James E. Winner Jr., 81, considered Sharon and Mercer County’s leading businessman, was killed in an accident Tuesday.
According to state police, Winner’s Lexus sport utility vehicle crashed into another SUV about 4:40 p.m. Tuesday on Miola Road, Highland Township, in Clarion County. The driver and passenger of the other SUV also were killed, police reported.
Winner’s business interests included The Club, the motor vehicle anti-theft device; The Winner, a women’s clothing store in Sharon; the Buhl Mansion Guesthouse and Spa in Sharon; the Radisson Hotel in Shenango Township; Tara, the restaurant and inn in Clark; and the former Winner Steel, now known as Sharon Coating.
Like his idol, Sharon industrialist Frank Buhl, Winner also gave tirelessly to charitable causes and was director emeritus of the Shenango Valley Foundation.
“Jim was just a great man and did more behind the scenes than people even knew,” said the Rev. Larry Haynes, executive director of the foundation.
Steve Gurgovits, chief executive officer of Hermitage-based FNB Corp., said, “There aren’t a lot of people I can think of who can fill his shoes. He did everything in his power to support the community.”
While Winner’s name often was all over his business ventures, his philanthropic activities, such as starting the foundation’s Students for Charity activities that promoted charitable giving in schools, generally were less obvious.
Haynes called Winner’s loss “huge” for the community. “I don’t think the community even understands it,” he said.
Although he served in the Army in the Korean War, he never went to college — something he felt put him behind a few steps.
What launched the Winner empire was when he helped to develop and market a car anti-theft device called The Club in the mid-1980s. He gradually built up a sales network that shipped 4 million clubs annually to retailers. In 1986, he created Winner International Inc. to market the club. The company was his most successful endeavor.
Winner was an admirer of Buhl, the early 20th century industrialist and philanthropist. He bought Buhl’s desk and globe in 1993 to keep his inspiration nearby.
He eventually bought the former Buhl Mansion on East State Street, which he transformed into a bed and breakfast. In the 1980s, he bought the Koonce Mansion in Clark, which he also converted into a bed and breakfast — Tara.
At one point, he owned nearly 30 business properties in the Shenango Valley.
Throughout his successful business life, Winner never forgot his roots. He founded the Winner Institute of Arts and Sciences in the former Transfer Elementary School in Pymatuning Township, which he bought in 1996.
Winner said he always believed he needed to give back to the area, and in 1991, created The Winner Foundation, a non-profit organization that is part of the Community Foundation of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
The foundation has contributed thousands of dollars to local endeavors, ranging from college scholarships to charitable needs of area schools, churches and agencies.
He and his family were the creators of the Shoe Our Children program, which annually donates hundreds of pairs of shoes to area school children.
He also demanded Winner International practice tithing, whereby 10 percent of the its profits went to charity. The Winner, the off-price fashion store he created, donated all its profits to charity.
Throughout the 1990s, Winner was particularly interested in buying buildings in downtown Sharon. He was one of the key benefactors in organizing the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and Museum.
Winner said the reason he bought so many downtown buildings was he wanted to give the city a boost after being decimated by industrial plant closings of the 1980s.
And he wanted Sharon to become a destination for travelers.