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


Herbert V. Kohler Jr., who built a century-old family business known for bathtubs, toilets and taps right into a multibillion-dollar global enterprise and turned a tiny company town into an unlikely stop for the world’s top golfers, died on Sept. 3 in Kohler, Wis. He was 83.

The death was announced on the Kohler Company website. No cause was cited.

As a young man, Mr. Kohler bridled at his father’s wish that he join the business full time after college.

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

But he ultimately took the trail that had effectively been set for him when his grandfather John Michael Kohler, an Austrian immigrant, bought a Sheboygan, Wis., foundry with a partner in 1873.

The corporate, which began as a maker of plows and other agricultural implements, took a defining turn 10 years later when its patriarch put enamel on a cast-iron vessel used as a horse trough and for scalding hogs and sold it to farm families as a bath.

Kohler was on its option to literally becoming a household name.

The corporate’s fixtures were included in a 1929 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of latest home design. Its colourful “The Daring Look of Kohler” promoting campaign was introduced in 1967.

By 1972, when Herbert Kohler Jr. took the highest job on the privately held business, which also made engines and generators, it had $133 million in annual sales and was the second-largest U.S. producer of kitchen and bath fixtures, behind American Standard.

When he retired as chief executive in 2015, it had annual sales of $6 billion. In 2018 it was the highest alternative for bath fixtures and accessories amongst U.S. builders, in accordance with the research firm Statista.

Under Mr. Kohler, the corporate acquired makers of furniture, cabinets and tiles; built or bought factories in China, Mexico, India, Europe and elsewhere; and developed two-person bathtubs, robotic toilets and a shower with stereo sound.

He also began a golf and hotel business that attracted three P.G.A. championships, a U.S. Senior Open, two U.S. Women’s Opens and last yr’s Ryder Cup to Sheboygan County and allowed him to place his mark on the seaside Scottish town where the sport was born.

Mr. Kohler’s vision, drive and appetite for risk fueled the corporate’s growth. He might need been slow to embrace his dynastic destiny, but when he did, it was with gusto.

“I loved it,” he told Forbes, “because I saw a lot potential for change.”

Herbert Vollrath Kohler Jr. was born on Feb. 20, 1939, in Sheboygan, about an hour north of Milwaukee. His father was the Kohler Company’s chairman and chief executive. His mother, Ruth (De Young) Kohler, was a historian and a former women’s editor at The Chicago Tribune.

Young Herbert’s mother died when he was a young person, and he was sent east to boarding school, initially at Phillips Exeter Academy in Latest Hampshire, where, he told Forbes, “there wasn’t a rule or regulation I didn’t break.”

Dismissed from there, he went to the Choate School in Connecticut. After graduating, he entered Yale, his father’s alma mater, but he lacked focus and left. He served within the Army Reserve after which studied math and physics on the University of Zurich. It was, he told The Chicago Tribune in 1994, “a period of total rejection of a prescribed life.”

Returning to the USA, he enrolled at Knox College in Illinois. He studied acting, dabbled in poetry and edited what he described in a 2012 interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine as a “wild political newspaper.”

“Considered one of my friends called me ‘the primary of the nice unwashed,’” he told Forbes. “That’s a hell of a note for the son of a toilet baron.” (On the time, he was mostly estranged from his father. “I seldom spoke to the poor man,” he said.)

While at Knox, he met his future first wife, Linda Karger, who was directing a play he was in. They married in 1961 and divorced within the Eighties.

Mr. Kohler’s attempt at independence continued at Furman University in South Carolina, where he enrolled briefly while also working. But he was soon back at Yale. He graduated in 1965 with a level in industrial administration and joined the Kohler Company as a research technician.

He became an organization director in 1967; vice chairman of operations a yr later, when his father died; executive vice chairman in 1971; and chairman and chief executive a yr after that.

One hurdle Mr. Kohler faced in taking the helm was the corporate’s bitter history with organized labor, including a United Auto Employees strike that began in 1954 and lasted greater than six years — the longest such walkout in U.S. history on the time.

“Rightly or wrongly, everyone knew the name Kohler due to strike,” Mr. Kohler told The Latest York Times in 1973. (There have been two, much shorter, strikes since then, in 1983 and 2015.)

The family was also in peril on the time of getting its control of the corporate slip away amid a dilution of its shares’ value. Mr. Kohler engineered a reverse stock split that slashed the variety of shares and gave him and his closest relatives near-total control.

Together with his position solidified, Mr. Kohler reinvested heavily in the corporate, which was already related to progressive design. He kept the emphasis on form in addition to function, opening the Kohler Design Center, a museumlike product showplace, and, together with his sister, Ruth, making a residency program for artists.

John Torinus, who got to know Mr. Kohler as business editor of The Milwaukee Sentinel, described him in a phone interview as a “genius” and a “tough cookie” whose fascination with design resembled that of Steve Jobs.

“He was very particular about the whole lot, all the way down to the smallest detail,” said Mr. Torinus, who’s now the chairman of Serigraph, a Wisconsin company that makes decorative parts for other businesses’ products, including, sometimes, Kohler’s.

That focus undoubtedly helps explain what Sarah Archer, a design and culture author, called the corporate’s enduring place in the toilet firmament.

“They weren’t just selling cleanliness or modernity,” she said via email. “They were offering a sort of mini-vacation.”

Mr. Kohler married Natalie Black, a former chief legal officer and current board member of the Kohler Company, in 1985. She survives him. His survivors also include a son, David, Kohler’s chief executive since 2105 and now its board chairman as well; two daughters, Laura Kohler, a board member and senior company vice chairman, and Rachel Kohler, also a board member; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Within the late Nineteen Seventies, Mr. Kohler decided to get into the hospitality trade by making a resort hotel out of a run-down constructing that had originally been used to accommodate company employees after the foundry moved 4 miles west of Sheboygan in 1899 to what became the town of Kohler. Many individuals around him scoffed, but he forged ahead.

“He didn’t like to provide up on anything that was a part of his heritage,” said Richard Blodgett, the creator of “A Sense of Higher Design: The Kohlers of Kohler” (2003), a company-commissioned corporate history.

Mr. Kohler’s instincts proved correct. The hotel, the American Club, opened in 1981. Augmented by a personal hunting and fishing preserve, a tennis club, restaurants, shops and a spa, it was soon a tourist magnet.

Still, something was missing.

“You may have this boutique resort hotel, but you don’t have your personal golf course,” Mr. Kohler, speaking in a 2015 interview, recalled customers telling him. “That’s sort of embarrassing for a C.E.O.”

Mr. Kohler had little interest in the sport, but he quickly immersed himself in it.

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

Mr. Kohler deepened his golf investment in 2004, buying a hotel alongside the famous Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, and the nearby Duke’s Course.

Not all his golf projects have gone easily. Local environmentalists thwarted plans for a course on the Oregon coast, and the event of a latest one near Kohler has been slowed by residents against its reliance on public land, and by the invention of Native American artifacts and human stays on the property.

Mr. Kohler shrugged off such obstacles. He pressed on, guided by a phrase adapted from the Nineteenth-century British critic John Ruskin and located in an old stained-glass window on the American Club: “Life without labor is guilt. Labor without art is brutality.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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