Herb Kohler: 1939-2022

By Mike Brezonick06 September 2022

Dynamic leader and Kohler Co. Executive Chairman Herbert Vollrath Kohler, Jr. passed away on Sept. 3 , in Kohler, Wis. He was 83. His ideas and hands-on leadership transformed the plumbing products manufacturer founded by his grandfather into a global and diverse family of businesses that includes power generation systems and engines, .

Herb Kohler Herb Kohler

“His zest for life, adventure and impact inspires all of us,” said his family in a statement. “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.”

“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,” Herb Kohler once said in an interview. “Years later, we want you to think this is one of the best buys of your life.

“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.”

Early life

Herb Kohler was born in Chicago on Feb. 20, 1939. His father Herbert V. Kohler, Sr., son of Kohler Co. founder John Michael Kohler, served as board chairman and CEO of Kohler Co. from 1940 until his death in 1968. His mother Ruth De Young Kohler was a historian and former women’s editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Herb was educated at the Kohler schools in Kohler, Wis., and at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn. After serving with the U.S. Army Reserve, studying at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and launching a brief acting career at Knox College in Illinois, he completed his education at Yale University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial administration in 1965.

He rejoined Kohler Co. full-time as an R&D technician shortly after graduation. He became a director of the company 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 in 1974 – at the age of 35. In 2015, he became the company’s executive chairman, with son David Kohler taking the helm as president and CEO. He served Kohler Co. for 61 years.

Led global growth

Herb Kohler gave the company new global perspective and greater presence by adding production, distribution and marketing in Mexico, United Kingdom and Continental Europe, North Africa, India, Middle East, Latin America, Brazil, and the greater Asia Pacific region, including China, Thailand, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

He took the company into new businesses with more than 48 acquisitions over his tenure. He expanded the company’s power business 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.

In the late 1970s, he led the company into the hospitality business with the development of the American Club, – originally built as an immigrant workers’ dormitory in 1918 – into a luxury spa and resort. 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.

Impact on golf

Kohler also had a significant impact on golf. During The American Club’s early years, guests asked Herb why the resort offered transportation to local golf courses, but no golf course itself. The question ultimately inspired first a partnership and then deep friendship with hall-of-fame golf course designer Pete Dye, and a vision that brought forth what some have called the most spectacular 72 holes of championship golf in America.

Blackwolf Run, the first piece of Destination Kohler’s golf portfolio, opened in 1988. Whistling Straits came 10 years later, transforming an abandoned airfield site into a world-class golf experience evoking the seaside links courses of the British Isles – right down to the flock of Scottish Blackface sheep Herb acquired that still roam the grounds today.

Herb’s next golf adventure took him to the game’s birthplace in St Andrews, Scotland, where he bought a hotel alongside the legendary Old Course and turned it into the Old Course Hotel Golf Resort and Spa and added The Duke’s – a heathland golf course outside of town.

Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run have been recognized among the best golf courses in the country – in 2000, Golf Digest named Sheboygan County 7th among the top 50 golf destinations in the world – and continue to challenge professional and amateur athletes from across the globe. The Kohler courses have hosted six Major golf championships to date, including one the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2015 and the 43rd Ryder Cup in 2021.

Herb Kohler is survived by his wife, Natalie; two daughters, Laura Kohler (Steve Proudman), and Rachel Kohler (Mark Hoplamazian); and one son, David Kohler (Nina). He is further survived by 10 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

The family plans to host a private service. At a date to be determined, Kohler Co. will host a tribute to Herb Kohler for associates, past and present. Also coming soon is a tribute website to learn more about Herb Kohler’s contributions, his dynamic life, business impact and accolades.

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