What company towns look like today: Kohler, Wisconsin (Part 1)

Jul 25, 2011

From Pullman in Chicago to Firestone in Akron, these employers loomed large in everyone's daily lives.

But what does a "company town" look like today?

The Changing Gears team hit the road to find out.

All this week, we’re looking at how these places are coping with economic change.

For our first story, I visited the village of Kohler, Wisconsin.

At the peak of summer, and its busy tourist season, Kohler, Wisconsin, is, in a word, lovely.

It also feel luxurious, whether you’re on one of its world class golf courses or at its five-diamond rated resort hotel, the only one in the Midwest. At the Kohler Waters Spa, you can even soak in a tub which – no joke – cost $10,000, because it has its own specially-composed, “vibra-acoustic” music that you can hear underwater.

So it’s easy to go there and not realize that this town, which is almost a century old, is still about the thing it was founded for – plumbing.

“Everything that can be Kohler is Kohler,” explains Christine Loose, resident manager of the American Club and Inn at Woodlake.

Both are run by The Kohler Company, which gave the village its name. The main attraction is the Kohler-owned golf courses nearby. One of them, Whistling Straights, hosted the 2010 PGA Championships.

At the American Club, summer rates start at $360 a night. As each class of room improves, so does the plumbing.

“Our tile is Kohler, our plumbing is Kohler, our furniture is Kohler,” Loose said. “If we make it, it’s in the guest room.”

The Kohler Company is a $5 billion global business with four families of companies. Its largest is selling bath and kitchen fixtures. Curious about how big they are? Next time you’re in a bathroom, check the tub, sink or toilet for the Kohler name – if it has it, it was probably made in Wisconsin.

They also sell other furniture, as well as engines, mostly for lawn mowers or generators.

John Michael Kohler started the company in 1873. He went into bath fixtures when he coated a hog scalder with enamel and marketed it as multipurpose hog scalder, horse trough or bathtub.

John Michael’s son, Walter Kohler, moved the factory outside of Sheboygan because he said it was too crowded. (The population at the time in Sheboygan was, according to the 1910 U.S. census: 26,398.)

The family hired famed Central Park designer Frederick Olmsted to help create the village. Today,  the houses are still tidy. Its village lawns are as immaculate as a golf course, and along its main street, in front of The American Club, hanging baskets of pink petunias provide a perfect frame to the picture.

That’s why resident Roelle Murphy laughingly uses terms like “Beaver-Cleaver” land to describe the town.

“When we originally moved here back in 1994 I looked at my husband and said, ‘Oh my god, you moved me to Stepford’,” she said, laughing. That lasted only about a week.

Now, Murphy describes the village as a “wonderfuly, family-oriented community,” where people know and care for each other. Everyone goes to the high school football game on Friday nights, and all the kids who live in Kohler, including the children of company president David Kohler’s children, attend the one-building school.

Murphy used to work at Kohler. Her husband still does. About one in 3 people in the village work for the company. In Sheboyan County, it’s 1 in 10 – making Kohler the county’s largest employer.

Factory employees are represented by the United Auto Workers. I caught up with Local 833 President Dave Boucher during the union’s annual retiree picnic.

Many of the retirees I spoke with started working at Kohler even before the famous strike of 1954.

(Read a Time magazine story from 1958 about the strike)

Each of them were able to support their families on one Kohler salary.

Today, the average factory wage at Kohler is about $22 an hour (The company says that’s one of the highest wage rates in the industry). But under a new contract approved last December, temporary hires will make about $14 an hour, and have less benefits, to do the same factory work.

The UAW has half the members it used to in the area. Boucher told me something many said at the picnic – the Kohler Company would have stopped manufacturing in Wisconsin a long time ago if it hadn’t been family run and privately held.

“They would have tailed it years ago,” he said, as he ticks off the list of other manufacturers who have left the area. Still, while he’s happy that they are still here, and he says he doesn’t begrudge the company’s newest division, hospitality, he wonders if those jobs pay enough to support a family.

Current company chairman Herb Kohler, Jr. is responsible for the company’s most recent foray into golf and hospitality.

Company “Director of Wellness” Jean Kolb tells the story:

“The story goes, Mr. Kohler had a meeting with top executives and talked about what we were going to do with the American Club,” she told me. “And Mr. Kohler said, ‘I want to turn it into a five diamond resort hotel’ and the executives looked at each other and said, ‘We don’t know anything about the hospitality business. We do plumbing and bathtubs!’.”

The resort opened in 1981 and has continuously maintained its coveted AAA rating since then.

Kolb says its golf course, the resort – and especially its Design Center, where you can have bathroom and kitchen blueprints modified for free – all reflect the company’s mission of “gracious living”.

This is part of a five-part series we’re doing on modern company towns. Do you live in a company town? If so, how are you doing? Feel free to weigh in on the comments. Tomorrow, I’ll be reporting from the heart of Illinois’s agribusiness industry, and home of food giant ADM – Decatur.