Jimi Heselden, 62

Millionaire owner of Segway, philanthropist

Jimi Heselden contributed about $36.8 million to charity over the years.
Jimi Heselden contributed about $36.8 million to charity over the years. (Andy Paraskos)
  Enlarge Photo    
By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Jimi Heselden, 62, a high school dropout and coal miner who became one of England's wealthiest men after inventing a protective barrier used in battle zones, died Sept. 26 in northern England after an accident aboard a Segway.

Mr. Heselden, whose fortune was estimated at a quarter of a billion dollars, had purchased the Segway company in December for an undisclosed amount.

Police said Mr. Heselden apparently drove a Segway over a cliff and into a river bordering his estate near Leeds. Police said his death appeared accidental.

Mr. Heselden grew up in Leeds and left school at 15 to become a coal miner. After he was laid off during a strike in 1984, he used his severance pay and expert knowledge on geology to form his business.

Mr. Heselden was chairman of Hesco Bastion, adefense contractor that has had worldwide success with the Concertainer system, billed by the company as a modern version of sandbags.

Based on the medieval defense system of gabions - wicker baskets crammed with stones - Mr. Heselden designed the Bastion, a collapsible wire box lined with fabric and filled with aggregate dirt, sand and rocks to form a makeshift wall. Capable of withstanding powerful blasts and inclement weather, the Bastions can be built quickly anywhere.

Mr. Heselden made millions of dollars marketing the containers for military usage during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and more than 38 miles of the barriers were used to protect U.N. troops during the Bosnian conflict. They are widely used today in Iraq and Afghanistan and were recently deployed to the American shoreline during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Mr. Heselden was a large investor in the United Kingdom Segway distributorship and bought the U.S. Segway company in December. The two-wheeled machines, invented by Dean Kamen in the late 1990s, have become a phenomenon.

They employ a sensitive gyroscope as an accelerator and steering mechanism. The battery-powered machines have a top speed of 12 mph and have a sharp turning radius. Segways are valued as a go-to mode of transportation for tourists, commuters, golfers, polo players and amputees.

For disabled service members who work in the Pentagon, the Segway has become a popular alternative to a wheelchair or crutches for moving about the building's vast network of rings and corridors.

James William Heselden was born in Leeds on March 27, 1948. He was publicity shy in the extreme, having apparently never granted a news interview. Yet he made his presence known through philanthropic efforts.

He gave about $16 million to a Leeds-based community group, and his company said in a statement that Mr. Heselden had contributed about $36.8 million to charity over the years.

"I'm a self-made entrepreneur," Mr. Heselden once said. "I believe that if someone makes it in business, they should donate something to charities and people in need."

Survivors include his wife, Julie Heselden of Leeds; five children; and eight grandchildren.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company