Herbert F. Koehler, Jr., the business tycoon who fortified his family’s namesake manufacturing company and put Wisconsin on the world golf scene by creating a course called Whistling Straits, has died.
Koehler was 83 when he died on Saturday.
In a statement on Sunday, his family said: “His enthusiasm for life and adventure inspires us and his influence. We traveled together, celebrated together and worked together. He was present all along, leaving an indelible mark on the way we live our lives today and continuing his legacy.”
Kohler served as CEO of Kohler for 43 years before handing the role to his son David Kohler in 2015. Since then, he has continued to work for the company as its CEO.
During his tenure as CEO, Koehler grew the company from a $133 million operation in 1972 to an operation 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, although it involves manufacturing plumbing fixtures, was really about designing products that create delight for users. Under his leadership, the Kohler Company created products that were not just practical, but created a pleasurable and memorable experience for those who used them.
In the early 1970s, “Kohler’s bold look” became more than just a marketing slogan. Under Koehler’s leadership, the company said, it became a guiding spirit that drove the company and united its partners.
He once said, “We have the people, the products, the focus, the resources, and the passion to pursue our mission and compete successfully.”
Related: “We just want to make the best” as Whistling Straits host the Ryder Cup, says Herbert Koehler.
He was described in a Journal Sentinel article as “a stunning figure – thick gray hair, bushy eyebrows, a bushy beard and a coarse voice” – who had a “strong presence”.
When Kohler took over and transformed The American Club, built in 1918 for Kohler’s immigrant workers in the early 1980s, he was taking a step toward reinventing the state’s hospitality industry.
“Taking a small town like Kohler and turning it into a hospitality destination was a definite achievement,” said Greg Hannes, president of Hospitality Makers International. “He took over an old building and completely renovated it and made it a destination.”
While Kohler’s Village may not be well known to many outside of Wisconsin, Hannes said word has spread worldwide from the resort.
“Once people got there, they were literally stunned by the elegance and luxury of Kohler,” Hannes said. “Of course, his bathrooms he put into this hotel and resort were all modern Kohler features from sinks to bathtubs to showers. Quite frankly, the bathrooms were probably one of the building’s highlights.”
Hannes said Koehler “set the standard” for hospitality in Wisconsin.
“He’s definitely challenged other people like Marcus to turn their facilities down Lake Geneva with the Grand Geneva,” said Hannes. “I think he set the standard and said if you want to be a five-star resort, that’s what you have to do.”
Hannes said Koehler knew his experience wasn’t hospitality but that didn’t stop him from creating a world-class resort.
“He knew how to hire the right people; he had an excellent management team running this resort and they’ve done a great job,” Hannes said. It’s an old facility.”
This five-star, five-star resort with Diamonds has led to the championship golf courses, Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits.
Gary D’Amato Writer at Wisconsin Golf And a former reporter and columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Kohler said “about golf in our state.”
“He’s probably the most important figure in the history of Wisconsin golf,” D’Amato said. “We were an Alawite country 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 as the location for the Ryder Cup, Koehler said it was a “once in a lifetime” event for the state and its economic impact was estimated at $135 million.
The Ryder Cup has been delayed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but in 2021 it welcomed golf enthusiasts from around the world.
“We’ve had a global spotlight on our golf here in the state, and golf is thriving in our state,” D’Amato said. “If he hadn’t built those cycles, none of this would have happened.”
Koehler was born on February 20, 1939 to Herbert Koehler Sr. and Ruth Miriam de Young. He was the eldest of the three. He had a sister, Ruth de Young Koehler II, and a brother, Frederick Cornell Koehler, both of whom preceded him in death.
Koehler graduated from Yale University in 1965, after spending time at two other colleges. He started at Yale University but left after a year and moved to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he studied theater and met Linda Karger, whom he married in 1961. Kohler then attended Furman University in South Carolina and worked alongside, before returning to Yale University to obtain 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. has stated in interviews that he did not want to be part of the family business.
But after graduating from Yale University in 1965, he began working at Kohler. He was 26 years old. Kohler became Chairman and CEO of Kohler Corporation in 1972, serving as CEO for 43 years.
Kohler and Karger had three children: Laura Elizabeth Kohler, Rachel de Young Kohler and David Karger Kohler. Kohler and Karger divorced in the early 1980s. In 1988, Koehler married Natalie Ann Black.
Special services will be held, but the company will honor Kohler at a later date for its partners
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