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Tuesday, August 01, 2017 11:40 am

Jim Shields, businessman and philanthropist, dies at 93

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

WaterFurnace founder Jim Shields, a local entrepreneur known for his business acumen, generosity and frankness, died this morning. He was 93.

Born in Buffalo, New York, on Aug. 13, 1923, Shields attended St. Joseph College in Rensselaer and began his career as an account executive for Merrill Lynch, a brokerage firm.

Shields founded the company now known as WaterFurnace Renewable Energy Inc. in 1983. Formerly called WaterFurnace International Inc., it operated under the umbrella of parent company WFI Industries.

The business was sold in 2014 to Swedish company NIBE Industrier AB, which paid about $350 million in cash for all outstanding shares. WaterFurnace, a subsidiary, operates as a separate entity.

Shields was inducted into the Greater Fort Wayne Business Hall of Fame in 2009 as a laureate. Keith Busse, founder of Steel Dynamics Inc., received the same honor that year.

As a philanthropist, Shields favored education- and sports-related causes. Recipients of Shields' donations included:

* Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society, which named a room after James and Margaret Shields in honor of their 2010 contribution to the building's restoration;

* University of Saint Francis, which was able to expand its athletic program onto more than 26 acres of farmland Shields bought and donated to the university in 2007;

* IPFW, which uses an endowment from Shields in 2015 to award an annual scholarship.

As a 26-year member of Memorial Coliseum's board of trustees, Shields stuck up for local taxpayers.

When the Komets' owners pushed for a $20 million expansion that would add skyboxes and more seats, some fans criticized board members for not immediately supporting the idea.

"I wasn't appointed to that board to subsidize a private enterprise," Shields said at the time. "I represent people of Allen County, and they're not all hockey fans."

When architects presented plans to expand the Coliseum in 1997, Shields didn't mince words during a public meeting.

"I want to know how we're going to pay for the damn thing," he said.

A year later, Coliseum officials considered increasing the parking fee to $3 a car from $2 to bring it more in line with similar facilities.

Again, Shields pushed back.

"Would it not be true that we're kind of being greedy and gouging the public a buck?" he asked.

Shields, who served on the board with respected late businessmen Richard Inskeep, Jack Lehman and Ed Kettler, among others, also had a pragmatic side. In 1995, he supported ending a ban on beer ads in the facility.

"We've had fewer alcohol-related incidents in this building after we started selling beer than before," he said. "So it's difficult for me to say we'll sell beer on the second floor but we won't (advertise) beer on the first."

Shields maintained a lifelong friendship with Inskeep. The two were business partners in several businesses. Inskeep died in 2014.

"Jim Shields was a Journal Gazette stockholder for many decades," said Steve Inskeep, Journal Gazette vice president and chairman of the board. "His business expertise and his friendship to our father were invaluable to the company."

Shields also served on the board of the St. Anne Home.

Business ventures Shields was involved in include the Parrot Market, Harris-Kayot, Kitco and Acme Heat Treat, among others.

Shields was a World War II veteran, having served in the U.S. Merchant Marines as an apprentice seaman and rising to the rank of 2nd officer.

Shields and his wife, Margaret, were parents of sons Michael and Timothy and daughter Patricia.

sslater@jg.net