Diane Hendricks gave birth to a 17-year-old, worked at Playboy Bunny to pay her bills, beat cancer twice and survived the tragic death of her husband before turning into the most successful businesswoman in the country. She has tripled her net worth in the past five years to more than $12 billion. Next: Reform the country’s schools and infrastructure before we turn red and white and blow them up.
written by Maggie McGrath
DrIan Hendricks About to sit down for a video interview when she rushes at the last minute to her wardrobe. She returns with a small American flag pin pinned to the lapel of her tight black jacket. “I love this country. I am very lucky to be born in America,” she says. “I’ve never had a door that hasn’t opened for me before. I never thought about being female and not being able to do what I’m doing.”
Patriotism is evident in her 9,500-square-foot home in southern Wisconsin. In her office there is a statuette of Ronald Reagan riding a horse and a picture of her with Donald Trump near a stack of books with titles like MAGA Doctrine, Land of Hope And the We’re back in the game. Downstairs is a high-quality numbered print, similar to the one that hung in the Trump White House, depicting ten Republican presidents drinking at an imaginary gathering (Dwight Eisenhower appears to enjoy scotch, and Trump is sick with Diet Coke). Outside, a life-size bronze piece of an Indian from the plains watches over three retired Budweiser Cladesdales.
“Achieving the American Dream Since 1982” is the motto of Hendrix Beloit, Wisconsin Ceiling distributor, ABC Supply, and “American Pride” are one of the company’s seven core values. A video assigned to country singer Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” by country singer Lee Greenwood was shown to all of the company’s directors. Greenwood often sings live at company events.
Hendricks believes in the American dream because she lived it. A teenage mother who once worked as a waitress to pay her bills, she co-founded ABC Supply with her husband, Ken, in 1982 and made it the nation’s largest wholesale distributor of ceilings, sides, and windows. After Ken’s death in 2007, Hendricks continued to rapidly expand the business, buying up competitors and more than doubling the number of its stores to 900. Revenue hit a record $15 billion in 2021. “We’ll do nearly $18 billion this year in sales, Hendricks says. “It’s not a small business anymore. It’s five times as much as it was when Kane was alive.”
Hendrix, who owns 100% of ABC as well as a real estate developer and holding company with stakes in 18 companies, is now worth $12.2 billion. That’s three times her net worth just five years ago and more than any other businesswoman in US history. For comparison, Jodi Faulkner, the second richest self-made American businesswoman, who pioneered electronic medical records (also living in Wisconsin), has a net worth of “only” $6.7 billion.
says Rob Gerbitz, CEO of Hendricks Commercial Properties, which recently paid $42 million for a hotel in Santa Barbara, California, and built a $40 million baseball stadium in Beloit.
Hendrix, at 75, tends to be successful. She wants to influence everything from national policy and job creation to cancer research and public school reform. “Everyone knows I’m conservative,” says Hendricks, who has donated more than $40 million since 1992. for Republican candidates. That includes more than $5 million in gifts to former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and $50,000 to Scott Pruitt, Trump’s notorious director of the Environmental Protection Agency, so he can pay his legal bills stemming from a host of moral scandals. Hendricks believes that one of the biggest problems companies face today is that not enough people value their jobs. “A job used to be a gift. I was proud,” she reflects.
She takes that feeling very seriously. “I’m very old and still working because I can still think. I feel like I’ve added purpose,” says Hendricks, who gets up at 5 a.m. every weekday and is out the door by 7 a.m.
This work ethic was born on her family’s dairy farm in Oseo, Wisconsin, a rural town southeast of Eau Claire with a population of barely 1,800. The fourth of nine girls, Hendrix was not allowed to milk cows or ride a tractor (“men’s work,” according to her father), but she did a lot of housework, including taking care of her younger sisters. At the age of 10, Hendrix realized she wanted more than a farming life. “I don’t want to be a farmer, and I don’t want to marry a farmer,” she remembers her reflection. What she wanted was to wear a blue suit and work in the city – Minneapolis, the city closest to her home.
These plans were derailed when, in 1964, She became pregnant at the age of 17 and was forced to drop out of school. She married the father and moved nearly 200 miles to Janesville, Wisconsin; The couple separated after three years. The single mother recently got a job as a bunny at the local Playboy Club. “You have to do what you have to do,” Hendricks says of that time.
Soon she was selling real estate all over southern Wisconsin. It also started selling custom homes. That’s how she met, at the age of twenty-two, a bishop’s contractor named Ken Hendricks. They married in 1976. The couple bought 200 old homes in three years, He fixed it and started renting it out to college students. “I cleaned a lot of toilets,” she recalls.
In 1982, they pledged everything they owned and took out a $900,000 bank loan to buy two troubled outfitting stores. Their idea was to buy directly from manufacturers and then sell to contractors and project builders like Ken. Secret Sauce has been providing an unprecedented level of customer service in an industry notoriously unfriendly. Within five years, ABC had 50 stores and about $140 million in sales.
The company had sales of $1 billion in 1998, the same year Hendrix appointed David Lack, a Bridgestone executive from Chicago, to become president of ABC. With Luck at the helm, the couple sought to add new projects. “She and dad were passionate about fixing failing businesses, so they bought several businesses after bankruptcies and foreclosures,” says Konya Hendricks-Schuh, one of her seven children (including four of the stepchildren).
Then the roof literally collapsed. On December 21, 2007, Ken came home from a work dinner and went to check out a new roof over the garage. He fell and died in surgery later that night.
MSuppose which people Hendrix is out of business. Offer a competitor to buy the company. “They just thought, being a woman, I would sell,” Hendricks says. Instead, she asked Lack to become CEO and appointed herself president. It was a difficult period, not only because she lost her husband 40 years ago. Sales fell 7% between 2006 and 2009 as the property market crashed. For the first time, ABC closed stores.
But amid the turmoil, Hendrix smelled the scent of opportunity. Taking advantage of its fiery selling prices, it orchestrated ABC’s largest acquisition, buying rival Bradco for $1.6 billion in 2010. Six years later, it paid $674 million to Chicago-based building materials distributor L&W Supply. To finance the first deal, it gave up 40% of its stake in ABC to a backer on the condition that it could buy it back within five years. I’ve done it in less than four. “I still get goosebumps right now,” she says. “Because I felt like I risked the company I wanted my kids to run. It’s not a company that will ever be for sale.”
In the years that followed, Hendrix made sure her legacy extended far beyond the work of the bishop. On a recent humid August afternoon, Hendrix stands in front of a stunning 20 by 30-foot statue of an American flag at the entrance to one of her pet projects: the new Beloit Ironworks Campus. Since Kane’s death, it has spent $85 million to redevelop the space, once a steel mill (the flag is made of 230 reclaimed models of machinery), into a gleaming complex that includes the local YMCA, the Beloit Chamber of Commerce and 46 small businesses, with 1,800 employees.
Hendricks has a lot on her plate. A twice cancer survivor — uterine cancer at 33 and breast cancer at 69 — she is president of NorthStar Medical Radisotopes, which uses nuclear medicine and radioisotopes to detect and treat certain types of cancer and heart disease. She has already invested $550 million in the company, which has generated only $10 million in sales, but it hasn’t given up. Meanwhile, after seeing less than 20% of teens in Beloit achieved a “proficiency” score on reading tests in Wisconsin, and helped fund a charter school in the city. Lincoln Academy opened last year. It’s also expanding its boutique hotel chain, moving from Beloit to Indiana, Idaho, and California.
the only real The obstacle is time. “This is the most frustrating part of getting older,” she says. “Julie, there’s still so much – so much to do.”