A Golf Fanatic
Herb Kohler has turned his passion for golf into a major business from Wisconsin to St Andrews
From the Print Edition:
Ernie Els, November/December 2012
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For Hosseini, a very successful Florida developer who is president of ICI Homes, the relationship with Kohler is about two good buddies having a blast, whether it’s on the private jet or at a street kiosk. “His humility, down-to-earth, one-of-the-guys type attitude is what attracted me to him,” says Hosseini. “That made us become good friends . . . We are happy to get a hot dog on the street, or eat in the finest French restaurant in the country. As long as we have a good time, that’s what it’s all about.”
In a hard hat, reflective vest and protective gloves, Kohler led a party that included Hosseini, Orender, Nathaniel Crosby (son of Bing) and others on a tour of his Hamilton Grand project, where condominiums will be on offer both freehold and leasehold. With his wife Natalie they looked closely at all the details. Standing on the curb outside he made a point to the architect and construction people that the outside lighting of the building should match that of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse of St Andrews on the other side of the street, just a flip wedge away. “The lighting needs to be of equal value between us and the R&A, even if we need to pay for their lighting,” says Kohler, who is an member of the R&A.
This is a project close to his heart. “It’s a true labor of love if there ever was one,” says Kohler, who will nonetheless be looking to turn a significant profit on the iconic structure.
As part of the trip to Scotland, Kohler made a last-minute decision to check out Donald Trump’s new course near Aberdeen. His group played nine holes and while they all considered it a fine piece of work by architect Martin Hawtree, Kohler would only proffer “I think there was too much bulldozer in the fairways. They are a little flat.”
His acquisition of the Old Course Hotel and Dukes Course in 2004 came by, what seems in hindsight, divine intervention. It was a curious thing.
“In August, we had the PGA Championship [at Whistling Straits],” he says. “There was an American who lived in Paris visiting his relatives in Chicago. He had an extra day and he drove up here on Wednesday. He toured Whistling Straits, went through our hotel, drove back to Chicago and flew back to Paris. A couple of days later he sent me an e-mail. I didn’t know this person. The upshot is that he was a member of a management buyout group that was trying to buy the Old Course Hotel from a Japanese owner. They had been working at it for about nine months and still hadn’t gathered enough equity. So he asked if I would be interested.
“I had been there a half dozen times, so I knew about it. I knew its level of quality. And it happened it matched closely what we were doing here at the American Club. I told him when we participate in something, we have to have controlling interest because we maintain a certain level of quality in everything we do. I thought that would kill it. They still invited us in. We negotiated with the managing director and 40 days later, from the day I got that first e-mail, we owned the hotel.
It was at St Andrews last year that Kohler scored his first hole in one, on the 11th of the Old Course. But an event that morning not only caused him to nearly miss his tee time, it put his life in danger. He had noticed that a sign across the road from the Dukes Course was askew so he parked at the entrance and walked across the street to fix it.
“There was this hedge right behind it,” he recounted. “I took a step toward the hedge to get a better angle to turn the sign and fell into a five-foot deep trench with about two feet of water in it. I had put my hand out to reduce the impact and sprained my left wrist. Here I am lying in this ditch and nobody knew where I was. Nobody could see me.
“The walls of the ditch were slick with mud. I was about to drown in there. It was all I could do to keep my nose up out of the water. I finally got an elbow under me, to lift myself up some, then got a knee under me and was able to reach up and grab hold of some grasses, plants that were overhanging, and pull myself up. I was completed covered in mud. And I was an hour away from my tee time.
“When I get to the hotel and walk through the lobby, no one recognizes me. When I got into the room I walked straight into the shower without taking any of my clothes off. I got to the course five minutes before my tee time and I wasn’t even sure I could play with the sprained wrist.
“We got to the 11th hole and it was very dark, overcast. I said ‘Kohler, if you have one shot in your body, this has got to be it.’ The pin was directly behind the right bunker. I used a six iron, made myself stay down the line with the swing, and I didn’t yank it left. It hit about five yards short of the green, it rolled over a large hummock and disappeared, then it suddenly appeared again moving to the right and kerplunk, right in the hole.”
In his foursome was PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who had a painting done of the scene to present to Kohler. “It’s a hole where you have all these people crossing and the group that was behind us came up on the tee and saw it,” says Finchem. “The whole scene was quite striking.”
Finchem, who has dealt with corporate America at the highest levels, finds Kohler unique. “You can have a meeting and he appears to be asleep for all of it, then he opens his eyes and remembers everything and asks you a tough question,” says Finchem.
Everyone who works for Kohler will say he is a taskmaster, one driven to make everything his company does of high quality and best value. Steve Friedlander worked as director of golf at Kohler until he moved on to Pelican Hill in California. His eight-year relationship with Kohler was memorable.
“If there was a true golf fanatic, Herb is one of those people,” says Friedlander. “He takes that passion for the game to the nth degree to create these properties at Kohler and in St Andrews . . . He wants to know things about all the operations and what the people are doing. He probably called me four, five times a week to discuss something, whether it was something about his courses or something he saw somewhere else that could be applied to his courses.”
Such personal involvement could have a downside. “When you work for him, you needed to be in touch with his vision,” Friedlander says. “And he has tremendous vision with a lot of details. He’s not vague about things . . . It was fun to travel with him at times, and sometimes not so fun. Herb has no off switch. No matter whether you were playing golf, eating dinner, in the clubhouse after a round, he was always asking you to evaluate things. The only time you were off is when he went to sleep on the plane.”
When Kohler hired Barry Deach from the PGA of America to be his tournament director, Deach knew there would be challenges. “You are on call all the time,” he said. “He has the unique ability to hone in on the simplest of details and the most important of details and get the right decision made. If you have 10 hours to think about something and he has 10 minutes and he outthinks you, you will have an issue. People who work for him have to like being challenged.”
That isn’t to say that Kohler doesn’t enjoy pleasures that are directly connected to the business world. He is a breeder of Morgan horses and drives teams of them in competition. He loves fine food and wine. He enjoys cigars, though says he doesn’t smoke a lot.
“It’s not a regular diet,” he says. “I like the Partagás 8-9-8. I probably smoke five a week. I remember vividly that my father would have an unlit one in his mouth. He was told not to smoke, so he would walk around with one between his teeth all day and eventually it would fall down to a right angle. I enjoy one after a long day.”
So would that mean he has a smoking room in his house?
“No, no, no, no, my lovely bride would not have anything to do with me if I did something like that,” he says with yet another chuckle.
Nathaniel Crosby, the 1981 U.S. Amateur champion who has become of friend of Kohler’s, sums up the man this way:
“He has an affable personality, so likeable. He’s the perfect guy to cultivate relationships. He’s smart and charismatic. He treats me at eye level. He’s doesn’t treat me like I have this, you have that. “He just loves life, loves to be teased, loves a small wager.
Herb loves to collect friends who are meaningful and eclectic.
Herb is very adept, I think, at identifying people who are trying to suck up to him. He has terrific instincts for people.
It’s very clear the guy is about having fun and enjoying life.”
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.
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