Herbert Kohler tells Josh Spero about the bunker-shots and holes-in-one of his life — on and off the golf course
‘THAT’S A GOOD question. I never liked golf.’ As we are in a boardroom at the Old Course Hotel at St Andrews, which sits right on the tortuous Road Hole, and Herbert V Kohler Jr is the hotel’s owner, this feels like an unusual admission. Kohler doesn’t seem like the type to install green baize on his office floor and practise his putting into a cup, but even so — to own both a hotel on a course which dates from the 15th century and America’s number one golf resort (according to Golf magazine), the American Club in Wisconsin, suggests a passion.
But note his past tense: when Kohler determined to add a golf course to the American Club in the Eighties, it was because the hotel’s clients had demanded one, and as a businessman he responded. ‘But once I decided to build a golf course, I thought I ought to be able to play the game and really understand all its aspects, and that’s when I started swinging a golf club in earnest.’
He has since taken golf to his heart, buying the Old Course Hotel in 2004; in 2008 he made his first hole-in-one on the eleventh, playing alongside the commissioner of the PGA Tour, the executive director of the United States Golf Association and the president of NBC Sports. Thanks to the Road Hole Bar’s selection of scotches from every active distillery, ‘I had the highest damn bar bill that you can imagine! It’s a damn good thing I own the place!’ He laughs, a big belly laugh that rolls about and almost echoes.
He has even taken golf to his waistline: when he explains why he won’t touch a cake stand laden with exquisite cream-filled confections, it’s because he’s on the Atkins diet, thanks to a bet with his golfing buddy Vijay Singh.
At the age of 71, Kohler, who resembles a stouter, square-jawed Stephen Sondheim, white-bearded and frequently laughing, might have earned the right not to be tyrannised by fad diets, having spent nearly 40 years as chairman, CEO and president of Kohler Co. The family business started in Wisconsin in 1873, and in 1883 his Austrian-immigrant great-grandfather enamelled a hog scalder, creating Kohler’s first bathtub. The company moved into adjacent items — sinks, toilets, urinals, drinking fountains, bathtubs — and even into more surprising fields, such as engines and power generators in the Twenties and, in the Seventies, luxury resorts. According to Forbes, Kohler Co now has sales of $4.7 billion (but as it’s a private company this is hard to verify).
The luxury resorts came about when Kohler, newly CEO, realised that his patrimony included ‘a marvellous river valley’ which he wanted to protect from his successors’ potential depredations. The resultant River Wildlife was a private hunting and fishing club which evolved into a gourmet dining destination. ‘If any son or grandson ever decides to develop the place, I hope this club just hoots them out of town!’ he says. If Kohler wanted to make his mark on the landscape, he could easily look to familial precedent: so important has his company been to Wisconsin that it is now headquartered in the town of Kohler.
After River Wildlife came Sports Core, a swimming and tennis club, also a popular success, and then a building across from the company’s headquarters in Kohler suggested itself. ‘It was built in 1918 for European immigrants to live temporarily until they could make enough money to buy a lot, build their own house, bring their family over from the old country.’ As immigration dwindled, the building became vacant. ‘And my predecessors didn’t quite know what to do with it, so when I came along I decided something had to be done. I was this young buck who was determined to show the people who made product what five-diamond service was all about, and I wanted to build a country inn.’ The board of directors rejected the proposal twice — ‘Here I am, chairman of this board!’ — but gave in. In short order, the American Club got five diamonds from the AAA (the American equivalent of Michelin stars), the only resort in the Midwest to have them, and has retained them for 25 consecutive years.
The Old Course Hotel aims for the success of the American Club in a Caledonian setting. Our interview takes place just before the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship starts, and nine of Europe’s winning Ryder Cup team are due to take part, so the hotel is filled with plus-fours and caddies exhausted from practice rounds. Plenty of people — but mostly men — are trotting about the lounge in bathrobes, on their way to the spa, and in the Road Hole Bar, overlooking the course and the North Sea, there are older men with their younger, clearly golf-antipathetic wives. The atmosphere inside is calm, but the spectators milling outside chatter with animation.
IT WAS OBVIOUS to his father, Kohler says, that he would join the family business. But did Kohler himself have no intention? ‘I had no desire for it.’ Even his name bore down on him: ‘I was Herbert V Kohler Jr, and when you’re a junior, if you will, and you’re the son of a famous father, and that father has an expectancy as to what you’re going to be in life, it’s very difficult to understand who you really are and what you’re capable of. And I was determined to experience that, so I gave my father fits.’
Instead of running off to India or joining a commune, he went to university and majored in theatre, which may have been the most disgraceful of all options. (The play of Kohler’s life would be Henry IV, with its renegade prince.) As well as some starring roles — Menelaus in The Trojan Women, the Bandit in Rashomon — he had to black up to play a butler in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, working alongside Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, the black students who had to be escorted into a newly desegregated high school by the US Army in 1957. Kohler says that even though he was the one who had blacked up, some people in the audience assumed that Eckford had, because her character was deemed too intelligent to have been played by a black actor, whereas it made perfect sense for the light-headed butler to have been black. He stares soberly into the distance after he says this, evidently disturbed by the memory.
The Old Course Hotel, St Andrews
Outside of Kohler, Wisconsin, he was learning more than he could ever have expected, and for a long time he rejected all his father’s requests, entreaties and demands that he return to the family business: he once met his father as he got off a train and told him: ‘Number one, I’m going to get married, and number two, I’m never going to take another cent from you as long as I live.’ Marriage entailed responsibility, so he ended up graduating in business from Yale and went to work to support his new family. Even when he finally agreed to work at Kohler, recognising that there was no point in wasting everything he knew about the company, he only came back once he made his father promise never to interfere with his career. He went to work at Kohler in the late Sixties, and his father lived another two years.
Kohler did not take over as chairman until 1972, and as president until 1974, but he remained firmly in both seats until handing over the presidency to his son in 2009. All the time he has been promoting the benefits of being privately held (‘None of our horizons are at three months’) and the corporate philosophy of ‘gracious living’. ‘Gracious living’ — he pauses — ‘is something of charm. It includes the enhancement of nature — you just feel better about yourself, better about the way you live and what you confront in everyday life, than you did previously.’
He also believes the company should always be ‘living on the leading edge’, and as we finish the interview and are walking down a corridor, Kohler takes me into the men’s toilets to illustrate these principles. He points at a urinal and explains that, instead of using gallons of water, it has a pleasantly scented oil trap. The sinks are all operated by sensors, not requiring any touching. He explains that there isn’t even a door between the corridor and the vestibule because people don’t like to touch the handle. Each of these things is a starburst of pride, a legacy assumed and developed and fully lived.