The Roman Empire championed the ritual of bathing, but it was John Michael Kohler who, 1,400 years later, invented the world’s first bathtub.
In Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1883, Kohler took a cast-iron hog trough, covered it in enamel finish and put legs on it, marking the first plumbing product manufactured by Kohler.
“John Michael created Kohler’s first bathtub to improve hygiene for his farm equipment customers and their families. He listened to customer demand and made a strategic business move that shaped our entire company and history,” says descendant David Kohler, Kohler’s charismatic current president and CEO.
Taking the reins from his father, Herbert V. Kohler in 2015, Kohler is taking the $7 billion dollar company, one of the oldest and largest privately held companies in the US, into a new era of design, technology and sustainability.
The company has four main business groups: kitchen and bath, power, interiors, and hospitality, including golf courses, spas and luxury resorts, like the prestigious Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, Scotland.
The Kohler family has done something most businesses fail to achieve as they grow – they have kept it in the family. “To have a successful fourth-generation family company, you need to have respect for the different talents and insights that each member embodies, and feed off the passion of each individual,” says Kohler.
Kohler says his father provided the greatest professional influence, teaching him an appreciation for design, the importance of hard work and the courage to say no. “Having a backbone is a critical characteristic of great leaders,” says Kohler.
That is why a young David Kohler did not get the keys to the boardroom until he had spent time in the factory. He worked side by side with craftsmen and employees across the company, calling it a crucial stage of his career.
“These were formative years, and shaped my work ethic, passion for the business, and appreciation for design and innovation.” The yoga and spin enthusiast understands the importance of self care for himself and his approximately 38,000 employees.
As for the fifth generation, his daughter Ashley Kohler is a rising leader in the Hospitality division. “With my children, I try to set an example by my actions and tell them nothing in life is handed to you. Ashley is a great example of everything we want to see in the fifth generation and beyond,” says the father of four.
Kohler continues to forge ahead, vying to be on the leading edge of design and technology. Kallista, one of their luxury lines, uses 3D printers for its grid faucets. This allows them to strip away the limitations of traditional design elements.
It looks like an optical illusion, but through 3D technology water flows easily through the base of a grid faucet using small, discreet interior channels, making it more art than plumbing product.
Vancouver is a dynamic market for Kohler, and is home to its first Canadian Experience Centre. The brick-and-mortar store represents the company’s new global retail concept, encouraging customers to experience before they buy.
Experiential luxury is driven by the latest technology. The Kohler Konnect exhibit at this year’s Consumer Electronic Show featured products like the Numi 2.0 toilet. The streamlined, one-piece model has personalized settings, from ambient colored lighting to Amazon Alexa voice controls, a heated seat and foot warmer.
The Numi 2.0 is available at the end of this year, and unlike Kohler’s first bathtub, which sold for 14 chickens and a cow, the Numi starts at $7,000.