3 Things I Learned from Kohler Co. About Workplace Culture

An event I am involved with in my personal life is the Inside Innovation speaker series. A new event, co-hosted by Nicolet National Bank and the De Pere Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, Inside Innovation, brings candid conversations to light with Wisconsin business leaders. Our most recent guest speaker was Christine Loose, Director of Lodging for the Kohler Company. I was particularly excited for this presentation as Lodge Kohler is slated to open in the Titletown District in the Village of Ashwaubenon in July of next year – and I was excited as Christine was our only woman business leader Innovator for the first year of the series. Shame on me, I’m going to do better in that department next year!

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In addition to learning a great deal about the world of hospitality and tourism, I learned a few key takeaways about Kohler’s workplace culture, historically and today. I’d like to share a few of them:

#1 – Establish your brand, and hold people accountable to it

We explored Destination Kohler’s mission of gracious living. Gracious living embodies the three values of charm, good taste, and generosity. Christine noted that as a manager, mistakes happen. It is inevitable – but in the hospitality industry, recourse for that wrong is critically important. If a guest feels that they have been slighted because of a service issue or an unavoidable experience, she wants staff to know that how you right the wrong and attempt to improve the situation is just as important as seeking to avoid faults in the first place. Kohler recognizes employees who have been specially noted for their exceptional service, but we’ll circle back to that in item #3.

#2 – Put people first

I did not know, until I began researching Kohler in advance of Christine’s presentation, that the beautiful American Club resort, was once housing for workers at the Kohler Company. In Kohler’s inception, many German immigrants were traveling great distance by horse and carriage to work at Kohler each day. Realizing (well before their time) that commuting to work directly impacts quality of life and quality of work, the American Club was developed initially as safe, clean and affordable housing for Kohler employees. These rooms were offered to employees at cost, and a profit was never turned on the housing initiative.

Another example of this people-focused generosity was the vested interest in naturalizing Kohler’s immigrant workforce. In 1916, Naturalization Day was conceived – giving employees a day off and transportation to the County seat in order to complete their naturalization process. I can’t even imagine a workplace taking such steps in today’s culture – I applaud Kohler for their innovative thinking in the early 20th century.

#3 – Take time to show your people how much you appreciate them

Kohler may very well have had one of the first ‘quarter century’ clubs in the United States. The Kohler Quarter Century Club recognizes employees who have been with Kohler for 25 years – and likewise, the Half Century Club recognizes those who have been with the company for 50 years. A formal induction ceremony and meal is hosted for inductees and employees (of ALL background) have a chance to meet with executives. We hear again and again the link that workplace culture is tied to employee retention – I’m willing to bet that Kohler’s membership is evident of that!

As mentioned in #1, special recognition is paid forward to employees who go above and beyond to uphold Kohler’s mission. Christine specifically mentioned the difficult task of pinpointing who the employees are in the hospitality side that seek to make this not just a job, but a career. Those who are recognized specially for customer service are rewarded with a celebratory meal served by executives in the company. For an up and coming chef, the distinct honor of planning and preparing the meal is a coveted one.

The Kohler Company has a strong brand steeped in quality craftsmanship of their products and the gracious living within their hospitality business. It is clear that they put their customers and their employees at the center of what they do. As with all of our Inside Innovation featured companies, I found myself proud to be Kohler’s home state, and proud of their innovative business practices shaped here locally.

Thank you to Kohler for their participation in Inside Innovation. Learn more about Lodge Kohler here.