ‘Wally was always worrying about the schools and the community.'”
Diane’s family moved to another farm in Osseo, Wisconsin when she was nine years old. Looking back on her days at Osseo-Fairchild High School, she jokes that her favorite subject was boys, adding, “I became pregnant by my first love at 17 and did what my parents thought was the right thing. I married him.”
“At the time, you couldn’t go to school and be pregnant,” says Hendricks, who studied at home during her senior year to earn her diploma. “I would go up after the other students had left, and do my test and hand in my school work. It was embarrassing but it was okay.”
After having given birth the month before her 18th birthday, she and her husband up and moved to Janesville, Wisconsin, where he found work at a Chrysler plant while she got a job on the assembly line of Parker Pen. Diane wasn’t a big fan of the factory lifestyle. She tried waitressing too, however, didn’t see how those careers would fulfill her lofty vision of what life should be like.
Hendricks admits, “Motherhood got in the way real quick and I grew up real fast,” while also making clear that, “It didn’t stop me from wanting to reach my dream. In fact I think I became even more focused on what I wanted to achieve.”
Because the work didn’t require a real estate license, she found a job selling new construction; in the meantime, she studied to get a broker’s license. “I knew I had to find a way to support myself alone,” says Diane, as at the time she was growing disenchanted with her first husband. “I never had any doubt I could raise my son. I filed for divorce a week after I was 21.”
Her Partner, Ken Hendricks
Wisconsin didn’t change the state’s legal drinking age to 21 years old until 1986, so although this birthday wouldn’t bring about the right to consume alcohol (as she was already able to), it turned out to be a huge year for Diane. She was beginning her career selling real estate, divorced her high school sweetheart, and in late 1960s America was already molding the world into her ideal state of being as a young woman.
“You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to be dissuaded, don’t quit. I’ve got signs in my office, I’ve got it on there, don’t quit. I mean, because quitting… you quit, you’re done. You just gotta be so strong, life is tough, you know. It just is.” – Diane Hendricks
“Soon a man named Ken Hendricks, whom I had never met, called me on the phone trying to arrange a blind date for me with one of his friends,” says Diane, recalling what was likely the most significant moment of her life, which happened to be occurring within an already eventful year. They had spoken on the phone every night for three weeks straight when she began to realize that they never talked about this friend she was supposed to be getting set up with!
Their First Date
“We talked about ourselves, but not about his friend,” she says, adding that 27-year-old Ken finally gathered the courage to ask her out when he mentioned on a call that he really wanted to meet her. “By the time I saw him, I knew,” she remembers thinking while watching him walk up to her front doorstep for the first time. She smiled and said to him, “You’ll do.”
She shortly learned that Ken isn’t one to let anything go to waste, while on their first date, he offered somebody the uneaten half of his sandwich – for the record, the person was happy to oblige him. Diane must have found something quite charming about his unrelenting resourcefulness as later in life she’d be sitting with a journalist at a restaurant when she asked a few people down at the other end of the bar if they wanted the rest of her leftover pizza.
In Ken, Diane not only found her lover, soulmate, and husband, but also her business partner. From here on out, their lives would be interwoven in nearly every way – forming the perfect match. Within weeks of meeting, the two began working on projects together. Ken was a roofing contractor.
He dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, trading textbooks for a hammer and nails. A good chunk of his childhood had been spent hauling and laying shingles alongside his roofer father. As a young man, Ken hoped to one day establish his own roofing company and this dream would be brought to fruition in 1963 – the guy was still in his early twenties.
He managed to save up the money to start his contracting business by working two 40 hour-a-week jobs just after leaving high school; one in a factory and one at an electric utility. Ken’s company grew to employ more than 500 workers by 1970.
Within three years of working together, Ken and Diane had bought close to 100 homes in the Beloit area; only about 10 were single-family homes while the rest were two- to four-unit apartments. “At the time, we could buy a three-bedroom home for $10,000 and fix it up. We did most of the work on the homes ourselves, with the help of Ken’s father. I painted about 200 units myself,” says Diane.
When describing their relationship as business partners, Ken once told Inc. Magazine, “I’m the one out front, getting things started. Diane is the finisher, taking things down to the last detail.”
Ken and Diane got married in 1975. The marriage certificate makes things official, however, this “teen mom” and “high school drop out” had already embarked upon what may be considered the most financially productive romance in American history.
Raising a Family
Already involved in roofing, flipping properties, trucking operations, and renting, the unabating couple opened a wholesale store, selling carpets and appliances to other landlords. Not to mention, there was also the all-too-familiar challenge of holding together the homefront; Ken had four children from his first wife, Diane had one, and together they had two more.
