Herbert V. Kohler, Jr., a business titan who fortified his family’s namesake manufacturing firm 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 Saturday.
“His zest for life, adventure and impact inspires all of us,” his family said in a statement Sunday. “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 was the CEO of Kohler Company for 43 years before he handed the role off to his son, David Kohler, in 2015. Since then, he continued in the company as its executive chairman.
During his time as CEO, Kohler grew the company from a $133 million operation in 1972 to one that in 2015 was approaching $6 billion in annual revenue.
The company credits Herb Kohler with having the vision to understand that the company’s business, though it involved manufacturing plumbing fixtures, was really about designing products that created delight for users. Under his leadership, the Kohler Company created products that weren’t merely functional, but created a joyful, memorable experience for those who used them.
In a statement the Kohler family 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.”
In the early 1970s, the “Bold Look of Kohler” became more than a marketing slogan. Under Kohler’s leadership, it 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.
He was described in a Journal Sentinel story as “a striking figure — thick gray hair, bushy eyebrows, lush beard and gravelly voice” — who had “a commanding presence.”
His passion for golf, which came late in life, is why the company operates two championship golf courses — Blackwolf Run nearby and Whistling Straits north of Sheboygan — and a five-star, five-diamond resort at Kohler’s American Club.
Gary D’Amato, a writer for Wisconsin Golf and former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter and columnist, said Kohler “transformed golf in our state.”
“He’s probably the single most important figure in Wisconsin golf history,” D’Amato said. “We were a flyover state until he built those courses. Nobody came to Wisconsin to play 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 million.
The Ryder Cup was delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but in 2021 it welcomed golf fans from around the world.
“We had a world spotlight on our golf here in the state, and golf is booming in our state,” D’Amato said. “Had he not built those courses, none of this would have happened.”
Kohler was born Feb. 20, 1939, to Herbert Kohler Sr. and Ruth Myriam DeYoung. He was the oldest of three. He had a sister, Ruth DeYoung Kohler II, and brother Frederick Cornell Kohler, both of whom preceded him in death.
Kohler graduated from Yale University in 1965, after spending time at a couple of other colleges. He started at Yale but left after a year and went to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he studied theater 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 get 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. recalled in interviews that he had not wanted to be a part of the family company.
But after graduating from Yale in 1965, he began working at Kohler. He was 26. Kohler became chairman 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 hold a tribute to Kohler at a later date for associates
This story will be updated.
Contact Ricardo Torres at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @RicoReporting