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Remembering the life and career of Herbert V. Kohler, Jr.

Herb Kohler Jr. smiling
The late Herbert V. Kohler Jr.

Kohler Co. Executive Chairman Herbert Vollrath Kohler, Jr. has passed away on September 3, 2022, in Kohler, Wisconsin at 83. His ideas and hands-on leadership transformed the plumbing products manufacturer founded by his grandfather into a global and diverse family of businesses. He also put his home state of Wisconsin on the map as a golf destination culminating with the Ryder Cup in 2021.

For Herbert Kohler, there was no halfway. He decided that for a product to use the "KOHLER" nameplate, a product had to be more than durable, functional, and attractive. It had to also be joyful and memorable. 

"His zest for life, adventure, and impact inspires all of us. We travelled 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," said his family.

He was admired by many as an accomplished, dynamic leader; independent-minded entrepreneur; courageous innovator; and creative. Herb, more than anyone, lived and breathed Kohler Co.'s mission of providing users with gracious living each day. He was a big personality who was steadfast in guiding Kohler associates.

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

The early life of Herb Kohler 

Herb Kohler was born in Chicago on February 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, Wisconsin, and at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut. As a young man, he spent many summers as a labourer on the Kohler farms and in most of the manufacturing divisions of Kohler Co. 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 of the company in 1974 at the age of 35. In 2015, he became the company's executive chairman, with his son David taking the helm as president and CEO. He served Kohler Co. for 61 years.

Herb's creative passion

During his 43-year span as CEO, Herb helped transform his family-owned company to include more than 40,000 associates and dozens of manufacturing facilities on six continents. 

The National Kitchen and Bath Hall of Fame inducted him in its founding year of 1989, followed by the National Housing Hall of Fame in 1993. Ernst & Young named him National Entrepreneur of the Year in Manufacturing in 2002, and Junior Achievement inducted him into its U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2006. 

"We have the people, the products, the focus, the resources, and the passion to pursue our mission and compete successfully," Herb once told associates.

That is exactly where he led them, based on three primary guiding principles. One, live on the leading edge of design and technology of product and process. Two, have a single standard of quality above the norm with everything the company does. And three, invest 90 percent of Kohler Co.'s annual earnings back into the company. 

Herb invested in manufacturing technologies, revitalized the company's tradition of product innovation, and launched brand-awareness advertising campaigns geared toward users – taking the Kohler plumbing brand to a global scale.

Always a hands-on executive who was full of ideas for improving products and processes, he involved himself in design decisions to a degree that was uncommon among CEOs. He thoroughly enjoyed the creative process – from reviewing 30-second television commercial storyboards to testing new products personally by soaking in a whirlpool bath or sampling a piece of Kohler chocolate. He designed many of the company's products himself and held more than 200 design and utility patents. 

He invested in new designs, products, manufacturing facilities, and distribution strategies. Realizing the opportunity to compete in the changing world marketplace, he gave the company and the Kohler brand a 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. 

Herb took the company into new businesses with more than 48 acquisitions over his tenure. This began with Sterling Faucet Co. which joined the Kohler family of businesses in 1984, followed by French plumbing company Jacob Delafon in 1986, and U.K. shower manufacturer Mira in 2001. He formed the Kohler Interiors Group acquiring Baker Furniture, McGuire Furniture Company, Ann Sacks Tile and Stone, Kallista plumbing, and Robern mirrored cabinets. 

Herb invested beyond plumbing products to strengthen the company's other core business – power – and expanded the portfolio 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 one of the largest global power systems organization in the world.

A greater purpose 

Herb Kohler found strong inspiration in the life of his uncle, Walter J. Kohler Sr., who led Kohler Co. from 1905 until his death in 1940. The elder Kohler often quoted a business principle coined by 19th-century English critic John Ruskin: "Life without labour is guilt, labour without art is brutality." The quotation resonated with Herb, who saw business as a process that thrived on creativity, provided constant challenges, and offered a means by which to help others. He worked diligently to be a positive influence in his community and was an ardent supporter of the arts, the environment and historic preservation 

Working closely with his sister Ruth and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Herb helped establish an arts/industry residency program that invites artists into the Kohler factories to work alongside production associates turning out works of handcrafted sculptures made from plumbing product materials, such as vitreous china, cast iron, and brass. To date, more than 500 artists have participated in this unique residency that intersects art and manufacturing.

Walter's influence was also evident in Herb's community services. In the early 1900s, Walter hired the pre-eminent landscape architecture firm of the Olmsted Brothers – whose portfolio included New York's Central Park and the U.S. Capitol – to create a 50-year plan for the village's green spaces. In 1977, Herb worked with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to put together a second 50-year plan for the village, paving the way for additional development of residential and company properties including the Sports Core, Shops at Woodlake, and the Woodlake Market. 

Herb established and chaired the Kohler Trust for the Arts and Education and the Kohler Trust for Preservation, passing the chair role to his daughter Laura in 2015. Herb also established the Kohler Trust for Clean Water in 2019, of which Laura is also chair. Among the beneficiaries of the Trusts are the Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and recently a major conservation project in the Sheboygan River Watershed.