“[The kids] struggled through it, [when] Ken and I were not at home, when we were working. They didn’t get taken to every soccer game, and every high school football game, we just couldn’t — we were growing companies,” says Diane Hendricks in a Forbes interview. “[But] we went home every night. I believe in the family table. Ken and I would go home between five and six o’ clock. We didn’t do business at night. Never. Monday through Friday, we were home, had dinner with the kids, and we all sat and ate at the same table, something people don’t do anymore.”
They made a point to never work on the weekends. Rather, they stayed home to spend time on their farm with the kids, tending to the horses and bunnies among other joyful activities. By the early 1980s, the couple had achieved the financial stability to pause and figure out what their next big move was going to be.
ABC Supply Co.
Ken’s boundless work ethic as a roofer had taken him to job sites at military bases, Kmarts, and other properties throughout the country. Everywhere he went he noticed two things, a patchy and wasteful industry supply chain and when he finally did find a place that sold the products he needed, store owners often treated contractors like second-rate trash.
“It got me deep in my gut that hard-working, honest roofers like my father were treated like lowlifes,” he says. “I wanted to change that image.” Therefore, he and Diane got to work on plotting how they could create a wholesale store concept geared towards contractors that offered consistent access to necessary products, treated their customers with the respect they deserved, and of course, in classic Kenneth Hendricks fashion, didn’t let any resources go to waste (remember that half-eaten sandwich he couldn’t stand to see get thrown away?).
Bringing the Idea to Life
“When Ken and I started ABC, we worked on [our plan] for two years, and we threw away a lot of paper. We had a map, we decided here’s the distribution where it’s needed, this is where they got manufacturers today. We did our research in our industry, on a big scale,” Diane explains, while also revealing their limitless ambitions, “we were starting with one store, but we knew what we wanted to have was 200 stores.”
In 1982, they pledged everything they owned to secure a $900,000 bank loan in order to subsequently purchase three struggling stores. These first few locations would serve as the early foundation of American Builders & Contractors Supply (ABC), selling siding, windows, doors, tools, and equipment.
The business model the duo had cooked up turned out to be right on the money. However, bump in the road came when they opened their fifth store, the bank they were working with no longer wanted to do business with them.
“We would go to the next bank, we said we were doing so well, [and] we were asked to leave,” says Diane. “And I can say this, we always paid our bills, so it wasn’t because our credit would get crappy, or we weren’t running our business professionally and with integrity, we just didn’t fit the model that they had.”
In hindsight, she realizes, “One of the things we hadn’t really thought of, [was that] people would say, ‘they’re a flash in a pan, they’ll be gone tomorrow.’ People didn’t feel that we could succeed because we were a couple of uneducated roofers. And you can’t overcome a reputation that somebody tags on you until you can prove that you’re not that.”
Ultimately overcoming this early banking obstacle, the couple relentlessly pushed ahead, opening 33 stores within three years. “I thought that was slow,” Diane says.
By 1986 the company had expanded to 50 stores, bringing in $183 million in sales. Diane Hendricks attributes part of that success to taking advantage of opportunities when they came their way. For example, In 1984 distribution centers for roofing manufacturing owned by GAF went up for sale while she and Ken were on vacation.
They quickly flew home, got on a plane to New York, and went to check out the 13 stores that were being sold. Readers might be shocked to learn that they had no idea how they were going to buy 13 locations at once! “Opportunity is not always at an opportune time,” Diane says. “Sometimes you just have to change your plans, because that opportunity is not going to come again.”
By 1994, the company had grown to 100 stores nationwide and four years later reached $1 billion in sales. With this being said, in 1998, Ken and Diane brought in former Bridge/Firestone President, David Luck, to run the day to day operations at ABC. This would give the couple urgently needed time to focus on a number of smaller companies they owned.
Achieving Billionaire Status
By 2006, ABC had 345 stores, over 6,000 employees, and was doing $3.1 Billion in sales. According to an article by Inc. Magazine from that year, about half of ABC’s growth derived from the acquisition of struggling independent distributors; the rest was split between buying and improving successful distributors and starting new ones.
Salvaging unwanted companies nearly became a habit for Ken, he explains his appetite for making use of businesses others didn’t want, “Wrong location? Move it. Wrong people? Replace ’em. Wrong industry? I don’t believe it. I’ve got a company in the machine tools industry, and we’re doing great. I’d happily go into the coal business. It’s how you look at something and how it’s managed that make the difference.”
Amassing a multi-billion dollar fortune over the course of two and a half decades may seem like a daunting task to many, yet Diane manages to break it down rather simply. “We knew what the contractor wanted,” she says. “They needed choices, they needed to be treated with respect and professionalism. Even though they might be in a pickup truck, they were running a business and we appreciated the hard work it took to be a roofing contractor.”
