From the Editor – From bathtubs and "The Bubbler," Kohler grows a global brand

Posted on Jun 1, 2015 :: Editor
Margaret LeBrun
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

I have a friend who once worked at Kohler, and when we were out he would excuse himself and say, “Pardon me, I’m going to see if they have Kohler fixtures.”

Quite often, they did. And when you have an appointment at Kohler Company headquarters, you certainly plan to arrive early so you can check out the beautiful sinks and such.

Kohler is a household name not only in Wisconsin, but worldwide, employing 32,000 people in 200 countries. Perhaps you didn’t know that its kitchen and bath products command the No. 1 market share in both the U.S. and in China. It also manufactures engines and generators, furniture and tile.

And then there’s the Hospitality Division, with golf and resorts in Kohler as well as St. Andrews, Scotland. At Whistling Straits in August, Kohler will pull off the state’s biggest event of the year when the PGA returns for the third time (see our cover story).

Spend a little time with Kohler President and CEO David Kohler, who serves as chairman of the 2015 PGA, and he makes it easy to understand how all the company’s diverse products and services fit perfectly under the Kohler brand. He is as gracious and friendly as anyone you’ll meet at Kohler — and from experience, I can tell you this warmth is a hallmark of the Kohler culture — whether it’s on the fairway, at the American Club resort, the Kohler Waters Spa, Kohler’s Craverie Chocolatier Café, other restaurants or the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.

“The greatest thing about Kohler Company is the people and the pride and the culture,” David told me. “It’s this pride and passion that Kohler associates have that is the really powerful thing about the company.”

Right up there with pride and passion comes innovation, ingrained at Kohler all the way back to David’s great-grandfather, John Michael Kohler. The Austrian immigrant developed an innovation that popularized the bathtub, heating cast iron to 1,700 degrees and sprinkling it with enamel powder. At first he marketed it as a horse trough — a far cry from the luxurious plumbing fixtures made by Kohler today — but then added legs to promote the first of many company innovations. Kohler also developed and trademarked what many of us in Wisconsin call the Bubbler (known outside the state as a “drinking fountain”). Since then, many more innovations have come in product designs, engines and generators as well as sustainability initiatives.

Developing new and better products and ways to achieve disruptive change fosters innovation. This shined through during our THINC! conference in May when we announced the winners of our second Insight Innovation Awards. It was exciting to review all the applications describing the commitment and hard work it takes to accomplish something exceptional.

Among my favorite stories was from Wisconsin Film & Bag, our winner in the category Planet. The Shawano company that specializes in polyethylene film for packaging figured out how to clean used film so it can be recycled. They started — no joke — in their company kitchen, washing film in the sink and later the dishwasher. Taking it to a larger scale, they cut up thousands of pounds of used film and washed it at Laundromats all over the country. Says President Jim Feeney: “In Wisconsin most people get kicked out of bars, we got kicked out of Laundromats!” Eventually the company found a source of equipment that could wash the used film in mass quantities, and its recycled film is now a quarter of its business.

Our judges were impressed, saying, “They just didn’t quit!” All the stories are certainly inspirational; click here for more.

Here’s to all those who identify a goal, stay focused and stick with it through thick and thin … on to the win!

Margaret LeBrun

About Margaret LeBrun

Co-Publisher, Executive Editor View all posts by Margaret LeBrun →