Herbert Kohler, Jr.: The Reluctant Entrepreneur

Herbert Kohler, Jr. was born on February 20, 1939. His grandfather founded the family plumbing manufacturing business in 1873. His father, Herbert Sr. headed the family business from 1937 to 1968. It seemed natural that Herbert Jr.  would one day run the family enterprise, too.  The plan was to send him to Yale and then join the company.

Herbert did not like the idea. In fact he was against it. His mother died when he was 14 and he was sent to Exeter. He broke every rule and regulation in the school (according to him) and he was subsequently dismissed. He enrolled in Choate and finished his high school there.

He finally got to Yale but after one year left.  Next he went to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois majoring in theater. Herbert also wrote poetry and was part of the hippie movement. Herbert told his father he would never accept another penny before he married the director of one of his plays.

He next enrolled at Furman University in South Carolina and worked on the side to support himself and his wife. It was a struggling experience.  It also taught him to reconsider his goals. He returned to Yale and graduated in 1965 with a major in business administration.

He didn’t plan on joining the family company until his father offered him work. Herbert accepted on the condition that he would be treated just like any other employee. His first job was as a research and development technician.

Then events happened in quick succession. The nonfamily company president died of a heart attack in 1968. A week later Herbert’s father also died. At age 29 Herbert was in charge of all manufacturing and engineering.  He became responsible for all operations and marketing in 1971. A year later, Herbert became head of the company at age 33.

The once reluctant entrepreneur was now head of a $150 million company. He turned out to be an exceptional businessman and leader turning the company into a multibillion enterprise and still very much family owned.

Aside from manufacturing and selling toilets, sinks and other plumbing devices Kohler Co. also sells generators, furniture, tiles and other items. It owns golf courses and hotels.

The reluctant entrepreneur turned out to be an astute businessman.

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