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Herbert Kohler, Plumbing Mogul Who Created a Golf Mecca, Dies at 83

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Transforming a 100-year-old family-owned company known for bathtubs, toilets and faucets into a multi-billion dollar global corporation, turning a small corporate town into an unlikely destination for the world’s top golfers. Herbert V. Kohler Jr. passed away on September 3rd. He was 83 years old.

death is announced On the Kohler Company website. No cause was given.

As a young man, Kohler fulfilled his father’s wish to enter the business full-time after college.

“That wasn’t my cup of tea” he told Forbes in 2010.

But he eventually followed the path virtually set out for him when his grandfather, an Austrian immigrant, John Michael Kohler, bought a foundry in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, with his partner in 1873. rice field.

A decade later, the company, which began as a maker of plows and other farm implements, was enamelling cast-iron vessels used by patriarchs as stables and to burn pigs, and then selling them to farm families. There was a decisive change of direction. bathtub.

Kohler was literally becoming a household name.

The company’s fixtures were included in the 1929 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Contemporary Residential Design Exhibition. Colorful”Kohler’s Bold Appearanceadvertising campaign was introduced in 1967.

In 1972, when Herbert Kohler Jr. took over as head of a privately held engine and generator manufacturer, annual sales reached $133 million, making it the second-largest kitchen in the United States after American Standard. Became a manufacturer of bath equipment.

When he stepped down as CEO in 2015, the company had annual sales of $6 billion. In 2018, it was the top choice for bus fixtures and accessories among U.S. builders, according to the research firm Statista.

Under Mr. Kohler, the company acquired manufacturers of furniture, cabinets and tiles. Built or purchased factories in China, Mexico, India, Europe, etc. A two-person tub, a robotic he toilet, and a stereo he developed a sound shower.

He also started a golf and hotel business that drew three PGA Championships, one U.S. Senior Open, two U.S. Women’s Opens, and last year’s Ryder Cup to Sheboygan County, the Scottish seaside town where the game was born. I was able to leave his mark on the town.

Kohler’s vision, drive and willingness to take risks fueled the company’s growth. He may have been slow to accept his dynastic fate, but when he did, it was fun.

“I loved it,” he told Forbes.

Herbert Vollrath Kohler Jr. was born on February 20, 1939 in Sheboygan, about an hour north of Milwaukee. His father was the chairman and CEO of Kohler Corporation. His mother, Ruth (DeYoung) Kohler, was a historian and former women’s editor of the Chicago Her Tribune.

Young Herbert’s mother died when he was a teenager, and he was sent to boarding school in the East. He was originally from Phillips, New Hampshire where he attended Exeter Academy. So he told Forbes, “There were no rules or regulations that I didn’t break.”

After being fired from there, he went to Choate School in Connecticut. After serving in the Army Reserve, he studied mathematics and physics at the University of Zurich. He told the Chicago Tribune in 1994 that it was “a period of total refusal of the prescribed life”.

He returned to the United States and enrolled at Knox College in Illinois.He studied acting, dabbled in poetry, edited what he edited As explained in a 2012 interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine As a “wild political newspaper”.

“One of my friends called me ‘the first unwashed great man,'” he told Forbes. “That’s a hell of a note for the son of the Bathroom Baron.” )

While at Knox, he met his future first wife, Linda Kagerer. He was directing a play in which he was appearing. The two married in his 1961 and divorced in the 1980s.

Kohler’s attempts at independence continued at Furman College in South Carolina, where he enrolled briefly while working. However, he soon returned to Yale. He graduated with a degree in industrial management in 1965 and joined the Kohler Company as a research engineer.

He became a company director in 1967. A year after his father died, he became Vice President of Operations. Vice President in 1971. The following year he became chairman and chief executive officer.

One of the hurdles Kohler faced in taking the helm was the company’s bitter history with organized workers, including the United Auto Workers strike that began in 1954 and lasted more than six years.

Kohler told the New York Times in 1973:

His family was also in jeopardy when he lost control of the company as the value of his stock was diluted. Mr. Kohler orchestrated a reverse stock split, reducing the number of shares and giving him and his immediate family almost complete control.

Once solidified, Kohler reinvested heavily in the company. The company was already associated with innovative designs. He focused on form as well as function, opening the Kohler Design Center, a museum-like product showcase, and creating a residency program for artists with his sister Ruth.

John Torinus, who met Kohler as business editor for The Milwaukee Sentinel, described him in a phone interview as a “genius” and a “tough cookie” whose fascination with design resembled Steve Jobs.

“He was very meticulous about everything, down to the smallest detail,” said Trinas, now chairman of Serigraph in Wisconsin. Serigraph sometimes manufactures decorative parts for the products of other companies, including Kohler.

That focus arguably helps explain what design and culture writer Sarah Archer called the company’s enduring position in the bathroom firmament.

“They weren’t just selling cleanliness and modernity,” she said in an email. “They were offering a kind of mini-vacation.”

In 1985, Mr. Kohler married Natalie Black, former chief legal officer and current director of the Kohler Company. His survivors also include his son David, who has been Kohler’s chief executive since 2105 and is now also chairman of the board. Two daughters, Laura Kohler, director and senior company vice president, and Rachel Kohler, also a director. ten grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In the late 1970s, after the foundry moved to a location four miles (4 miles) west of Sheboygan in 1899, Kohler moved from a dilapidated building originally used to house the company’s employees to a resort. I decided to enter the hospitality industry by creating a hotel. Kohler town. Many around him mocked him, but he pushed forward.

“He didn’t like to give up part of his legacy,” said Richard Blodgett, author of the company-commissioned corporate history A Sense of Higher Design: The Kohlers of Kohler (2003). I’m here.

Kohler’s intuition proved correct. The hotel’s American Club opened in his 1981. Privately owned hunting and fishing reserves, tennis clubs, restaurants, shops and spas were added to quickly attract tourists.

Still, something was missing.

“You have this boutique resort hotel, but you don’t have your own golf course. 2015 interview, remembered what the customer told him. “It’s kind of embarrassing for a CEO.”

Kohler had little interest in the game, but was quickly hooked.

Working with Pete Dye, once called the Picasso of golf course design, he developed two nearby championship courses, Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits.

Kohler deepened his investment in golf in 2004, purchasing hotels along the famous Old Course and nearby Dukes Course in St Andrews, Scotland.

Not all his golf projects went smoothly. Local environmentalists have thwarted plans for a course on the Oregon coast, and the development of a new course near Kohler has been criticized by residents who oppose reliance on public lands, as well as Native American artifacts and humans on the site. has been delayed due to the discovery of the remains of

Kohler dismissed such obstacles. He was guided by these words, adapted by the 19th-century British critic John Ruskin and found in an old stained-glass window in his American Club, continued: Labor without art is brutal. “

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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