Wisconsin lost one of its most successful, visionary and iconic business leaders when Herbert V. Kohler Jr. – 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 recently at the age of 83.
Growing up, Kohler spent many summers as a laborer on the Kohler farms and in most of the manufacturing divisions of Kohler Co. He rejoined the family business full time as an R&D technician shortly after graduation from college in 1965. Kohler became a member of the company’s board in 1967. When his father, who was chairman and chief executive officer of the company, died a year later, he became vice president of operations.
Kohler was elected chairman of the board and CEO in 1972 and president 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.
During his 43-year span as CEO, Kohler grew the 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. Kohler formed the Kohler Interiors Group – the company’s furniture, tile and decorative products division – with several acquisitions and also built up the Kohler Power business and expanded its portfolio with a series of acquisitions.
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 opposed, but Kohler persisted with it.
Skeptics doubted people would come to stay at a luxury resort in Sheboygan County. But Kohler believed a top-notch resort would be a draw. Today, The American Club is the Midwest’s only AAA Five Diamond Resort Hotel.
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 courses have hosted several championship professional golf tournaments, establishing Wisconsin as a world-class golf destination. Blackwolf Run twice hosted the U.S. Women’s Open. Whistling Straits hosted the PGA Championship three times, the U.S. Senior Open, and the Ryder Cup in 2021.
In 2015, Kohler became the company’s executive chairman, with his son David taking the helm as president and CEO. Following Herb Kohler’s death, the company’s board of directors elected David Kohler to serve as board chair 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. “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. … 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.”
In a 2007 cover story interview for BizTimes Milwaukee (then known as Small Business Times), Kohler provided insight on his leadership philosophy. Here is a portion of that interview:
BizTimes: What key philosophies and best practices are most important to your company’s success?
Kohler:“The first best practice is that we are privately held. Our people are not focused on quarterly results, even though we maintain many of the disciplines of publicly held corporations. We look at longer-term results. And we’re considerably different than a corporation owned by private equity. Those folks have mountains of debt and have to suffer the rigors of extracting cash from those companies. Our weakest competitors are either publicly held or owned by private equity.
“We have a mission. Everyone in this company, regardless of what business they are in … are in pursuit of this mission. Our mission is to raise the level of gracious living of everyone touched by our products and services. That means that every customer … that buys a plumbing product, or an engine or a generator, plays a game of golf or stays in a hotel room, comes away feeling strongly positive about that experience. So much so that if that person talks about that experience a year from now or five years from now, invariably that person will smile. If we produce smiles, we’ve done our job. Not just momentary smiles, but deep-seeded smiles. If we produce smiles consistently, we are attaining our mission. But we have to do it thousands upon thousands of times every day.
“Now, to do that, we have a couple of guiding principles. The first is that we live on the leading edge in design and technology in products and processes. Nothing we do can be a copy. With a copy, you’re not on the leading edge. That guiding principle, if we in fact do it consistently, is what makes this place so much fun because we are all charged with doing something better today than anything we did yesterday or the day before. Our job is to bring something new to this world, continually, and not clutter it up with the same old thing.
“The second principle is that we have a single standard of quality in everything we do. Making an engine, making a bathtub, producing a restaurant. It’s that single standard of quality above the norm that creates the reputation of Kohler.
“And then there’s a third principle that’s pretty important. And that is we take 90% of our earnings and reinvest it back into the business year after year after year. And that produces the fuel for growth.”
BizTimes: How would you describe your leadership style, and how would you say it compares to the leadership styles of the other members of your family that have run this company?
Kohler: “We’re all different. What I bring to the party is ideas and the little sparks of fire, of interest, of potential. What we have in common is that we have this mission and this same set of guiding principles, and that’s far more important, ultimately far more important than simply trying to drive a profit and loss statement. We will get much better results, financially, by driving the mission with guiding principles than we will (being driven by) a P&L and a balance sheet.”