'The Club' inventor dies in car crash

Sharon businessman made millions from car anti-theft device

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Steve Gurgovits, president of First National Bank in Hermitage, recalls the day 25 years ago when local businessman James E. Winner Jr. came into his office carrying a paper bag.

"He sat down and sort of had a grin on his face," Mr. Gurgovits said on Wednesday. "He said, 'This is my next venture.' He opened the bag and pulled out a club and put it on my desk. I said, 'What is it?' He said, 'I'm going to call it 'The Club.' "

The device, a simple steering-wheel lock, was a prototype of what would become the most ubiquitous anti-car theft device in the world.

Mr. Gurgovits was skeptical, but he'd known Mr. Winner for years as an energetic entrepreneur and took a chance on financing the new product. The Club made millions for Mr. Winner, the classic local boy who made good, and he took pride in his success.

"He used to get a joy out of coming in and showing me his financial statement," laughed Mr. Gurgovits.

Mr. Winner, who parlayed The Club into a business network that fueled various philanthropic efforts in Sharon in the tradition of his hero, turn-of-the-century Sharon Steel magnate Frank Buhl, was killed Tuesday in a head-on collision in Clarion County that claimed the lives of two other people.

State police said Mr. Winner, 81, who split time between homes in Mercer County and Hollywood Beach, Fla., was driving his Lexus on Miola Road in Highland at about 4:40 p.m. when his car crossed the center line into the opposite lane and hit a Chevy Blazer driven by Bobby Jarrett, 82, of Forest County.

Mr. Jarrett and his passenger, Raymond Fair, 76, of Tylersburg in Clarion County, were both killed.

Mr. Winner's company, Sharon-based Winner International, said company officials and family members would not be available but issued a statement saying they appreciated the "outpouring" of support.

The Winner family -- his wife, Donna, and their four children -- requested privacy.

Mr. Winner, whose Sharon-area enterprises over the years have included a hotel, two fancy inns, a department store and a steel processing plant, created Winner International in 1986 to market The Club.

According to the company's website, he came up with the idea after his Cadillac was stolen. As an Army veteran in Korea, the story goes, he remembered how he had secured his vehicle's steering wheel with a chain to keep thieves from being able to steer. "If they can't steer it," he said, "they can't steal it."

The son of a dairy farmer in Transfer, Mr. Winner went to Shenango Valley Business College in Sharon and then sold chemicals, women's clothing, theft-deterrent systems and other products before striking it rich with The Club. Although he was a marketer without much mechanical sense, he called himself the "inventor" of the device.

But that claim has always been in doubt. In the early 1990s, he paid $10 million to settle a federal suit brought in Akron by a Cleveland mechanic, Charles Johnson, who claimed to be the true inventor. Mr. Winner said he had paid Mr. Johnson a consulting fee to build the device but insisted he came up with the refinements, such as the two curved prongs that lock the steering wheel.

"It's no question," he told the Post-Gazette in 1993. "It's all my concept."

He said he decided to settle the case to clear the way for taking his company public.

Although The Club's effectiveness has been challenged and the Federal Trade Commission in 1992 ordered the company to stop touting a Fraternal Order of Police endorsement in its ads, the product is recognized around the world and has led to an array of other Winner security devices.

Mr. Winner became a hometown celebrity and something of a savior in Mercer County, buying and fixing up properties in long-suffering Sharon and holding fundraisers for charities such as Shoe the Children, a program to buy footwear for needy kids.

"I have a very, very strong personal conviction about our social responsibility to the community," Mr. Winner once said. "That's the stuff that excites me."

Mr. Winner's friends in the Sharon business community said he was the city's biggest booster.

"He was a very energetic businessman. Along with that, he was also very much involved in community activities and charities. He's been a great contributor," said George Warren, co-founder of Sharon-based Quaker Steak & Lube and a longtime associate of Mr. Winner's.

His efforts to pump up tourism earned him accolades throughout the county.

He bought the once-vacant May Department Store building and turned it into the headquarters for Winner International and an off-price clothing store; the profits on all sales go to local charities.

In the mid-1980s, he and his wife purchased the abandoned 1854 Koonce mansion in Clark and turned it into Tara - A Country Inn, which opened in 1986. The Winners lived in a wing of the inn when they weren't in Florida or at their mountain home near Cook Forest.

In 1996, they restored another neglected landmark, the Buhl Mansion, and turned it into a luxury inn and spa. Mr. Winner was also instrumental in starting the Vocal Group Hall of Fame on West State Street in Sharon, partnering with Tony Butala of the 1960s trio The Lettermen. Although the museum has closed, the hall continues to induct members.

"Some of the things he's done are well-known, but for every one that's known there are five others that aren't," said Mr. Gurgovits, who was Mr. Winner's friend for 50 years.

Earlier this year, Mr. Winner and his wife won the 2010 Bill Knecht Tourism Award from Visit Mercer County PA, the county's tourism department, for promoting tourism in the region since the 1970s.

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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