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Golf American Style

Plumbing magnate Herbert Kohler Jr. has molded a top-tier golf destination out of the Wisconsin countryside
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

Herbert V. Kohler Jr. wants to make a point. In a private dining room, over consommé and wild mushrooms, Kohler bends toward his listener and puts his hand on the table. With the pinkie finger of his right hand, he touches the pinkie finger of his listener.

"I let Pete have a pretty free reign, but I want to know everything about what he is doing," says Kohler, sotto voce. "Pete has this earthy artistic aspect to him and he knows a lot about the game of golf, how it is played at a championship level. The combination is just what I wanted. And when you look around at what he's done here, I think you'll agree there is a lot of art in his work. It goes right to the heart of our business. There's a lot of artistic expression in what we do here. There's even some of mine."

With that, Herbert V. Kohler Jr. sits back in his chair. He assumes a posture that is imperious, if unintentionally so. His throaty baritone looses an easy chuckle. He adjusts the lapels of his shiny gray suit (geez, Herb, is that sharkskin?) and takes a swipe at his leonine silver-and-black beard. Herbert V. Kohler Jr. can make any chair seem like a throne. He can make any visitor seem welcome within his empire. It's the laugh, and the pinkie finger, you see. It's the reaching out, the need to connect, the common in the uncommon man.

Given what he has achieved with the company his grandfather founded and his father nurtured, there is nothing to suggest that Herbert V. Kohler Jr. could ever be called a common man. The Kohler Co., in the planned community that Herbert Jr.'s grandfather founded an hour north of Milwaukee, is one of the largest privately held companies in the United States. Think Kohler, think commodes, sinks, showers. But that is not all. There is the furniture side of the business, Baker and McGuire. There is the general plumbing side of the business, Kallista Plumbing. There is the kitchen side of the business, Canac Kitchens. There is the engines, generators and electrical side of the business, Kohler Power Systems. There is a mirrored cabinet business, a stone and tile business, and 16 other companies on four other continents.

And over the last 20 years Herb Kohler has nurtured -- no make that willed -- a hospitality business, called The Kohler Hospitality and Real Estate Group. It includes one of America's finest hotels. It includes four of America's finest golf courses designed by one of the most accomplished and controversial golf architects, Pete Dye Jr. It's all right there in Kohler, Wisconsin, a few metal woods from the commode factory.

Herb Kohler has made his family namesake town a golf destination. He's made it one of the finest golf destinations in the world. It is so good that the United States Golf Association held its Women's Open Golf Championship at Kohler's Blackwolf Run in 1998. It's so good that the Professional Golfers' Association of America will hold its PGA Championship, one of golf's four majors, at Kohler's Whistling Straits in 2004. It's so good that Kohler's four courses -- the River Course and the Meadow Valleys Course at Blackwolf Run, and the Straits Course and the recently opened Irish Course at Whistling Straits -- total more than 100,000 rounds a year at greens fees of $148 or more. In Wisconsin, for crying out loud. In a state heretofore known for the Green Bay Packers, beer, cheese and bratwurst. In a state that is known for Kohler.


John Michael Kohler, a native of Austria, bought the Sheboygan Union Iron and Steel Foundry in 1873. Ten years later, he used a horse trough to make the Kohler Co.'s first bathtub. He founded the planned community of Kohler just west of Sheboygan and as part of it he constructed, in 1918, the American Club, a dormitory to house the immigrant skilled workers and artisans he needed to create an industrial company dedicated to quality and artistic design. Kohler, his son Herbert V. Kohler, and his son Herbert Jr. would have no way of knowing that the American Club would sow the seeds of great golf in the American Midwest. It happened because the grandson didn't want to tear down the American Club. He didn't want to believe three different feasibility studies that said that converting the old dormitory into a destination hotel would be unprofitable. He wanted to hold on to his family's past and make something out of it for the future.

"Everything we have done at the Kohler Company we have done for a business reason," says Kohler. "But pursuit of excellence, of quality in our product, has always been the driving force. We have been very successful in conducting our business this way. When it came to the American Club, I felt that if we continued to commit ourselves to excellence and quality, that it would succeed as sort of a weekend retreat where we would have high-quality rooms, high-quality restaurants and high-quality service."

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