THE NORTHERN Irish entrepreneur Fred Wilson, who built a global company from a small family-run engineering firm, has died at the age of 84.
Mr Wilson, founder of FG Wilson, a leading employer in the North, is widely acknowledged as one of Northern Ireland’s foremost industrialists.
FG Wilson is one of the largest manufacturers of generator sets in the world and employs more than 3,000 people.
The North’s Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said that Mr Wilson’s “hard work ethic and forward thinking vision” was the reason why FG Wilson is a market leader today in the field of engineering.
Mr Wilson was born in Moira, Co Antrim in 1926, and left school when he was 12 to work as an apprentice fitter in a factory.
By 18, he was showing characteristics that would one day make him one of Northern Ireland’s most globally-successful businessman.
He later set up his own scrap-metal enterprise before acquiring his first company, the Island Shipping Company factory in Lisburn, in 1958.
Mr Wilson designed and patented a new forklift truck product in the early 1960s, the first in a long series of innovations from which he grew an international multimillion pound business. In 1966 he set up FG Wilson in Belfast and began to make some of the earliest diesel generator sets.
Demand for its generators grew not just in neighbouring markets but across the world, particularly in the Middle East. The company developed a somewhat romantic reputation for bringing electricity to isolated Bedouin tribes.
In 1978 FG Wilson Engineering (Dublin) was established to take advantage of a growing Irish market for electricity supply.
A huge upturn in demand for small capacity generator sets driven by widespread electricity cuts in the UK as a result of the miners’ strike helped the company to achieve record turnover during the mid-1980s.
A decade later, FG Wilson had grown from a small family firm to a sizable global organisation with offices and customers from South Africa to the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
In 1995, the Wilson family sold FG Wilson to the American corporation Emerson Electric and in 1999, the same year that Mr Wilson retired, it became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Caterpillar.
Last year Mr Wilson received an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in recognition of his “contribution to entrepreneurship and engineering.”
He may have officially retired 10 years earlier, but in his 1980s he was still involved in another business start-up which specialises in the manufacture of golf buggy products.
Mr Wilson was a passionate supporter of business in the North and his drive and enthusiasm helped create and sustain jobs, particularly during the Troubles, when investment in the local economy was scarce.
Like Allen McClay, another key Northern Ireland entrepreneur who founded two pharmaceutical companies and created thousands of jobs in the North, he is irreplaceable.
Mark Sweeny, the managing director of FG Wilson, yesterday described Fred Wilson as “an inspirational, highly entrepreneurial and well-respected businessman”.
“His vision and enterprise have left a strong legacy at this company,” he added.