Breathing Life into Beloit
Beloit, as with many midwestern cities, is a casualty of the dying manufacturing industry in America. Having already seen another major employer’s operations grind to a halt, when Beloit Corp., what at one time was the world’s largest manufacturer of papermaking machines, closed up shop around the year 2000 they let go of nearly 1,500 workers. Reverberations were felt throughout the municipality’s economy as local estimates put total job losses from the ordeal between 3,000 and 3,500 – devastating for a town of 35,000.
From the outside, these numbers become statistics in an increasing trend, but to Diane and Ken the emotions run deep, these are their loved ones who are getting left out to dry. “There are three sayings I live by, and one of them is ‘The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives,’ ” says Ken. “That’s what losing a job is like. That’s why we have to bring them back.”
Bringing Back Jobs
After Beloit Corp’s million square feet of industrial and office space sat vacant for years, Beloit’s city manager gave Ken a call and asked him to purchase the land – so, he did! Within four years, he remodeled the property and managed to bring 14 businesses to the town, amounting to a total of 1,400 jobs. Ken also accounts for bringing another 750 jobs to the area before Beloit Corp went under.
At its peak, Fairbanks Morse once employed over 5,000 people in Beloit, however, as work dwindled, nearly two-thirds of their 230-acre campus sat unused and began amounting to quite the eye-sore. As he tends to do with things most people can’t find a use for, Ken purchased the property and transformed it into ABC’s glorious corporate headquarters!
When discussing the transformation of the Fairbanks Morse building, executive director of the Beloit Foundation, Gary Grabowski says, “What makes Ken Hendricks Ken Hendricks, is that he stood on the roof and said, ‘My God, look at that view! Why would you destroy this?'”
In 2007, Ken was returning home from a business party when he quickly went to check on some renovations he and Diane were having done on their home in an effort to make more room for their 17 grandchildren. He was on a new floor above the garage when he fell through. Diane found him on the ground, however, hours after arriving at the hospital, Kenneth Hendricks passed away from head trauma.
“The first year was about making it through the day,” Diane Hendricks remembers. “Instead of sitting next to Ken in a meeting, I was sitting alone.” All of a sudden, she was forced to shoulder the weight of a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
Pretty soon, massive corporations were lining up to buy ABC. “They were thinking, ‘Oh, the sad, grieving widow will sell, and the company will crumble,” says Luck.
A New Horizon
Sales slipped 10% between 2006 and 2009, making it clear that carrying on with ABC’s original plans to reach 500 stores by 2010 would be financially irresponsible; the Great Recession didn’t help either. In the wake of declining sales and an uncertain economic forecast, the company chose to close 30 stores, bringing their total to 350.
“Life happens, things get in the way of your goal and your mission and your plan, and you got to take a detour,” says Diane. “[You] don’t have to change your goal. Change your path, be willing to, and don’t see that as a failure. That’s just life… You can’t lose sight of what you really want to do.”
Diane Hendricks Recognizes Opportunity
Keeping her eye on the prize, Diane’s resourcefulness noticed another opportunity on the horizon. As Forbes points out, one of ABC’s top competitors, Bradco Supply, which had recently been sold to private equity group Advent International, had an uncertain future. Bradco had 130 stores and sales of $1.5 billion or so.
In the heat of economic fallout across America, Diane, Luck, and the ABC executive team began hosting meetings with Bradco discussing a buyout. May of 2010 saw the company announce its largest acquisition in history, the deal would bring them to 480 stores in 45 states with sales exceeding $4 billion.
“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘What would Ken be doing in this recession?’ I think he would have wanted this,” says Hendricks. “We slam-dunked the industry,” says Luck. “For someone to doubt Diane’s guts, they don’t know her.”
Then, in 2016, the company posted another all-time purchase after acquiring L&W Supply for $674 million. This move brought ABC to over 700 stores and put the firm on track to reach $9 billion in revenue. As of 2020, they manage 780 branch locations and pull in over $10 billion in sales.
Diane Hendricks has continued her efforts to revitalize Beloit. She moved the town’s library to a nearby mall, while replacing the original historical location with a theater for students from Beloit College.
After purchasing an entire block of downtown, Diane leveled the buildings and replaced them with a trendy sushi spot and upscale burger restaurant. “It looks like we’re beautifying the city, but we’re really beautifying the economy,” she says.
Working with local leaders all the way up to Wisconsin’s governor, she continues bringing companies to Beloit – more importantly, Jobs!
Going back to that controversy mentioned at the very beginning of this story, when she wanted to break up the teacher’s unions, she does have good intentions. Her dream scenario is, “by the time [students] get out of high school, they know what they’re going to do with their lives. That they don’t just graduate, but they graduate with a future. Something that they can really put their souls into.”
On a final note, we leave you with a favorite quote of Ken’s, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”
If you enjoyed this story on the life of Diane Hendricks, be sure to check out our biography of IN N Out owner, Lyndsi Snyder!