WaterFurnace founder Jim Shields, a local entrepreneur known for his business acumen, generosity and frankness, died Tuesday following a stroke. 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.
Shields later said geothermal heating and cooling was a gamble but “sounded right.”
“Using the energy stored in the earth to transfer heat to and from your home just made good sense,” he said.
Shields' business ventures included the Parrot Market, Harris-Kayot, Kitco, Acme Heat Treat and Huntington Electric, among others.
“I believe that if you have the money to invest and you can employ others, you are doing something worthwhile,” he once said.
That included investing in local print media.
“Jim Shields has been 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 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 expand its athletic program onto more than 26 acres of farmland Shields bought and donated to the university in 2007.
• IPFW, which uses a 2015 endowment from Shields to award an annual scholarship.
Sister Elise Kriss, USF president, said Shields supported the football program in numerous ways, including serving on the athletics committee and attending games in all but the worst weather.
By donating land for the athletics program, Jim and Margaret Shields supported both athletics and academics, Kriss said. Moving athletics to the west of campus allowed academics to expand on the east side.
“He thought long term,” Kriss said.
Shields, who enjoyed a good cigar, also enjoyed giving to the athletic program. But his wife preferred to support academics, Kriss said. They typically split the difference by donating equal amounts to each.
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.
Randy Brown, the Coliseum's general manager, remembers meeting Shields many years ago as a newcomer to the community. Brown, who moved here from a college environment, sported some chin whiskers at that time.
“He looked up at me and said, 'Do you really want to keep that beard?'” Brown recalled, laughing. “Apparently, I didn't.”
Tangling with Shields made Brown a better manager, in the younger man's opinion. Brown devised what he referred to as “the Shields test.” Brown knew that if he gathered enough data to persuade even Shields to support an investment, the project was well-prepared for success.
“It's one thing to build something, but how are you going to maintain it? How are you going to operate it?” Brown said, repeating questions Shields asked over the years. But there were no lasting hard feelings.
“He was a dear friend of the building,” Brown said Tuesday. “For me, it's a lot like losing a family member. That's how much he meant to me.”
A World War II veteran, Shields served in the U.S. Merchant Marines as an apprentice seaman and rose to the rank of 2nd officer.
Shields and his wife, Margaret, were parents of sons Michael and Timothy and daughter Patricia.