Herbert Kohler, Plumbing Mogul Who Created a Golf Mecca, Dies at 83
Herbert V. Kohler Jr., who built a century-old family business known for bathtubs, toilets and faucets into a multibillion-dollar global enterprise and turned a tiny company town into an unlikely stop for the world’s top golfers, died on Sept. 3 in Kohler, Wis. He was 83.
The death was announced on the Kohler Company website. No cause was cited.
As a young man, Mr. Kohler bridled at his father’s wish that he join the business full time after college.
“That just wasn’t my cup of tea,” he told Forbes in 2010.
But he ultimately took the path that had effectively been set for him when his grandfather John Michael Kohler, an Austrian immigrant, bought a Sheboygan, Wis., foundry with a partner in 1873.
The company, which began as a maker of plows and other agricultural implements, took a defining turn 10 years later when its patriarch put enamel on a cast-iron vessel used as a horse trough and for scalding hogs and sold it to farm families as a bathtub.
Kohler was on its way to literally becoming a household name.
The company’s fixtures were included in a 1929 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of contemporary home design. Its colorful “The Bold Look of Kohler” advertising campaign was introduced in 1967.
By 1972, when Herbert Kohler Jr. took the top job at the privately held business, which also made engines and generators, it had $133 million in annual sales and was the second-largest U.S. producer of kitchen and bath fixtures, behind American Standard.
When he retired as chief executive in 2015, it had annual sales of $6 billion. In 2018 it was the top choice for bath fixtures and accessories among U.S. builders, according to the research firm Statista.
Under Mr. Kohler, the company acquired makers of furniture, cabinets and tiles; built or bought factories in China, Mexico, India, Europe and elsewhere; and developed two-person bathtubs, robotic toilets and a shower with stereo sound.
He also started a golf and hotel business that attracted three P.G.A. championships, a U.S. Senior Open, two U.S. Women’s Opens and last year’s Ryder Cup to Sheboygan County and allowed him to put his mark on the seaside Scottish town where the game was born.
Mr. Kohler’s vision, drive and appetite for risk fueled the company’s growth. He might have been slow to embrace his dynastic destiny, but when he did, it was with gusto.
“I loved it,” he told Forbes, “because I saw so much potential for change.”
Herbert Vollrath Kohler Jr. was born on Feb. 20, 1939, in Sheboygan, about an hour north of Milwaukee. His father was the Kohler Company’s chairman and chief executive. His mother, Ruth (De Young) Kohler, was a historian and a former women’s editor at The Chicago Tribune.
Young Herbert’s mother died when he was a teenager, and he was sent east to boarding school, initially at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where, he told Forbes, “there wasn’t a rule or regulation I didn’t break.”
Dismissed from there, he went to the Choate School in Connecticut. After graduating, he entered Yale, his father’s alma mater, but he lacked focus and left. He served in the Army Reserve and then studied math and physics at the University of Zurich. It was, he told The Chicago Tribune in 1994, “a period of total rejection of a prescribed life.”
Returning to the United States, he enrolled at Knox College in Illinois. He studied acting, dabbled in poetry and edited what he described in a 2012 interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine as a “wild political newspaper.”
“One of my friends called me ‘the first of the great unwashed,’” he told Forbes. “That’s a hell of a note for the son of a bathroom baron.” (At the time, he was mostly estranged from his father. “I seldom spoke to the poor man,” he said.)
While at Knox, he met his future first wife, Linda Karger, who was directing a play he was in. They married in 1961 and divorced in the 1980s.
Mr. Kohler’s attempt at independence continued at Furman University in South Carolina, where he enrolled briefly while also working. But he was soon back at Yale. He graduated in 1965 with a degree in industrial administration and joined the Kohler Company as a research technician.
He became a company director in 1967; vice president of operations a year later, when his father died; executive vice president in 1971; and chairman and chief executive a year after that.
One hurdle Mr. Kohler faced in taking the helm was the company’s bitter history with organized labor, including a United Auto Workers strike that began in 1954 and lasted more than six years — the longest such walkout in U.S. history at the time.
“Rightly or wrongly, everyone knew the name Kohler because of the strike,” Mr. Kohler told The New York Times in 1973. (There have been two, much shorter, strikes since then, in 1983 and 2015.)
The family was also in danger at the time of having its control of the company slip away amid a dilution of its shares’ value. Mr. Kohler engineered a reverse stock split that slashed the number of shares and gave him and his closest relatives near-total control.
With his position solidified, Mr. Kohler reinvested heavily in the company, which was already associated with innovative design. He kept the emphasis on form as well as function, opening the Kohler Design Center, a museumlike product showplace, and, with his sister, Ruth, creating a residency program for artists.
John Torinus, who got to know Mr. Kohler as business editor of The Milwaukee Sentinel, described him in a phone interview as a “genius” and a “tough cookie” whose fascination with design resembled that of Steve Jobs.
“He was very particular about everything, down to the smallest detail,” said Mr. Torinus, who is now the chairman of Serigraph, a Wisconsin company that makes decorative parts for other businesses’ products, including, sometimes, Kohler’s.
That focus undoubtedly helps explain what Sarah Archer, a design and culture writer, called the company’s enduring place in the bathroom firmament.
“They weren’t just selling cleanliness or modernity,” she said via email. “They were offering a kind of mini-vacation.”
Mr. Kohler married Natalie Black, a former chief legal officer and current board member of the Kohler Company, in 1985. She survives him. His survivors also include a son, David, Kohler’s chief executive since 2105 and now its board chairman as well; two daughters, Laura Kohler, a board member and senior company vice president, and Rachel Kohler, also a board member; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In the late 1970s, Mr. Kohler decided to get into the hospitality trade by making a resort hotel out of a run-down building that had originally been used to house company workers after the foundry moved four miles west of Sheboygan in 1899 to what became the town of Kohler. Many people around him scoffed, but he forged ahead.
“He didn’t like to give up on anything that was part of his heritage,” said Richard Blodgett, the author of “A Sense of Higher Design: The Kohlers of Kohler” (2003), a company-commissioned corporate history.
Mr. Kohler’s instincts proved correct. The hotel, the American Club, opened in 1981. Augmented by a private hunting and fishing preserve, a tennis club, restaurants, shops and a spa, it was soon a tourist magnet.
Still, something was missing.
“You have this boutique resort hotel, but you don’t have your own golf course,” Mr. Kohler, speaking in a 2015 interview, recalled customers telling him. “That’s kind of embarrassing for a C.E.O.”
Mr. Kohler had little interest in the game, but he quickly immersed himself in it.
Working with Pete Dye, who was once called the Picasso of golf-course design, he developed two nearby championship-caliber courses, Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits.
Mr. Kohler deepened his golf investment in 2004, buying a hotel alongside the famous Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, and the nearby Duke’s Course.
Not all his golf projects have gone smoothly. Local environmentalists thwarted plans for a course on the Oregon coast, and the development of a new one near Kohler has been slowed by residents opposed to its reliance on public land, and by the discovery of Native American artifacts and human remains on the property.
Mr. Kohler shrugged off such obstacles. He pressed on, guided by a phrase adapted from the 19th-century British critic John Ruskin and found in an old stained-glass window at the American Club: “Life without labor is guilt. Labor without art is brutality.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.