Kohler "lives on the leading edge" Featured

1:45pm EDT March 6, 2011
Herb Kohler, chairman and CEO, The Kohler Co. Herb Kohler, chairman and CEO, The Kohler Co.

Herb Kohler believes in doing things big. And as chairman and chief executive of The Kohler Co., the Wisconsin-based plumbing fixture giant founded by his grandfather in 1873, he is in the perfect position to do so.

Kohler sets the vision for the family-owned business and its four divisions, 50 brands, 50 manufacturing locations and more than 30,000 associates scattered across six continents. He’s also a Forbes billionaire who has a passion for golf. Kohler’s Hospitality and Realty Group owns two world-class golf courses — Whistling Straits, site of the 2010 PGA Championship, the 2015 PGA and 2020 Ryder Cup, and Blackwolf Run, site of the 2012 U.S. Women's Open. It also owns the five-star American Club hotel and the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, Scotland, the latter of which sits on the fairway of the most famous hole in golf, the Road Hole.

“It’s just a fledging little business,” Kohler says. “It’s sort of wonderful.”

Smart Business sat down with Kohler to talk about myriad issues, including why it’s important to encourage risk-taking and how social media is changing the way business is done.

Mr. Kohler, you’ve forged partnerships with several major golf organizations in a relatively short period of time and expanded Kohler’s brand. How important is that ability to build and foster different kinds of relationships in order to diversify a business?

We’re fortunate to have a growing, multidimensional company that today goes well beyond just our core products. We historically put on large exhibitions in furniture, kitchen and bath products, so we have a talent in dealing with large crowds and large events. When an organization like the Royal and Ancient, United States Golf Association or the PGA America picks partners, they select the course first but then put all the infrastructure in support behind it.

Having our expertise is a major factor in their selection and final resolution. But it is relationships that make this possible; it’s what gets them to look at you in the first place. They are equally important, but relationships can’t carry a day. It’s the quality of the facilities and the quality of the support organization, the people and whether or not they have the capability on a continuing basis to support these larger things. These Majors provide a sizeable amount of the annual income of these organizations, so you have to be able to execute without fail. They really rely on you.

You’ve built a reputation as a leader who embraces risk. How critical is it in a culture of innovation to have risk-takers on your team?

It’s not easy in a large organization to foster any degree of risk-taking, but we ask all of our businesses, regardless of what they make or what they serve, to live on a leading edge.

They have to understand where that edge is — what’s at the forefront of their particular business field — and then, they have to have the imagination and the technology, combined, to be able to leapfrog that edge — get out there in front and stay out there in front.

We’re asking for an entrepreneurial spirit, and we do that with every business in our portfolio. Some do it better than others. Our senior executives in China are doing wonderfully well as an example.

Is that where you see the next big market for growth?

Yes. We have 10 plants there — eight for kitchen and bath, one for engines and one for power systems. Eighty percent of the product that’s manufactured in those plants stays in China. We are building a brand as fast as we can build it because within a relatively short period of time — 10 years — (China) will be the largest plumbing market in the world and the largest satellite power market in the world. It behooves us and everyone else to take a hard look at China.

What other international markets are on your radar?

India. India is perhaps 10 to 15 years behind China in its escalation, but it’s extremely important.

When you’re playing in a global market how do you protect your brand while you’re focused on growing it?

I make sure we live up to our guiding principles. The first is to live on the leading edge in design and technology, in product and process. The second is to maintain a single level of quality across all these product categories and across all the price points (that) are within a product category. We market from the low end to the midmarket to the high end and to the mass market. That’s a broad range of price points. Our prices vary because of materials, function and because of the level of detail but never in quality. That level of quality must be consistent. And, when you combine that level of quality with leading-edge products and services, that establishes our reputation. So that’s where I put my time and energy, making sure we live up to our brand.

You have embraced technology as part of your innovation. Where has it played a larger role?

There are many aspects of technology — the technology that we use to communicate, the technology we use to run our machines. We’re obviously seeing this explosion of technology in all aspects of our lives. When I built the first golf course, which opened in 1988, I was compelled to do it because of a stack of suggestions slips — physical suggestions slips. One hundred of these little slips of paper. It’s almost unimaginable today, but that was the mid-’80s. How recent! The world has totally changed. You would never find a piece of paper like a suggestion slip around today. No, you find your BlackBerry and send a message.

What about social media? What is Kohler doing in that area to connect with customers?

That also is a constant evolution. It’s remarkable. We’re just undergone a major renewal (at Kohler). We created a website for over 100 different organizations within Kohler. It was so broad. And then we created sites within those sites — and each of those works for the business and does what that business wants. But the engine underneath had a lot of standardization. It was a big task to standardize the approach within product fields, but on the other hand, it had to have a very local feel for people in places like China, Thailand and Vietnam. You can’t do business globally if you try to make all of your customers worldwide interact with you as if they were Americans.

How to reach: Kohler Co., www.kohler.com