MILWAUKEE – Ken Hendricks, a high-school dropout who made himself into a billionaire, died early Friday after falling through a hole in a roof being built at his Rock County, Wis., home.

Hendricks, the 66-year-old owner of ABC Supply Co. Inc. in Beloit, Wis., suffered massive head injuries and died in surgery at a hospital in Rockford, Ill.

Rock County Sheriff’s Department Commander Troy Knudson said Hendricks and his wife, Diane, were having construction done on the garage at their home near Afton, Wis., between Beloit and Janesville. The couple had returned home about 10 p.m. Thursday night and Ken Hendricks went to the garage roof to inspect the progress of the construction work.

“There were blue tarps that were covering open areas that were nailed in place by two by fours and it appears he fell through one of those tarps,” Knudson said.

His death has saddened many in Beloit, where Hendricks has been the once-struggling city’s key benefactor – bringing in companies, creating jobs, fostering the arts and restoring abandoned industrial buildings.

“It’s almost a matter of what hasn’t he done,” said Ron Nief, public affairs director at Beloit College and a friend of Hendricks. “I think probably the most important thing he’s done for Beloit is inspire.”

Hendricks, who grew up in Janesville and left high school at 17, built ABC Supply into a nationwide distributor of roofing, siding, windows and other building products. The company has 390 locations, 6,000 employees and about $3 billion a year in sales.

Forbes magazine recently estimated Hendricks’ net worth at $3.5 billion, making him the 91st-richest American.

Hendricks started his business career as a part-time roofer, spotting potential customers as he drove a utility repair truck during the day. By age 30 he had 500 roofers working for him and was handling jobs at military bases and large stores. He also invested in real estate and, in 1982 with his wife, Diane, started ABC Supply.

He owned controlling interest in 16 other companies, several of them firms that Hendricks either brought to Beloit or got started there.

Hendricks, who decades ago moved his business base to Beloit because he felt he couldn’t get financial backing in his native Janesville, restored the abandoned, run-down Fairbanks-Morse complex and situated ABC’s headquarters there. He bought the vacant buildings of the defunct Beloit Corp. and installed a variety of new businesses there, along with a museum featuring sculpture fashioned from old papermaking machinery patterns Hendricks found in storage.

“It’s kind of unusual to have a champion of the stature of a Ken Hendricks,” Beloit city manager Larry Arft said. “Communities do have their leading citizens who support philanthropy and the arts in those communities, but this was kind of an extraordinary relationship.”

Surviving Hendricks are his wife and their seven children.

(c) 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): HENDRICKS-OBIT

AP-NY-12-21-07 1822EST

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