How nearly 140 years of innovation at Kohler Co. is now reshaping the golf, club and resort business at Whistling Straits, and beyond.
The “company town” hasn’t always had the most flattering role in American history, often conjuring up images of dirt roads, dirtier air, and workers living in overcrowded, substandard housing. But from the moment you first drive down one of its pristine, flower-lined streets and see the immaculate brick buildings of Kohler, Wis., the planned village developed around the growth of Kohler Co., it’s clear that this is an entirely different scene.
Spend some time in the village’s Kohler Design Center, and it’s clear that the company behind the town isn’t typical, either. Most of the Design Center is devoted to displays of the ”bold look” of kitchen and bathroom plumbing fixtures now most readily associated with Kohler Co. (some 150,000 consumers, builders, architects and designers visit each year for interior design inspiration). But there’s also an area of the Design Center that details the company’s history and evolution from its start as a cast-iron and steel foundry that was bought by Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler in 1873. And there are sections for the wide range of other products and services that Kohler Co. has diversified into over the years, including engines and generators, furniture, real estate, and Destination Kohler—the business unit encompassing hospitality-related holdings that now reach into two continents and include hotels, spas, restaurants, retailing, recreation- and fitness-related activities, themed festivals and events, and golf.
Whistling Straits AT A GLANCE
• Location: Sheboygan, Wis.
Destination Kohler occupies the modern end of Kohler Co.’s nearly 140-year-old timeline, but it has a strong connection with the company’s long history of taking distinctive approaches to whatever businesses it has entered. Its centerpiece is The American Club, which was opened in 1981 after extensive renovations. The building dates to the early part of the century, when it was originally built to provide living quarters, meals and recreational facilities for immigrant workers who had not yet secured their own housing. Today, The American Club stands out (as it has every year since 1986) as the Midwest’s only AAA Five-Diamond resort hotel.
Kohler Co.’s original motivation for creating housing and facilities for workers that were a cut above what most companies provided during America’s industrial expansion was driven by more than just wanting to build a better company town. To attract sufficient skilled labor away from more accessible urban centers like Chicago (130 miles to the south) or Milwaukee (50 miles away), Kohler the company—and Kohler the town—had to become known as especially desirable destinations.
And after Kohler Co. moved into the hospitality business over a century after its original founding, that same challenge presented itself again. The town of Kohler sits outside of Sheboygan, Wis., a city of just over 100,000 on Lake Michigan’s western shore. The location offers great access to an abundance of diverse recreational attractions in all directions—but it’s not exactly a place to which direct hourly flights are available. For The American Club to develop a world-renowned reputation and then have the world beat a path to its historic doors, it would have to offer services and amenities with special appeal—especially when it came to one of the most critical factors for any destination resort’s success: golf.
As it set out to develop a golf offer that could distinguish it from the many new courses then coming on stream during the game’s boom period at the end of the century, the new Destination Kohler unit had one built-in advantage to draw on: a great gene pool. The same drive and ingenuity that had pushed John Michael Kohler to start putting enamel on cast-iron hog scalders and water troughs in the 1870s, so they could then be sold as bathtubs and take his fledgling foundry beyond supplying farms into a much larger consumer market, still pulsed through the company over 100 years later in his direct descendent, Herbert V. Kohler, Jr., who was then serving as the company’s Chairman/CEO and President (Herb Kohler remains Chairman/CEO today; his son David was named President in 2009.)
|Wisconsin will be in the global golf spotlight two more times in the next 10 years (2015 PGA Championship and 2020 Ryder Cup), thanks to the vision and follow-through of Kohler Co. Chairman/CEO Herb Kohler, Jr. (shown, far left, with 2010 Champion Martin Kaymer after the end of this year’s PGA Championship and, near left, with Wisconsin Governor Jim Lynch, center, and PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka during a panel discussion on the state’s golf economy).|
With a strong passion for golf and its Irish/Scottish origins, Herb Kohler saw no reason, when looking at the stretches of rugged Lake Michigan shoreline in his part of Wisconsin, why it couldn’t become a venue where golf could not only be enjoyed by those seeking an old-world experience with the game, but also showcased as an exciting new venue for its best professional players and major tournaments.
