Herbert V. Kohler, Jr., a business titan who boosted his family’s namesake manufacturing company and put Wisconsin on the world golf stage with the creation of a course called Whistling Straits, has died.
Kohler was 83 when he died on Saturday.
“His zest for life, adventure and influence inspire us all,”[ads1]; 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 CEO of the Kohler Company for 43 years before handing the role over 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 a business approaching $6 billion in annual revenue in 2015.
The company credits Herb Kohler with having the vision to understand that the company’s business, although it involved manufacturing plumbing fixtures, was really about designing products that brought joy to users. Under his leadership, the Kohler Company created products that were not only functional, but created a joyful, memorable experience for those who used them.
By the early 1970s, the “Bold Look of Kohler” became more than a marketing slogan. Under Kohler’s leadership, it became a guiding spirit that guided the company and united its employees, 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 — nearby Blackwolf Run 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 most important person in Wisconsin golf history,” D’Amato said. “We were a flyover state until he built these runways. 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 the world spotlight on our golf here in the state, and golf is booming in our state,” D’Amato said. “Had he not built these courses, none of this would have happened.”
Kohler was born on February 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 a brother, Frederick Cornell Kohler, who both preceded him in death.
Kohler graduated from Yale University in 1965, after spending time at a couple of other colleges. He entered Yale, but dropped out 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, lead back 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 43 years, Herbert Jr. recalled. in interviews that he had not wanted to be 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 the Kohler Company in 1972.
Kohler and Karger had three children: Laura Elizabeth Kohler, Rachel DeYoung Kohler, and David Karger Kohler. Kohler and Karger separated 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 employees
This story will be updated.
Contact Ricardo Torres at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RicoReporting