Kohler’s executive chairman and former president, Herbert Vollrath Kohler Jr., passed away earlier this month at the age of 83. In his 61 years working at the company founded by his grandfather, Kohler went from a research and development technician to become the company’s CEO in 1972 and president in 1974. In 2015, after 43 years, he moved into the role of the company’s executive chairman, with his son, David Kohler, taking the helm as president and CEO.
During Kohler’s long tenure, he transformed the family business into a globally recognized kitchen and bath brand by investing in state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies, prioritizing product innovation and launching bold brand-awareness advertising strategies geared toward consumers.
He is remembered by Kohler employees as a hands-on executive who involved himself in design decisions to a degree that was uncommon among CEOs. He was present for everything from reviewing the storyboards for a 30-second television commercial to testing new products 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.
In a statement from the family issued by the Kohler brand, his loved ones said: “His zest for life, adventure and impact inspires all of us. 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.”
Kohler also expanded the brand outside of the plumbing sector, diversifying the company by delving into hospitality with the creation of Destination Kohler, a portfolio of resorts and golf courses with locations in the Midwest and Scotland. Of the Wisconsin county where Kohler’s golf course Blackwolf Run is located, the Chicago Tribune once wrote: “The likelihood of turning this vast rural farmland into a golf mecca is about the same as making a toilet a work of art. Herbert Kohler can now say he has done both.” The culinary success of Kohler’s The American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin, in turn spawned the creation of a confectionary brand, Kohler Original Recipe Chocolates.
“His impact was really unbelievable,” says Bill Darcy, the CEO of the National Kitchen & Bath Association, which inaugurated Kohler into its Hall of Fame in its founding year of 1989. “Looking beyond our industry, at the resorts and even the signature chocolates he created—all of that contributed to the success of Kohler globally. I was in Shanghai for a kitchen and bath show a number of years ago—and this was a time when I thought no American brands had made a splash in China—but I was in awe to see how big Kohler was in that market, and in the Middle East and India as well,” says Darcy. “He had an amazing ability to see opportunities for the company, and not only go after those opportunities, but be successful at them.”
Kohler is survived by his wife, Natalie; his two daughters, Laura Kohler and Rachel Kohler; and son David; as well as 10 grandchildren.
Homepage image: Herbert Vollrath Kohler Jr. | Courtesy of Kohler