After Kohler Co. cut its teeth in golf course development with the opening in 1988 of its first course at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, designer Pete Dye was then sent nine miles northeast to a plot along the lake’s edge north of Sheboygan, to start to reshape land acquired from Wisconsin Electric Power that had once been earmarked for a nuclear power plant, and had also served in the 1950s as a U.S. Army anti-aircraft training ground.
Ten years later, a walking-only, links-style golf course, billed as “a throwback to the raw freshness of Ireland, sculpted into the Wisconsin coastline,” opened for play. The property was named Whistling Straits, and its first course was named the Straits Course. (Herb Kohler came up with the Whistling Straits name, inspired while walking the property on a blustery day during the course’s early construction. Whether Kohler and his trademark white beard then inspired the look of the club’s logo is subject to interpretation.)
Two years later, a second course, just inland from the lake, was opened at Whistling Straits: a grassland-and-dunes layout christened the Irish Course.
All of the new Kohler courses, and in particular Straits, burst onto the scene to great acclaim and rose quickly to the top of “best new” and “must play” lists. But the Destination Kohler team didn’t just wait for, or expect, the rave reviews to start a stampede to Sheboygan. In fact, almost as soon as it had put the finishing touches on this dramatic new evidence of Wisconsin’s physical appeal, the company singlehandedly ensured a run of unprecedented international exposure for the state (barring, of course, a Brett Favre return to the Packers), by sealing the deals for a series of major golf tournaments to come to Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run during the next 20 years.
That series began with the 2004 PGA Championship and 2007 U. S. Seniors Open at Whistling Straits, and a U.S. Women’s Open in 2008 at Blackwolf Run. It continued with last month’s 2010 PGA Championship (more on that in a moment—you may have heard something about it). Lined up for the future: another 2012 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run and, at Whistling Straits, the 2015 PGA Championship and the 2020 Ryder Cup.
Destination Kohler has also gone overseas to solidify its connection with the roots of golf, through its acquisition of the Old Course Hotel that borders the 17th “Road Hole” of the Old Course in St Andrews, Scotland. Kohler holdings in and around that storied town now also include The Duke’s championship golf course and a full complement of other resort amenities.
All of this should leave little doubt that Kohler Co. is going all-in and not missing any details, or sparing any effort, in its determination to position itself as a provider of world-class services, amenities and facilities in unique and renowned settings that preserve time-honored traditions and evoke appealing values. More evidence of this can be drawn from Whistling Straits’ Irish farmhouse-style clubhouse, or the flock of Scottish Blackface sheep that wanders the property during the golf season.
|The PGA increased the number of complimentary tickets for children from two to four per paying adult for this year’s Championship, and also handed out free pedometers, to encourage kids to measure the distance they covered while following the action.|
Even the embroglio over Dustin Johnson’s club grounding in what might or might not have been one of Whistling Straits’ 1,000-plus bunkers, which cost him a chance to play off for last month’s PGA Championship, stood in the end as another vivid reminder—and one that reached far beyond the golf world—of the venue’s unique, throwback nature.
Miles to Go
Even with all that’s already been achieved in hospitality and golf during their comparatively short existences on the Kohler Co. timeline, these business units have just barely started to hit their strides. Scott Anderson, who arrived in 2008 to be President of the Hospitality & Real Estate Group that oversees Destination Kohler, says the charge given to him by Herb Kohler when taking the position was not exactly narrowly defined: “He told me to look for new opportunities where we can expand—but to limit myself to a geography between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.”
Being given so much ground to cover wouldn’t figure to unnerve Anderson, who’s taken on plenty of big jobs in his career—in addition to being President/CEO of Callaway Gardens in Georgia, and President of the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, he served as a Managing Director of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
But at the same time such a wide net is being cast for new areas for Destination Kohler to explore, Anderson feels more can also be done to “connect the dots” between what’s already been put on the map. “There’s still a fairly significant segment of the U.S. population that has never been to Wisconsin,” he notes. “And while [a televised major championship] is great for showcasing Whistling Straits and getting golfers to put the course on their bucket list and say they’ve got to get out and play it, there’s still not enough connection between the course and The American Club.
“We have to do a better job of getting people to associate the golf course with the many other activities and attractions we have here that can be a great fit with the more family-oriented travel habits of Generations X and Y,” Anderson says. “The future of golf is still strong, but we have to recognize that more often, it’s now just part of, and not the only reason, for vacations and holiday travel. We have to position ourselves as a family resort as well as a golf resort, and be flexible enough to change our messages according to seasons, and situations.”
