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Started by repairing tarpaulins, Don Fell built a diverse global manufacturing operation

Started by repairing tarpaulins, Don Fell built a diverse global manufacturing operation

One of the first Hamilton entrepreneurs to take Hamilton manufacturing onto the world stage has died. Don Fell, the founder of FELLFAB, died at Hamilton General at age 85. Don Fell started his business as a teenager repairing tarpaulins, and at his death FELLFAB had grown into an international company selling products around the world from plants in Hamilton and the United States, to the aircraft industry, railways and the military. Perhaps the most visible of the FELLFAB creations was the blanket that would be seen whenever a shot of the Canada Space Arm was transmitted from outer space.

Canada Space Arm wrapped in a FELLFAB protective cover

Hamilton businessman Ron Foxcroft remembered his friend from the earliest days. “He would repair our tarps for the trucks from a garage. He said, ‘our work will be perfect, and improve every job…If you pay on time!’  Foxcroft remembered his first charitable collaboration with Don Fell. “One day 30 years ago he said, ‘Fox, Junior Achievement need money…can you spend the day tomorrow with me?’ In those days Burlington Street from east to west was bustling with industry. Everybody respected Don Fell. We started at Dofasco in the morning and ended on Bay Street at 4 PM. He said, to every company, “Fox and I are not leaving without a cheque” At 4 PM we had $75,000 for Junior Achievement.”

Later they worked together co-chairing a fundraising campaign for St. Joes. Ron recalls. “When we cochaired the campaign at St. Joes, every meeting started at 7 AM. Don was very productive…he insisted we were back in our office no later than 8:30 AM.”

Don Fell’s son recalls a story that typified the attitude of businessmen of his father’s generation towards work-life balance. “When I became legal drinking age. I had the misguided fortune of celebrating turning 18 with my friends the night before a work day.  My father woke me the next morning, bright and early and said, “time for work!”  I kindly offered to defer.  There was no way, he said we are leaving, get up.  We arrived at the office at 7:30. I forgot, that day was also the Christmas holiday celebration day at work.  At 8am, a young co-worker, who knew it was my birthday offered me a holiday drink and birthday celebration.  I kindly said, “no… I will get one later!”  My father was within earshot, he turned and looked at me and I knew to take the drink.  I thanked the person for the drink and drank it.  Later my father caught up with me and said, ‘If you can play hard, you can work hard!’ That was 40yrs ago and I still remember it.  I hope I have been able to honour that standard through the years.”

From its humble beginnings repairing tarps, and making the canvas bags that newspaper carriers used to use; FELLFAB branched out into virtually any product that involved working with industrial fabrics. By the 1980’s the company was spreading its wings into international markets. During the Balkan war the company supplied 50,000 Kevlar vests to Canadian forces. A big part of the company’s businesses is manufacturing seats for planes and trains. In 2009, Fellfab Limited was one of 15 companies named Supplier of the Year by American aircraft maker Boeing. When COVID hit, Fellfab was one of the early Canadian companies to re-tool to manufacture PPE.

His obituary reads in part, “he was so looking forward to the 70th anniversary of FELLFAB next month, and his family will proudly carry on his legacy. While his business was a major focus in his life, Don was a tenacious fundraising champion for many organizations in the city of Hamilton, where he was born and raised. He believed that giving back was a privilege and was what made a city great. He supported the hospitals, the disabled, Around the Bay Road Race, the arts and countless others. He was a humble community leader, entrepreneur, mentor, innovator and philanthropist who shunned recognition, though he was very deserving.”

Recognizing Don Fell’s contribution to various fundraising efforts for St. Joseph’s Heathcare The hospital foundation issued a statement:

“We were deeply saddened to learn of Don’s passing. We feel so very fortunate to have counted Don amongst St. Joseph’s most dedicated volunteers and steadfast supporters. He served on the Board of Directors of St. Joseph’s Healthcare Foundation from 2006 – 2015 and was co-chair of our Timeless Care, Tomorrow’s Discoveries campaign, helping to raise more than $87 million for our Hospital. His commitment to St. Joe’s was honoured with a Mission Legacy Award in 2013 – it’s the highest honour bestowed by St. Joseph’s Health System. Don’s impact on our Foundation and Hospital will not be forgotten and we offer our most sincere condolences to Don’s family and friends as our community and our Foundation mourns alongside them.”

Sera Filice-Armenio, President & CEO, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Foundation

Summing up, Ron Foxcroft told the Bay Observer, “Don Fell was an amazing business man, and even more amazing person. He founded Work Able Services in Hamilton.  He started with a goal to find 100 jobs for disadvantaged people. He succeeded, as Don always set achievable goals, and never stopped until the goal was reached. Hamilton business leaders always returned phone calls from Don Fell.  He was enormously respected and admired.”

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