Herbert V. Kohler, Jr., a business titan who bolstered his family’s eponymous manufacturing company and put Wisconsin on the world golf stage with the creation of a course named Whistling Straits, has died.
Kohler was 83 when he died on Saturday.
“His zest for life, his adventure and his impact inspire us all,” his family said in a statement on Sunday. “We traveled together, celebrated together, and worked together. He was all-out, all the time, leaving an indelible mark on how we live our lives today and carry on his legacy.
Kohler served as CEO of Kohler Company for 43 years before handing over the position to his son, David Kohler, in 2015. Since then, he has continued with the company as executive chairman.
During his tenure as CEO, Kohler grew the company from a $133 million operation in 1972 to one that by 2015 was approaching $6 billion in annual revenue.
The company credits Herb Kohler with the vision of understanding that the company’s business, although it involved making sanitary ware, was really about designing products that delight users. Under his leadership, the Kohler Company created products that were not merely functional, but created a joyful and memorable experience for those who used them.
In the early 1970s, the “Bold Look of Kohler” became more than a marketing slogan. Under Kohler’s leadership, he became a guiding spirit that led the company and unified its associates, the company said.
“We have the people, the products, the focus, the resources and the passion to pursue our mission and compete successfully,” he once told associates.
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He was described in a Journal Sentinel article as “a striking figure – thick gray hair, bushy eyebrows, lush beard and a gravelly voice” – who had “an imposing presence”.
When Kohler took The American Club, built in 1918 for immigrant workers in Kohler, and transformed it in the early 1980s, he was also transforming hospitality in the state.
“Taking a small town like Kohler and turning it into a destination hospitality center was a definite accomplishment,” said Greg Hanis, president of Hospitality Makers International. “He took an old building and completely renovated it and made it a destination facility.”
While the village of Kohler may not have been as well known to many outside of Wisconsin, Hanis said word has spread around the world about the resort.
“Once people arrived, they were literally taken in by the elegance, the luxury of Kohler,” Hanis said. “Of course, his bathrooms that he installed in this hotel and resort were all state-of-the-art Kohler features, from sinks to tubs to showers. Honestly, the bathrooms were probably one of the highlights of the building.
Hanis said Kohler “sets the benchmark” for hospitality in Wisconsin.
“He definitely challenged other people like Marcus Corp. with their conversion of Lake Geneva facilities with Greater Geneva,” Hanis said. “I think he set the benchmark and said if you want to be a five-star resort, that’s what you have to be.”
Hanis said Kohler knew his expertise wasn’t in hospitality, but that didn’t stop him from creating a world-class resort.
“He knew how to hire the right people; he had a great management team running this resort and he hit a big milestone,” Hanis said. “It’s a legacy. It is a legacy installation.
This five-star, five-diamond resort led to the championship golf courses, Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits.
Gary D’Amato, writer for Wisconsin Golf and former reporter and columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said Kohler “transformed golf in our state.”
“He’s probably the most important figure in Wisconsin golf history,” D’Amato said. “We were a flyover state until he built these courses. No one has come to Wisconsin to golf from other parts of the country.
In 2019, when Whistling Straits was chosen to be the site of the Ryder Cup, Kohler said it was a “once in a lifetime” event for the state and estimated an economic impact of $135 millions of dollars.
The Ryder Cup was delayed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but in 2021 it welcomed golf fans from all over the world.
“We’ve had a global spotlight on our golf here in the state, and golf is thriving in our state,” D’Amato said. “If he hadn’t built these courses, none of this would have happened.”
But it all happened thanks to the drive of a man who didn’t get into the sport before he started building courses.
“He told me he would play his dad’s hickory-shafted clubs once or twice a year on company outings,” D’Amato said. “But that was the extent of his golf. But once he started building courses and immersed himself in this culture of developing golf courses and being around the game, he really fell in love with it.
“He played often, not very well.”
D’Amato said Kohler played with a group of friends who called themselves the “Gnarly Balls Gang”, flying all over the world to play golf.
“They would play in all kinds of weather conditions,” D’Amato said. “The nastier, the better. He loved to play in the rain.
Kohler was born on February 20, 1939 to Herbert Kohler Sr. and Ruth Myriam DeYoung. He was the eldest of three. He had a sister, Ruth DeYoung Kohler II, and a brother Frederick Cornell Kohler, both of whom predeceased him.
Kohler graduated from Yale University in 1965, after spending time at a few other colleges. He started at Yale but left after a year and went to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he studied acting and met Linda Karger, whom he married in 1961. Kohler then enrolled at Furman University in South Carolina and worked on the side, before returning to Yale to earn a degree in business administration.
Although his grandfather, John Michael Kohler II, founded the Kohler company in 1873 and Herbert Sr. served as CEO for 28 years, Herbert Jr. has recalled in interviews that he did not want to be part of the family business.
But after graduating from Yale in 1965, he started working at Kohler. He was 26 years old. Kohler became president and CEO of Kohler Company in 1972, where he served as CEO for 43 years.
Kohler and Karger had three children: Laura Elizabeth Kohler, Rachel DeYoung Kohler and David Karger Kohler. Kohler and Karger divorced in the early 1980s. In 1988 Kohler married Natalie Ann Black.
Private services will be held, but the company will host a Kohler tribute at a later date for associates.