He served as president of the Kohler Foundation that provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships annually, sponsors a Distinguished Guest Series that brings internationally recognized performers to Sheboygan County, and manages the Waelderhaus – a replica of the Austrian home of John Michael Kohler that is open to the public. 

The Foundation and Trusts have funded the preservation of significant art environments and collections, as well as the re-creation of a working sawmill and millpond at Wade House State Park in Greenbush, Wisconsin, a state historical site initially preserved by the Kohler Foundation under the leadership of Herb's mother. Herb also served as co-chairman of the successful fundraising effort in support of the creation of Old World Wisconsin, a living museum built by the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Eagle, Wisconsin. 

Herb's interest in the outdoors and environmental preservation led to the creation of River Wildlife, a 500-acre nature preserve along the banks of the Sheboygan River; and the preservation of Eagle Valley, a 1,440-acre eagle preserve along the bluffs of the Mississippi River, which earned a Wisconsin Wildlife Habitat Development Award. Additionally, Herb developed Kohler Co.'s 12 Environmental Principles, allowing the company to meld environmental stewardship with industrial manufacturing. And in September 2022, the KOHLER Center for Marsh Education was opened at the Sheboygan Marsh Wildlife Area to promote the environment, conservation, and stewardship through education, hands-on activities, and advocacy.

In 2012, Herb helped finance and led the design and construction of the Kohler Environmental Center at Choate Rosemary Hall, his alma mater. This LEED-Platinum environmental research and education centre is outfitted with three working laboratories, two classrooms, and a greenhouse. It is home to the Environmental Immersion Program, a year-long residential and interdisciplinary program. 

Herb was an advocate of youth development and education. He volunteered his time as a board member of Outward Bound USA, a provider of experiential and outdoor education programs. He was personally impacted by Outward Bound in 1986 through an Invitational Expedition on North Carolina's Chattooga River. Immediately captured by the adventure and experience, Herb joined the Board of Directors in 1997 on which he served until 2010 and introduced each of his children – and subsequently grandchildren – to the organization, who attended expeditions as a youth. A life of service, impact, and commitment to this non-profit earned Herb and his daughter Laura the Kurt Hahn Award in 2020.

He also served as a trustee at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin; Choate Rosemary Hall; the National Housing Endowment; and Friendship House, a home-based facility for at-risk youth in Sheboygan. He was an active supporter of The First Tee, an initiative to create new golf facilities around the country and make the game more affordable and accessible, especially to youth. 

As part of his commitment to education, Herb established the Kohler Scholarship Endowment in Drama at Duke University. He also endowed the Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Business Administration at Marquette University, creating a program putting Marquette students in regular contact with established business leaders to study entrepreneurial success. In 2018, the UW-Madison College of Engineering was a benefactor when the Kohler Innovation Visualization Studio was opened, and in 2014 Lakeshore Technical College in Cleveland, Wisconsin, was a benefactor when the KOHLER Center for Manufacturing Excellence was unveiled. 

In 1997, Herb earned the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for "exemplifying American ideals and preserving an Austrian heritage." In 2018, the University of St Andrews presented Herb with an Honorary degree, Doctor of Laws for demonstrating a lasting commitment to the town and people of St Andrews.

Foundation in family 

Herb Kohler never pushed his three children into the family business, instead encouraging them to follow their own paths. The fact that all three paths eventually led Laura, Rachel, and David to Kohler Co. is a testament to their father's steady influence and example. David oversees Kohler Co. in the role of president and CEO, Laura is senior vice president of human resources, stewardship, and sustainability, and Rachel formerly served as group president of Kohler Interiors and, now an entrepreneur in her own right, is a member of the company Board of Directors. 

Herb married the former Natalie Black in 1988 and together they built a life focused on growing the business on a global scale. Natalie Black Kohler is now retired, having recently served as senior vice president and chief legal officer for Kohler Co. She is also a member of the company's Board of Directors and president of the Kohler Foundation.

Herb was devoted to his family, often sharing adventurous vacations with them. Close friends say his forceful personality could be tamed within seconds by the smiles of his 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. 

His marriage to Linda Kohler Anderson ended in divorce in the early 1980s. Linda, the mother of Laura, Rachel, and David, died in 2005. Herb was also preceded in death by his parents, Herbert V., Sr., and Ruth DeYoung; his younger brother, Frederic Kohler; and younger sister, Ruth DeYoung Kohler II. 

Herb is survived by his wife, Natalie; two daughters, Laura Kohler, and Rachel Kohler; and one son, David Kohler. He is further survived by 10 grandchildren, Lily, Hannah, and Rachel Proudman; Mara, Lena, and Leo Hoplamazian; Ashley, Samuel, Jack, and Tait Kohler; and three great-grandchildren, Ophelia, Herbert, and Uma Cartwright.

He will be greatly missed by his family, a large circle of friends, tens of thousands of Kohler Co. associates and retirees worldwide, as well as many others who came to know him. 

Celebrating Herb's legacy 

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. Coming soon is a tribute website to learn more about Herb Kohler's contributions, his dynamic life, business impact, and accolades. Information regarding ways to honour his memory will be detailed on the website.

Company info

N7650 CTH LS
Kohler, WI
US, 53044


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