Herb Kohler, Jr., the former head of his family’s namesake global plumbing empire, died Saturday at the age of 83. He was the third generation Kohler to helm the Wisconsin company, serving as CEO for 43 years and later as its executive chairman.
The emphasis of the Kohler brand during his tenure was design. Kohler accelerated the company’s strategy of bringing the cyclical design fads, wide color choices and luxury add-ons of the auto industry to what had been a humdrum household fixtures market.
According to the company, Kohler was generating $6 billion in annual revenue the year Herb Kohler stepped down in 2015, up from $133 million when he began. Last year, it reported $8 billion in revenue.
During his tenure, Kohler acquired several firms and rivals: Baker furniture, McGuire Furniture and Sterling Faucet, along with motor and generator manufacturers. But he was best-known for the “Bold Look of Kohler” campaign, which brought avocado green and harvest gold appliances to the kitchen, and later introduced entirely voice-activated bathrooms.
In 1981, he also created the American Club Resort, located in Kohler, Wisconsin, a five-diamond, five-star resort as a way to expand into the hotel business. It was built on the location of what had been housing for the company’s workers in the early 20th century.
Kohler himself was known for trying out the company’s whirlpools, taste-testing Kohler candy and creating and playing on all of the golf courses, even importing a strain of black sheep common to Ireland to make one course seem more authentic.
A passionate golfer, Kohler built four courses in Wisconsin and eventually brought the Ryder Cup to its Whistling Straits course in Sheboygan in 2019.
Kohler was founded in 1873 by Herb Kohler’s grandfather, John Michael Kohler, an Austrian immigrant, along with Charles Silberzahn, who later sold his minority share. It remains remains privately held and family owned.