One huge key to the job at hand, Anderson adds, is marshalling a full and effective response when an event like the PGA Championship puts Whistling Straits, and Wisconsin, in such a bright spotlight.
“I learned through my Olympics experience that there’s an incredible marketing opportunity following an event, and you can either take advantage of it, or not,” he notes. “Barcelona, Spain took great advantage of its Olympic exposure and is still benefitting. Lillehammer, Norway, on the other hand, had no clue, and is already long forgotten.”
Another critical factor is making full use of available technology. “Everything is more short-term and you have to be much quicker on your feet,” Anderson says. “Where just three years ago the average lead time for resort bookings was 36 days before arrival, now it’s down to 11. You have to take full advantage of electronic marketing in all of your promotions—and it doesn’t stop once guests are here. We’ve launched an iPhone app that people can sign up for when they come here, so we can send them offers while they’re on the property for things like special 2-for-1 Chardonnay tastings.”
|The Whistling Straits and PGA operations team built on the lessons of 2004 to stage an even more fan-friendly 2010 Championship.|
Scanning the Globe
The job of scouting for prime locations for the next Destination Kohler resort developments has fallen primarily to Jim Richerson, Group Director of Golf for the Hospitality & Real Estate Group. Richerson came to Kohler in 2007 after serving as Senior Director of PGA Golf Properties for the PGA of America; prior to that, he spent 18 years with the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton organization, including a tenure as Director of Golf Operations at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Orlando.
Richerson may not have yet covered every square mile between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn looking for new locations for Kohler, but he’s come close. “It really is a blank canvas; we’re looking everywhere, both at existing resorts we could acquire, and at greenfield sites,” he says. “I was in five different continents and several states in the past year.”
Even with this scope of investment in both time and space, however, another unusual aspect of how Kohler Co. is seeking to reshape the resort business is the clear emphasis on ensuring the right long-term results, as opposed to trying to make a quick kill. “There’s no directive to open two, three or four new resorts in a year, or on any other timetable,” says Richerson. “It could be three in the next two years, or a single one in the next five. The only specific goal is to be the industry leader.
“The resources that Kohler can put behind hospitality and golf are really unprecedented,” Richerson adds. “It’s unique to have a global company that’s still family-run and so passionate about golf, and that has such a clear view of how high-end golf resorts can fit in with their other businesses and brands.”
|Irish golfing phenom Rory McIlroy felt right at home while playing Whistling Straits during last month’s PGA Championship.|
While Richerson leads the quest to find the next locations that can be added to the short and unusual list of choices—Kohler, Wis., and St Andrews, Scotland—now found on the pull-down menu under “Select a Resort” on the Destination Kohler website, the Whistling Straits operations team will continue to work to expand the quality and appeal of all that is offered in a once-unknown destination that now draws a steady stream of new visitors throughout the year, whether or not a major tournament is on the calendar.
This year, in fact, after the Whistling Straits team had worked again with PGA Championship Director Barry Deach and his staff to ensure another successful tournament (one that operated even more smoothly this time around, based on adjustments that were made after 2004 to improve logistics and enhance the customer experience), no one felt the need to give themselves a break. Instead, major outings were held on the following Monday and Tuesday to give resort guests and Blackwolf Run members a special opportunity to “play like the pros” at Whistling Straits. And after those events, the staff moved right into gearing up for what is shaping up to be full-out activity well into this fall.
On the food and beverage side, Chef Gary Wigand (“Ireland With New Flair,” C&RB, January 2006) continues to see stronger year-round activity for what has grown to be a $3.5 million annual operation supported increasingly by local diners, who now account for 30% of total patronage. Special events that Wigand has arranged to capitalize on the property’s now firmly established status among elite courses—such as a highly successful Masters Club Champions dinner held last fall as part of the resort’s annual Food & Wine Festival, with Augusta National Golf Club’s Bruce Sacino as a guest chef—have also helped to encourage people to find their way to Whistling Straits.
“And to think all of this is now happening in ‘little old Sheboygan, Wisconsin,’ ” says Jim Richerson. “Ten years ago, who would have thought that could be possible.”
And ten years from now, who knows what other currently nondescript towns might have also emerged as the next resort destinations that Kohler has put squarely on the map.