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David Kohler '92

David Kohler '92

Core values: David Kohler on reinvesting capital and convictions

By Aubrey Henretty

As their careers progress, most business-minded heirs of successful entrepreneurs are eventually faced with a choice: dive into the family business or strike out on their own.

For David Kohler '92, the question was not whether he would return to the family business, but when he would. "I always knew Kohler Co. would be a part of my life," he says, "but I never thought I'd be back this early." Actually, he has been working with the company in an executive capacity since 1993, when he was named director of fixtures marketing for its North American plumbing business. He spent two years as a business analyst and a foreman in the cast iron foundry at Kohler Co. after receiving his undergraduate degree from Duke University and later studied marketing management at the Kellogg School. From there, only a brief internship with Dayton-Hudson Corp. stood between Kohler and a career in his family's business.

Today, he is Kohler Co.'s executive vice president and serves on the company's board of directors.

Kohler Co. is perhaps not the first company that comes to mind at the mention of a "family business." The Wisconsin-based manufacturer has been privately owned and operated since its founding in 1873, and in 2006, Kohler surpassed $5 billion in total sales. Best known for its kitchen and bath products, the company also makes and distributes products as diverse as home furnishings and engines and generators, not to mention its two high-end golf resorts — one in Kohler, Wis., and one in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Asked how working with family has shaped his value system, Kohler notes the unique position he is in, having grown up surrounded by the people who made Kohler Co. what it is today, to use the tools they gave him to build better ones. "I am a product of that environment and an agent shaping that environment," he says. Though there are many diverse perspectives within the family, Kohler says their essential values match. "We're very similar in our core beliefs and in respect for this company, community ... valuing a strong work ethic and not living a life of privilege."

The temptation for those affiliated with a privately held company boasting the aforementioned sales figures to live a life of leisure may be great, but on this point, Kohler Co. walks the walk. "We re-invest more than 90 percent of our earnings back into the company," says Kohler.

He also points out that of the company's 32,000 employees, only six are family members. "The real strength," he says, "is having 32,000 people who buy into our mission, guiding principles and core competencies."

In addition to his work with Kohler Co., Kohler is a member of the board of directors for Atlanta-based flooring company Interface Inc. — a board he joined through fellow Kellogg alum Chris Kennedy '94 — and Interceramic, a leading tile manufacturer and distributor in Mexico and the United States.

"I'm not a person who favors politics or posturing," says Kohler, who believes the best leaders are the ones whose private values shine through in their public works.

"Any truly great leader — their personal convictions are consistent with their leadership style," he says, describing great leadership as a mélange of character, competence, commitment and results. He adds that the leaders at Kohler Co. continuously strive to improve themselves. "We remain very humble. We're very self-critical in that respect ... keeping the principles and the values strong has been incredibly important in building this company."

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Kellogg World alumni magazine.
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