Herb Kohler dies at 83

Herbert V. Kohler Jr.
Herbert V. Kohler Jr.

Last updated on September 9th, 2022 at 02:14 pm

Herbert V. Kohler Jr., one of Wisconsin’s most iconic business leaders who led and transformed the Kohler Co., founded by his grandfather, into a global giant and developed golf courses in Sheboygan County that established the state as an internationally-known golf destination died Saturday in Kohler at the age of 83, the company announced today.

Born in 1939 in Chicago, Kohler was the son of Herbert V. Kohler Sr., who was the son of Kohler Co. founder John Michael Kohler, who established the business in 1873. Herbert V. Kohler Sr. was chairman and CEO of Kohler Co. from 1940 until his death in 1968.

While growing up, Herbert V. Kohler Jr. spent many summers as a laborer on the Kohler farms and in most of the manufacturing divisions of Kohler Co. He graduated from Yale in 1965.

Kohler rejoined the family business full-time as an R&D technician shortly after graduation from college. He became a member of the company’s board in 1967, and when his father died a year later, he became vice president of operations.

He was named executive vice president in 1971, was elected chairman of the board and CEO in 1972, and president of the company in 1974 – at the age of 35.

Kohler transformed the company, a manufacturer of bathroom fixtures, which influenced how Americans thought of the design of their kitchens and bathrooms.

In 1967 the company launched The Bold Look of Kohler, a marketing campaign featuring toilets, bathtubs, sinks and other fixtures in unique colors.

Kohler seized on The Bold Look of Kohler as a new guiding spirit for the company, positioning it as a producer and provider of high-end products and services. He used The Bold Look of Kohler to promote the company’s products as not merely utilitarian, but high-quality pieces that made statements of design and style, especially for luxury bathrooms and kitchens. That approach was a major contributor to high-end design trends for kitchens and bathrooms in general.

During his 43-year span as CEO, Kohler transformed his family-owned company into a world leader, with more than 40,000 employees and dozens of manufacturing facilities on six continents.

Helping to drive that growth, the company made more than 48 acquisitions under Kohler’s leadership. This began with Sterling Faucet Co. that joined the Kohler family of businesses in 1984, followed by French plumbing company Jacob Delafon in 1986, and U.K. shower manufacturer Mira in 2001.

Kohler formed the Kohler Interiors Group, the company’s furniture, title and decorative products division, acquiring premium luxury brands Baker Furniture, McGuire Furniture Company, Ann Sacks Tile and Stone, Kallista plumbing, and Robern mirrored cabinets.

Kohler also built up the company’s other core business – Kohler Power – and expanded the portfolio with a series of acquisitions including Italian diesel engine manufacturer Lombardini in 2007 and France-based generator company SDMO in 2005. Today, Kohler Co. is the third largest global power systems organization in the world, according to the company.

Perhaps Kohler’s most high-profile move in leading the company was the establishment of its hospitality division. That began in the late 1970s, when he decided to redevelop The American Club, originally built as an immigrant workers’ dormitory in 1918, into a luxury resort. It was a move that the company’s board of directors twice rejected, but Kohler persisted with it.

Skeptics doubted that people would come to stay at a luxury resort in Sheboygan County. But Kohler believed that if the resort was of top-quality, it would be a draw.

Today, The American Club is the Midwest’s only AAA Five Diamond Resort Hotel, a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America program, and among a handful globally to have both the AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five-Star designations.

The success of the American Club led to Kohler’s decision to build world-class golf courses in Sheboygan County. After seeing many American Club guests playing golf at local golf courses, Kohler decided to build his own, first Blackwolf Run in Kohler, which opened in 1988, and then Whistling Straits, which opened in 1998 north of Sheboygan.

Those golf courses have hosted several championship professional golf tournaments that have established Wisconsin as a world-class golf destination. Blackwolf Run has twice hosted the U.S. Women’s Open. Whistling Straits hosted the PGA Championship three times, the U.S. Senior Open, and last year hosted the Ryder Cup.

In 2015, Kohler became the company’s executive chairman, with his son David taking the helm as president and CEO.

Herb Kohler Jr. served Kohler Co. for 61 years.

“Herb Kohler’s personal mission was to create delight,” the company said in a news release today. “For him, there was no halfway. To warrant the ‘Kohler’ nameplate, a product had to be more than durable, functional, and attractive. It had to be joyful and memorable.”

“His zest for life, adventure and impact inspires all of us. We traveled together, celebrated together, and worked together. He was all in, all the time, leaving an indelible mark on how we live our lives today and carry on his legacy,” said his family.

“He was admired by many as an accomplished, dynamic leader; independent-minded entrepreneur; courageous innovator; and passionate creative. Herb, more than anyone, lived and breathed Kohler Co.’s mission of providing customers with gracious living each day. He was a big personality who was steadfast in guiding Kohler associates in the relentless pursuit of the company mission, and he took immense joy in witnessing his customers’ delight firsthand,” the company said.

“If I sell you a bathtub, there has to be something about it that gives you pleasure not only at the time of the transaction. Years later, we want you to think this is one of the best buys of your life,” he once said in an interview. “The same applies with everything we provide – an engine, generator, toilet, table, hotel room, spa service, golf course, you name it. If you think about it five years later and, inwardly or outwardly, it makes you smile and we can do this consistently, then we’re living up to our mission.”

The family plans to host a private funeral service. At a date to be determined, Kohler Co. will host a tribute to Herb Kohler for employees past and present.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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