Soon she divorced. She had to find a way to support herself on her own, as a single mother. She switched to selling real estate, and had gotten her broker’s license by the time she turned 21.
Before long, she had found a business partner, a roofing contractor who had dropped out of high school, named Ken Hendricks. Together the two bought old houses in Beloit, fixed them up and rented them out. They married in 1975 and moved on to buying industrial spaces at around the same time. They found a rundown sugar beet plant in Janesville, 20 miles up the road from Beloit.
When Mr. Hendricks went to a Janesville bank to finance the purchase of the plant, he was turned away. “The banker said, ‘We don’t do business with entrepreneurs, and we don’t want your business,’” Ms. Hendricks recalls.
It was a turning point. The couple turned their backs on Janesville, focusing instead on Beloit.
They would move from renting local apartments to starting ABC Supply in 1982, buying up distributors nationwide.
Beloit at the time was on the cusp of a steep decline after successive economic blows, among them the grinding to a halt of Fairbanks Morse, a diesel engine maker and a onetime major employer.
Like struggling cities and towns across the country, Beloit went through a period of Band-Aid-like efforts. By the 1980s, local businesses were petitioning the city to change its image by cleaning up the riverfront, where vacant stores sat along the banks of the river, and by reviving the withering downtown. The initiatives barely made a dent.
Into the 1990s, at least, the town still had its foundry, Beloit Corporation, by that time owned by a Milwaukee company, Harnishfeger Corporation. At its height, Beloit Corporation had employed more than 7,000 people building papermaking machines. Late into the night, the flickering light from the welding in the foundry would light up the Rock River.
In 1999, the foundry went bankrupt, leaving behind an empty, sprawling complex the size of 15 football fields. Beloit’s downtown became a bleak landscape of “decayed, bombed-out buildings,” recalled Jeff Adams, who moved to Beloit to teach economics at Beloit College in the early 1980s and was involved in early initiatives to try to fix the town.
But if Beloit was sinking, the Hendrickses were riding high. Their business was booming, and they saw opportunity in the desolation.
One day, a few years after Beloit Corporation went bust, the two were riding their Harley-Davidsons past the abandoned factory and noticed someone wandering around the property. They stopped to ask what he was doing. The man, Samuel Popa, turned out to be looking for a place to put his aluminum business.
On a whim, the Hendricks decided to buy the 800,000-square-foot building. They knew it had the potential to one day become commercial space, perhaps residential, too. They ended up becoming a partner in Mr. Popa’s company, American Aluminum Extrusion.
Next, they bought the old mall on the edge of town, which they planned on turning into “a community and civic center,” Ms. Hendricks says.
Around the same time, Ron Nief, the director of public affairs at Beloit College, and two of his friends had an idea that in almost any other dying industrial town would not have gotten out of the starting blocks: Let’s start an international film festival.
They approached Beloit’s billionaire benefactors about the idea, and in 2006, the festival opened on a frigid Wisconsin weekday in January.
Despite the fact that its debut occurred the same week as the much more famous Sundance Film Festival, it has thrived. Jon Voight, Melissa Gilbert and David Zucker, the director of “Airplane!,” have attended
Mr. Nief recalls a conversation with Mr. Hendricks, who had told him to aim high with the film festival idea. Mr. Nief said to him, “It needs to be special, but it doesn’t need to be, say, the Toronto Film Festival,” referring to the giant on the festival circuit.
“Ken said: ‘Why not? Why don’t you want to be the biggest and the best in the world?’” Mr. Nief said.
But tragedy struck one evening, just days before Christmas in 2007. Mr. Hendricks fell through the roof of his home after inspecting some renovations; he died from the injuries.
Mr. Hendricks’s death led residents in Beloit to worry that Ms. Hendricks would sell ABC and abandon the couple’s efforts to revive the town.
Then came the 2008 economic crisis. Housing and construction, the very businesses on which the Hendrickses’ fortune had been built, suffered through one of the worst downturns in decades.
ABC pulled through, and grew in part by buying its biggest rival, Bradco. Today ABC is a private company and the largest wholesale distributor of roofing, windows, siding and gutter materials. It has 715 stores across the United States and employs 656 people in Beloit alone.
Ms. Hendricks also began putting to use the industrial buildings that she and her husband had bought over the years. She turned the foundry into a commercial space with high ceilings, dubbing it Ironworks, and turned to a political ally, Mr. Walker, to help attract at least one tenant.
The move worked.
“I had 17 employees at that moment, and the governor of Wisconsin told me my business mattered to him,” recalled Kerry Frank, the co-founder with her husband, Dude Frank, of Comply365, which makes software used by airline pilots to complete their flight paperwork. Started in the Franks’ basement, the company is now housed in Ironworks and counts Southwest Airlines among its biggest clients.
In 2011, after Illinois created a new law to collect sales tax from online shoppers, the Rockton online coupon company FatWallet needed to find a Wisconsin town for its headquarters. Ms. Hendricks worked with the city to make Beloit, just over the state border, FatWallet’s first choice. The company is now based in Ironworks.
“The advantage here in Beloit is that the same type of engineer that you hire in Silicon Valley can have a large house,” says Ryan Washatka, general manager in Beloit for Ebates, FatWallet’s parent company.
Still, few people in the start-up world outside of Wisconsin know much about Beloit. It certainly was not on the radar of Chris Olsen, a former executive at Sequoia Capital, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm, whose Ohio venture capital firm Drive Capital is now one of Comply365’s biggest investors.
After several airlines told him to look at Comply365, Mr. Olson found himself looking at a map. “I didn’t even know where Beloit was,” he jokes.
In part to address problems like that, Ms. Hendricks has sent members of her property company, Hendricks Commercial Properties, to Madison to talk to venture capitalists. “Candidly, I wasn’t looking at Beloit,” said Joe Kirgues, a co-founder of Gener8tor, a tech incubator, who one day found himself at a table with Ms. Hendricks’s team.
He said the pitch to him had boiled down to: “Tell us what resources you need.” Today, Gener8tor has an office in Ironworks and is working with several local start-ups.
Mr. Bierman credits Ms. Hendricks for providing a vision of how things can be. Still, he says, “I worry a lot.”
While he does see signs that what Ms. Hendricks has built can be sustainable, “We’ll know a lot more once we get through the next recession,” he said.
For now, around 1,000 people currently work out of Ironworks, according to Mr. Gerbitz of Hendricks Commercial Properties. “Our goal is to get to 5,000, which was what was lost when Beloit Corporation went away,” he said.
Ironworks today is a far cry from its foundry origins. At AccuLynx, the software firm, there is a giant slide running down from the second floor to the first, a video-game console and a giant gold bell that is rung when sales are made.
AccuLynx’s founder, Rich Spanton, described the day his grandfather, who had worked at the foundry as a superintendent for nearly a half-century, visited the building, where he had spent a career assembling steel parts for paper machines. He was astonished at what he saw.
“He walked in,” Mr. Spanton recalls, “and he said, ‘Jeez, we couldn’t have gotten any work done if this had been our office.’”