Legacy of a Corporate Giant

The kitchen and bath industry lost a transformational leader and corporate giant last month with the passing, at age 83, of Kohler Co. Executive Chairman Herbert V. Kohler, Jr., whose bold ideas, indomitable spirit and extraordinary breadth of contributions left an indelible imprint on the nation’s housing and residential remodeling markets.

For more than 60 years, 43 of them as its CEO and guiding spirit, Kohler was inexorably linked to the eponymous, family-owned Kohler Co., the plumbing products manufacturer he helped transform into a global powerhouse that operates on half a dozen continents and boasts a product portfolio that includes an expansive line of bath and kitchen fixtures and fittings, as well as cabinetry, vanities, tile, furniture and decorative products.

Educated at elite schools in the U.S. and abroad, Herb Kohler learned the plumbing products business from the ground up, cutting his teeth as a summertime laborer at Kohler Co.’s farms and production facilities, before joining the company full time and steadily climbing the ladder before assuming the role of chairman and CEO in 1972.

A dynamic and visionary CEO flush with energy and passion, Kohler was steadfast in guiding Kohler Co. in the pursuit of a mission aimed not solely at raising the company’s brand to unprecedented heights, but at providing customers with functional, durable and attractive products – many of which he designed himself – that were also joyful, memorable and integral to gracious living. At the same time, he established a corporate mission that ran like a DNA strand through Kohler Co., positioning the company on the leading edge of everything it endeavored to do, often involving himself in design, production and marketing decisions to a degree unheard of among CEOs. 

But there was more to Kohler’s mindset than merely taking the Kohler Co. brand to unprecedented heights. Inspired by corporate forebears, Kohler viewed businesses as enterprises that thrived not merely on profitability, but on creativity, craftsmanship and relentless investment. Year in and year out, under his watch, Kohler Co. introduced wave upon wave of innovative new products into a dynamic, fashion-driven market fueled by emerging new styles, technological innovations, demographic changes, ergonomic advances and the collective efforts of a generation of home builders, remodelers and design professionals. For just as many years, Kohler ploughed nearly all his company’s annual revenue back into the company, investing in manufacturing technologies, distribution strategies, marketing initiatives and corporate acquisitions.

In many ways, the arc of Kohler’s business career coincided with a period of record growth for America’s housing and remodeling markets, a decades-long window during which the kitchen and bath industry also became the crown jewel of the nation’s residential construction trade. Kohler, and the company whose efforts he spearheaded, contributed in no small way to this sweeping metamorphosis, standing front and center as kitchens achieved a new level of prominence as the multi-functional centerpiece of the American home and bathrooms were transformed into personal retreats that showcase homeowners’ sense of luxury, sophistication and style.

His landmark branding initiative, THE BOLD LOOK OF KOHLER – launched in the 1970s as a program of colorful, cutting-edge products supported by a creative advertising campaign – forever changed the perception of the bathroom and kitchen, transforming what were once primarily utilitarian spaces into focal points for craftsmanship and style, all while raising the bar for suppliers and specifiers alike.

Kohler was also a longtime partner to both the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show and the International Builders’ Show, with Kohler Co.’s expansive booth serving for decades as a centerpiece to the industry’s two most important trade shows.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association, to whom Kohler steadfastly offered support, inducted him into its Hall of Fame in its founding year of 1989, an honor that was followed by induction into by the National Housing Hall of Fame. Additional honors are far too numerous to name, as are Kohler’s personal efforts on behalf of environmental stewardship, historic preservation, cultural and philanthropic endeavors and the sport of golf.

Equally well known for his sense of adventure and larger-than-life persona, Kohler will be remembered as among the most influential figures in the industry’s history, a groundbreaking pioneer whose legacy will doubtless be celebrated for decades. ▪