Kohler Engines Executive Chairman Herbert V. Kohler Jr. died Saturday, September 3, in Kohler, Wisconsin. He was 83.
Under his leadership, the plumbing products manufacturer founded by his grandfather was expanded globally. He took the company into new businesses with more than 48 acquisitions over his tenure. In addition, he invested beyond plumbing products to strengthen the company’s other core business – power – and expanded the portfolio with a series of acquisitions including Italian diesel engine manufacturer Lombardini in 2007 and France-based generator company SDMO in 2005. Today, Kohler Co. is the third-largest global power systems organization in the world.
“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,” said his family.
Kohler was born in Chicago on February 20, 1939. The grandson of Kohler founder John Michael Kohler spent many summers as a laborer at Kohler farms and in most of the manufacturing divisions before rejoining the company as an R&D technician after graduating from college.
He became a director of the company in 1967, and when his father died a year later, he became vice president of operations. He was named executive vice president in 1971, was elected chairman of the board and CEO in 1972, and president in 1974 at the age of 35. In 2015, he became the company’s executive chairman, with son David taking the helm as president and CEO. He served Kohler Co. for 61 years.
He led the company based on three primary guiding principles. One, live on the leading edge of design and technology of product and process. Two, have a single standard of quality above the norm with everything the company does. And three, invest 90 percent of Kohler Co.’s annual earnings back into the company.
He invested in state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies, revitalized the company’s tradition of product innovation and launched bold brand-awareness advertising campaigns geared toward consumers – taking the Kohler plumbing brand to No. 1 on a global scale.
Outside of the office, He was an ardent supporter of the arts, the environment, youth development and education, and historic preservation through creation and funding of various foundations, scholarships and other programs.
In 1997, he earned the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for “exemplifying American ideals and preserving an Austrian heritage.” In 2018, the University of St. Andrews presented him with an honorary degree, Doctor of Laws, for demonstrating a commitment to the town and people of St Andrews.
“If I sell you a bathtub, there has to be something about it that gives you pleasure not only at the time of the transaction. Years later, we want you to think this is one of the best buys of your life,” he once said in an interview. “The same applies with everything we provide – an engine, generator, toilet, table, hotel room, spa service, golf course, you name it. If you think about it five years later and, inwardly or outwardly, it makes you smile and we can do this consistently, then we’re living up to our mission.”
He is survived by his wife, Natalie; two daughters, Laura Kohler (Steve Proudman), and Rachel Kohler (Mark Hoplamazian); and one son, David Kohler (Nina). He is further survived by 10 grandchildren, Lily, Hannah and Rachel Proudman; Mara, Lena, and Leo Hoplamazian; Ashley, Samuel, Jack, and Tait Kohler; and three great grandchildren, Ophelia, Herbert and Uma Cartwright.
The family plans to host a private service. At a date to be determined, Kohler Co. will host a tribute to Herb Kohler for associates, past and present.