In 2016, Fortune magazine named Kohler one of the top 25 most important private companies, reporting it is “highly influential in determining how homes look—and has been for 142 years.” Like Marvin and Sub-Zero, the company has remained in the same family for generations.
In 1873, nearly four decades before either Marvin or Sub-Zero got their start, John Michael Kohler, the son of an Austrian cheesemaker, founded Kohler Co. in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. At the time, it was a foundry that mainly produced farm implements and made cast-iron lawn ornaments. Kohler got its start in plumbing products in 1883 when John Michael added feet to a cast-iron water trough and turned it into a bathtub.
When John Michael died in 1900, his three adult sons—Robert, Walter and Carl—were suddenly in charge of Kohler, which by then focused almost exclusively on plumbing products and enamelware. The company had quickly gained a reputation for consistent product quality. Following the untimely deaths of both Carl and Robert, Walter, age 30, became Kohler Co.’s president in 1905 and led the company for the next 35 years.
With Walter at the helm, the company flourished. The first new technical breakthrough came in 1911, when Kohler introduced the one-piece built-in bathtub, a success that was followed quickly by introducing the industry’s first one-piece bathroom lavatory and the first one-piece kitchen sink. When World War I broke out, the company, now with 15 branches, shifted production to mine anchors, projectiles and shells, then resumed its growth in plumbing products following the 1918 armistice. This is when Walter really hit his stride, taking Kohler into the manufacture of electrical generators and adding china fixtures and brass fittings to Kohler’s product line. In 1927, Kohler was the only company to offer cast-iron and vitreous china plumbing products in matching pastel colors. For the first time, customers were able to purchase bathroom products in a color other than white.
For help in managing the company toward the end of his 35-year tenure, Walter turned increasingly to his younger brother, Herbert, who became chief executive officer upon Walter’s death in 1940 and led the company for the next 28 years. He was an astute, tenacious businessman who guided Kohler to dramatic growth in the post-World War II economic boom. Among the company’s achievements during his leadership, were the introduction of the industry’s first accent-color plumbing, and in 1967 the creation of “The Bold Look of Kohler” advertising campaign tagline that continues to convey the essence of the brand today.
Also during Herbert’s tenure, in 1945, Supply New England was founded as a premier plumbing distributor and began its lifelong partnership with Kohler.
In June 1972, Herbert Kohler, Jr., a grandson of the founder was elected chairman of the board and chief executive officer at the age of 33, adding the company’s presidency in 1974. Until passing the baton to his son David in 2015, he aggressively expanded the company’s business both domestically and internationally, including the launch of manufacturing in both China and India, where today it is the number-one kitchen and bath company in both countries.
In April 2015, the company announced Kohler was stepping down and relinquishing the title to David Kohler, who became the president and chief executive officer of Kohler Company and is the fourth generation of the Kohler family of Wisconsin to lead the company since its inception in 1873.