NEW YORK — Fred W. Wenzel, a founding director of Kellwood Co. and its first chairman, died Friday in Sarasota, Fla., after a long heart-related illness. He was 86.

"Kellwood’s foundation was built with [Wenzel’s] integrity, character and business principles," said Hal Upbin, the sportswear giant’s current chairman, president and chief executive. "His legacy and spirit are at the heart of what Kellwood is today."

A native of St. Louis, Wenzel became chairman emeritus of the company in 1991, 30 years after 15 suppliers of soft goods to Sears merged to form Kellwood. Wenzel was president of Hawthorn Co., a camping equipment maker that he founded in 1952, and one of the original founding companies.

Following the merger, Wenzel retained his position as president of Hawthorn and also became vice president and a founding director of Kellwood. He was elected the company’s first chairman in 1964. He soon added the title of president but relinquished that post in 1976, continuing as ceo until 1984.

Under Wenzel’s leadership, Kellwood grew from that initial group of 15 separate companies into one of the largest publicly held soft goods companies in the country, with sales of more than $2.3 billion today.

"It’s reasonable to say my dad is the one who emerged to become a corporate leader as opposed to continuing as head of his division of Kellwood," said Robert Wenzel. "All of those people stayed, but they stayed as division heads. He’s the one who had the vision and leadership to turn it into a true corporation."

Indeed, upon his retirement, the senior Wenzel was quoted in a company-written tribute to him that, "Initially, it was conceived that Kellwood Corporate would only be the bank and do the accounting. Everyone would run his own business as he had in the past. Well, that lasted about 24 hours. Hawthorn was the only division that had any experience in selling anyone besides Sears….One of the original corporate objectives…was to have Kellwood begin to sell to other customers."

An enthusiastic outdoorsman, Wenzel’s interests included farming, fly-fishing, quail hunting and training bird dogs. He operated a 5,500-acre farm in southwestern Georgia, where he grew peanuts. In his later years, he enjoyed yearly trips to Arctic Russia with his son, where they fly-fished for Atlantic salmon. He relocated to Sarasota in 2000.Wenzel served as a director on numerous corporate and charitable boards. These included Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc., Seven-Up Co., Missouri Portland Cement Co., Mercantile Bancorporation Inc., Mercantile Trust Co. N.A., United Energy Resources Inc., United Gas Pipe Line Co., Boy Scouts of America, Central Institute for the Deaf and the United Fund of Greater St. Louis.

In 1975, he received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award for 25 years of exemplary service in his business and public life. He was also a member of Beta Gamma Sigma, the national business administration honor society.

Besides his son of Port Charlotte, Fla., he is survived by his wife of 63 years, the former Mary Edna Cruzen; two grandchildren and a brother.

Services will be held Saturday in Sarasota. Memorial contributions may be made to the Greater St. Louis Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

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