Leadership

Herbert V. Kohler Jr.: TBD Salutes His Epic Impact At Human Scale

We celebrate a life, a career, and a powerfully transformative belief in the regenerative value of 'the discovery of potential need' and the unswerving resolve to fill it.

Together with

Kohler

Together with

Leadership

Herbert V. Kohler Jr.: TBD Salutes His Epic Impact At Human Scale

We celebrate a life, a career, and a powerfully transformative belief in the regenerative value of 'the discovery of potential need' and the unswerving resolve to fill it.

Together with
September 12th, 2022
Herbert V. Kohler Jr.: TBD Salutes His Epic Impact At Human Scale
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Among housing’s larger-than-life figures, Herbert V. Kohler Jr. -- who died last week at the age of 83 – towers as a monument to human capability and its generational power to ignite an unrelenting common purpose: Delight, comfort, and well-being at an epic scale.

Delight, comfort, well-being. Many of us might view them as abstractions, not as bedrocks of the sustainable and sustaining global value generator the $8 billion Kohler Company has become today. For first spotting the truth of how those essential human experiences run through the core of what the company does, and for inspiring and empowering countless others to seize on the promise in that truth, and for moving customers, team members, and an entire housing ecosystem towards unleashing the business potential and delivering on the promise in those pillars, Herb Kohler’s lifelong impact as a leader in housing stands in a league of its own.

[Please see Kohler Company's Tribute to Herb Kohler here.]

Still, a heroic biography is after all a human life. The little baby boy born in Chicago on February 20, 1939, to journalist Ruth Miriam DeYoung Kohler and industrialist Herbert V. Kohler Sr., was a son, and a brother, a father, a husband, a grandfather, an uncle, and a nephew, and a friend, a student, an artist, a perfectionist, and a competitor, and a dreamer. Great expectations came with the turf. What few could have imagined so early on was just how profoundly Herb Kohler would eclipse all of them, and what fire drove him to do so.

Starting in 1873, Herb Kohler's grandfather John Michael Kohler pioneered the products that would turn a tiny foundry and machine shop near Lake Michigan into a household name.

Herb Kohler's father, Herbert Sr., rose in the ranks in the shadow of his uncle and nephew (both Walter Kohlers), put the Kohler name on the map – literally, in Wisconsin – and built an industrial enterprise synonymous with everyday life solutions meaningful to millions of people throughout North America.

Herbert “Herb” Kohler Jr. knew well coming into the family enterprise that his grandfather, uncle Walter, and father would be tough acts to follow. At first he was reluctant to do so, but then he wound up doing what only he could do, which was to set the boldest imaginable course forward, and go for it with everything he had.

He'd not only make the already successful company he inherited as CEO in 1972 great, but would go on to transform the innovation and excellence-centered firm he’d hand over in 2015 to his son David and the Kohler family – along with its 40,000 team members worldwide, and its 35 branded product lines produced in more than 60 manufacturing sites – into one now billions of people love and thrill in and enjoy each day.

To accomplish that, it took a boy who grew up wanting to be his own man, not just the successor next in line in his father’s and his uncle’s and his grandfather’s footsteps. It took a person drawn, perhaps, to the stage, where he’d be able to zero in on and channel what moves people’s hearts, and souls, and viscera. It took someone capable of a rather unobvious fusion between engineering, and industrial and interior design, manufacturing, functionality, and marketing to envision an enterprise and its people not just as producers of products and services, truly to recognize the business Kohler’s consumers have grown to believe the enterprise is in: The delight, comfort, and well-being business.

The company credits Herb Kohler for realizing that the company’s business, while related to sanitary ware, is really about developing products that delight users. Under his leadership, Kohler created products that were not only functional, but also brought joy and unforgettable experiences to those who used them.”

An outpouring of tributes and accolades came last week with Mr. Kohler's passing. Each attests to a man of leadership and vision, a joie de vivre, a deep and abundant sense of duty and service to others, firmly-embraced values, iron-clad principles that ennoble striving and tap into a bottomless well of constant learning and discovery. A business community, a sports community, a local community, a community of leaders in humanitarian impact, in every context, Herbert V. Kohler, Jr. took the achievement of remarkable things not so much as a height to aspire to than as a simple daily non-negotiable for living as he expected himself to live.

Here's a small glimpse of the accomplishments that speak to Herb Kohler’s legend as a larger-than-life American business figure.

The National Kitchen and Bath Hall of Fame inducted Kohler in its founding year of 1989, followed by the National Housing Hall of Fame in 1993. Junior Achievement inducted him into its U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2006.[7][8] Kohler has also received the ‘Legend in Leadership Award’ from the Chief Executive Leadership Institute of the Yale School of Management.”

Like great expectations, achievements like this go with the turf he choose to toil in all his career. Of his determined mindset, he once said he felt challenged and bound to accomplish …

"far beyond what I thought I could do."

As part of the Kohler Company celebration of Herb’s career and life impact, spanning an array of dimensions people felt it, the site notes:

Innovation

Herb was passionate about the creative process and encouraged his associates to discover and invent, free of boundaries, to develop products for customers who may not realize they want, but “the discovery of potential need is the expertise of marketing, industrial design and engineering working together,” he said. Herb himself received hundreds of design and utility patents. He often referenced the intersection of two guiding principles – maintaining a leading edge in design and technology, and always upholding a single level of quality. To the extent his product development teams could follow these principles successfully, Herb said, “there is nothing else that will establish and maintain our reputation.”

Good reputations take doing things well for a reliably long period of time. We all know too that once they come, they're prone to flit away in a flash if they’re not strengthened again and again with the fiber and fluid of resilience and vitality.

What makes Herb Kohler stand out in our minds is a prescience he had in knowing that business success alone may fall short of what it takes for an organization to sustain, and renew, and regenerate its purpose, and focus, and, ultimately, its reputation. That literal bond of trust with customers, partners, team members, competitors, investors, and our widening ring of stakeholders takes more to carry across time, and business cycles, and shocks and stresses.

In every single household customer, team member, partner, investor, etc. in every part of the housing and homebuilding, and home products, and kitchen and bath products complex of businesses, Herb Kohler elevated, as no one else had before him in housing, the crucial role and timeless value of “the discovery of potential need.”

A customer who's meant to experience delight and well-being differs from a customer who just buys a sink or a toilet or a shower. He, she, they get an experience: To become the customer they want to be when their experience of delight is the point of focus.

It works the same way for the business culture itself. A team member meant to experience deep-felt purpose and pride working for an organization hellbent on accomplishing “far beyond what I thought I could do,” is different than a team member getting paid for a job. He, she, they get to become the worker among workers they want to be when their experience of purpose is celebrated in the front lines.

Herb Kohler inherited a big opportunity in 1972. He passed along to his son, and the Kohler team of 40,000, and the housing business community itself, an even bigger one: the opportunity to transform the business and livelihood of homebuilding and placemaking into a culture of capability, hellbent on “the discovery of potential need” and the constant pursuit of better ways to fill it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John McManus

John McManus

President and Founder

John McManus, founder and president of The Builder’s Daily, is an award-winning editorial, programming, and digital content strategist. TBD's purpose is a community capable of constant improvement.

ABOUT

Since 1873, Kohler Co. has been improving the level of gracious living by providing exceptional products and services for our customers’ homes and their lifestyles.

Website

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John McManus

John McManus

President and Founder

John McManus, founder and president of The Builder’s Daily, is an award-winning editorial, programming, and digital content strategist. TBD's purpose is a community capable of constant improvement.

ABOUT

Since 1873, Kohler Co. has been improving the level of gracious living by providing exceptional products and services for our customers’ homes and their lifestyles.

Website

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